It was the summer of 1976 in the small, rural California town of Chowchilla. Local children at Chowchilla’s school, the Dairyland School, were being driven home by their faithful school bus driver, Edward Ray. 26 children were on their way back from a summer school session when their lives would be changed forever.
While driving on his route, the bus driver noticed a white van parked on the side of the road. The hood was popped and being the helpful man that he is, the driver briefly pulled the bus over to see if anyone needed help. There was no way he could have known what was going to happen next.
They Wanted Summer School to Last Forever
Children at the local Chowchilla school, Dairyland, had spent their summer attending classes as part of the summer school program. This was typical in their small, rural town, and the kids loved it so much that they took it upon themselves to try and extend the session.
These children, between the ages of 5 and 15, loved summer school so much that these students took it upon themselves to create a petition to extend their summer school session by an extra two weeks. Those kids must have really loved school!
This Small Town Wasn’t Prepared for the Drama Heading Their Way
This small, rural town just northwest of Fresno and east of San Jose was incredibly unprepared for the drama that would come their way that fateful July afternoon. This town had rarely experienced drama, let alone drama at this level. What happened that day would change the town forever.
Chowchilla’s population has fluctuated throughout the years, streaming from the 10,000 range to roughly 15,000. The town was never quite the same after they were shaken to their very core. However, after the most traumatic event in this city’s history, the community became stronger than ever.
He Was Just a Local Bus Driver
Ed Ray was just a local bus driver in the small town of Chowchilla. He lived a simple life at home with his wife as they became empty-nesters. He was married to his wife for 40 years at the time of the horrific incident he endured, and his sons were grown up and living far from home.
He went on to become a grandfather as well as a great-grandfather. “He did not think of himself as a hero,” his granddaughter told the Los Angeles Times about him. “It was just something that happened. He was the most humble man you ever met in your life. He would do anything for anybody.”
The Day Everything Went Wrong
Ed was driving his normal route of summer school students down a country road when he saw a van pulled over, possibly needing help. Being the kind person he is, Ed rolled down the window and briefly opened the door to ask the troubled motorist what the problem was.
Before he knew it, three masked men had entered the bus and become aggressive with the group of small children they were about to take hostage. The three men pointed their shotguns at the children while wearing masks made of pantyhose, with legs dangling like bunny ears off of their heads. One little girl, Monica, asked one of the men if he was the Easter bunny, and his response broke her heart.
Ed and the Kids Were Held Hostage In Their Small Town
In a town where very few bad things happened, let alone any drama at all, everyone was taken aback when an entire bus of children seemed to vanish into thin air. It was completely out of character and with small city limits, there weren’t many options of where the group could have gone.
The three masked men held the bus of children captive along with their bus driver by forcefully removing them from their school bus into a van, without water, food, or a bathroom. They were left in horrifying darkness and were then driven for 11 hours to a location far from where they came.
The Abandoned School Bus
Before moving the children and their driver into the van, one of the three criminals holding everyone hostage took over the driving from Ed. He held a gun to Ed’s head, while one of his colleagues worked on crowd control over the children.
Following behind them was another co-conspirator, driving the van. They pulled over to a desolate area a few miles from their initial interaction and ditched the bus in Berenda Slough, a shallow part of the Chowchilla River. There, they had a second van ready to hold the children.
Where They Were Held Captive
Initially, the kids were made to jump from the bus to the two vans so as to not leave any footprints. This was clearly thought out so that people would really believe these kids moved without a trace. They were split up into groups of two, both vans shuttered with wood panels and completely blacked out, whereever possible.
They had no where to go to the bathroom, no food and water, and were in the process of being suffocated. If they weren’t screaming, crying, peeing, or vomitting, they would be at some point sitting there. They were driving for 12 hours before kids were taken out in groups, and moved to a trailer in a desolate quarry.
The Scene Inside the Trailer
After being moved in small groups into a small trailer that was already partially buried, the children and Ed were packed like sardines into the trailer. Each child, along with Ed, had to climb down a ladder into the structure, where mattresses were laid throughout. When Ed and the kids planned their escape, they stacked them to the roof to try and reach the top.
They barely even had buckets to use the bathroom in, as well as an incredibly limited food and water supply. The group was isolated with barely a drop to drink and the most limited supply of food you could think of for a group of that size. They were then told to wait there – they would be back for them. Then, the burying began.
If You’re Happy and You Know It
As a coping mechanism, the children began singing “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Unfortunately, though, they fully understood the danger they were in and changed the lyrics from “happy” to “sad” in one of the most heartbreaking moves yet.
As they sang along to the tune, they could hear the trailer getting buried above them. First, the opening in the roof had been covered by a manhole cover, then by two large vehicle batteries, all of which bared too much weight to push through. After, they were further buried into the earth.
Naming the Perpetrators
The kidnappers included the son of the man who owned the quarry the trailer was buried in. Frederick Newhall Woods IV was a trust-fund baby that simply wanted more and took his entitlement to the next level. He enlisted the help of two other friends, who were brothers.
James and Richard Schoenfeld were close friends of Woods, joining in his tyrannical act. At the time, the three perpetrators were all between the ages of 22 and 24. They felt a sense of entitlement that no one could could possibly match.
What Were Their Intentions For Kidnapping Children?
It’s hard to stomach that anyone could choose children as the target for their attack. The three men wanted money, approximately 5 million dollars, and they strategically planned to kidnap this bus full of children as a ploy to get attention, and hopefully cash out.
The kidnappers planned their crime based on the fact that children were young and vulnerable. They wouldn’t resist in the same way that an adult would, and it would warrant an immediate response. However, they didn’t realize that their ransom plan was far from fool proof.
Californians Expected the Worst
At the time, Californians had been through some serious trauma. In the years immediately prior to the kidnapping, Patty Hearst had been kidnapped, Charles Manson had barely been in jail for five years, and the Zodiac Killer was still at large.
Everyone was fearing the worst. One witness stated, “there was great fear of a serial killer. People formed a search posse on horseback, and it was just a fear that we were going to find bodies.” An unidentified state trooper’s wife said that “we thought it was UFOs. And it seemed like it had to be. No way it could be anything else.” People needed answers.
The Kidnappers’ List
Though the intentions weren’t too clear as to why, they wrote down the names and ages of every hostage they had. They also took a piece of clothing from each child and sent a ransom message to local reporters. These kids were being treated like products in inventory.
These children were victimized one by one, as they climbed down into what could have been their coffin. They were degraded by being asked to take off pieces of clothing, and even more so, they were potentially having their own identities abused for the kidnappers gain.
They Tried to Hide, But They Failed
While the kidnappers were “taking a nap,” Ed Ray and some older children worked against all odds to dig and push their way out of their buried prison. They were nearly suffocated in the kidnappers’ attempt to gain 2.5 million in two suitcases.
Woods became a prime suspect relatively quickly. The police suspected him and his two friends after they’d been arrested for grand theft auto around the same time, and Woods was one of the few people with keys to the quarry that his father owned – where the children escaped from.
The Whole World Was Looking For Them
As Ed and the children emerged from their burial spot, a bystander happened to see them. “The whole world is looking for you,” the bystander stated matter-of-factly. He was right – a massive air search had been underway, which was what helped the FBI and local authorities locate the missing bus in the first place.
The cracks in the assailiants plans were showing. They clearly had not realized that threatening the lives of children was not the best way to get things done. Anyone that would hold children like this hostage would instantly become a target.
The Children Recuperated in Safety
The little tykes recovered safely in the comfort of a local police station in Livermore, the town they were buried in. The whole world was looking for them. They emerged from their burial spot and walked to the quarry’s guard Shadow Cliffs East Bay National Park. There, authorities were promptly called and the little ones were brought to a facility to recuperate peacefully.
The safest place for them was actually in the local jail! As the little ones waited to be checked out by doctors and were questioned by police, they played with one another in jail cells. They wondered if they did anything wrong but were assured they didn’t.
Returning Safely to Their Parents
After relaxing with a light snack of soda and apples in the jail cell, they were brought back to their hometown and reunited with their parents. They’d been drained, both physically and emotionally, by the experience they had just had. Their parents were happy to see they safely returned to them.
One of the youngest victims recalled being reunited with his mother and getting picked up in her arms. They were only six years old at the time, and turned to their mother and said, “hi, mommy,” and instantly fell asleep on her shoulder. They could finally breathe easily.
Not Going Down Without a Fight
Among the survivors was the oldest of the bunch. Michael Marshall had to put on a brave face for his little friends, but he also knew that if he didn’t do something, they would all meet the same grizzly fate. He made a brave announcement to his fellow hostages.
“If we’re going to die, I’m certainly not going to without putting up a fight,” he bravely proclaimed. Their journey took place over a grueling 28 hours, and this brave soul was not going to let the time pass without giving it his best shot. He was instrumental in helping them survive.
Ed Remained Close With the Kids Through the Years
As time moved on from the most traumatic day of both Ed and the children’s lives, they all remained by each other’s side. Ed kept working and was quickly given status as a local hero in the town, with an entire day dedicated to honoring him and his work helping his children.
Through the rest of the students’ lives and Ed’s, they all remained by each other’s sides. Ed was present at their graduations, their weddings, the birth of their children, and basically any major life event you could think of. Ed may have thought the celebrations were over after the president attended the parade planned by the mayor in his honor, with 7,500 pounds of barbecue beef, but the real treat for him was watching his kids grow through the years.
When Ed Passed Away, The Students Got Back on the Bus
As an effort to avoid the bus turning into scrap pieces, Ed purchased the bus where their lives changed forever for just $500. After, it was held in the Museum of Transportation, allowing those who were interested in seeing it to do so. When Ed’s life came to an end, the surviving children went back to the vehicle for the first time.
Upon Ed’s passing, which almost all of the the children (now fully grown adults) went back to the bus to reminice on how he saved their lives. They wanted to honor him in another way, so they took to the vehicle and wrote sweet messages to the man who changed their lives for the better.
When Ed Passed Away, He Was Buried in a Special Way
When Ed passed away, this lifelong bus driver was buried in a casket that was shaped like a school bus. It was made specially for him, honoring him in the ground for his accomplishments while on earth. His death was more than just old age, it was a result of self-medication throughout the years.
According to his granddaughter, Ray passed away in 2012 due to cirrhosis of the liver. He wasn’t a drunk, but having drinks on drinks on drinks was the best way for him to try to forget what he’d experienced. The trauma lived on with him until the day he died.
Survivor Testimonials Included Reflection on Hostage Takers
Lynda Carrejo Labendeira survived the kidnapping, though she was never able to really move on from it. 46 years later, now in her mid-50’s, she still couldn’t fully move on. “I would not allow myself to go into a deeper sleep because I didn’t want to have that dream,” she shared with CNN. Nightmares started again when she learned that the assailants were set to be released on parole. She’s attended every parole hearing since to fight against it.
The survivors recalled later hearing about why they were held hostage. “We needed multiple victims to get multiple millions, and we picked children because children are precious. The state would be willing to pay ransom for them. And they don’t fight back. They’re vulnerable. They will mind,” Woods stated. Even all these years later, they can’t get those words out of their heads.
Park Recollected His Experience
Larry Park was one of the young ones on the bus. When reflecting on CBS’ 48 Hours, his words cut like a knife. What he described was a feeling that no one, anywhere, should ever have to feel. He described the darkness inside the vans that transported them as “coming to get them.”
“I felt like I was an animal going to the slaughterhouse,” Park stated in an interview. At just six years old, he was scarred with a lifetime of trauma that would haunt him for the rest of his days. Despite living through hell, he managed to find a way to push past it and lead a relatively normal life… as normal as one could after that experience.
Woods and the Schoenfeld Brothers Had Advocates Pushing For Them
“He’s spent 46 years in prison… and has not hurt a fly,” Woods’ lawyer said. “It doesn’t make any sense for him to be in there any longer.” That’s right, the men who risked the lives of 26 innocent children and their bus driver on their way home from a field trip to the public pool, are set to be given slack and given another chance at life. Even if they’re not serving their life sentence, those kids are serving one from all the trauma they’ve endured.
He’s still set to serve a life sentence for their crimes. In 2022, the Schoenfeld brothers are on parole. Now, Woods is up for it himself. Though his behavior in prison might be good, his actions still warrant him spending the rest of his life behind bars. “If your child was kidnapped and buried alive, how long is long enough?” she said. “How long is long enough for 26 children on a school bus to be kidnapped and buried alive?”