Chowchilla kidnapper paroled, to remain in prison for now

One of the three men who kidnapped a busload of Chowchilla schoolchildren in 1976 and buried them in a quarry in Livermore for ransom has been granted parole, a state prison spokesman said Thursday.

However, the ruling by a two-member state Board of Parole Hearings panel on Wednesday to grant parole to 63-year-old James Schoenfeld is only the beginning of a six-month process to determine whether he ultimately will be allowed to go free after 38 years behind bars, Bill Sessa of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said.

Sessa said the state Board of Parole Hearings’ legal staff will now review the ruling to see if it’s consistent with the evidence that was presented at Wednesday’s hearing and then it will be up to Gov. Jerry Brown to approve the decision, modify it or ask for all 12 members of the panel to review it. But Brown doesn’t have the power to reverse the panel’s ruling because it isn’t a murder case, Sessa said.

Schoenfeld, his brother Richard Schoenfeld, 60, and Frederick Woods were in their early to mid 20s when they ambushed a busload of schoolchildren from Dairyland Union School in Chowchilla, a small farm community about 35 miles northwest of Fresno in Madera County, on July 15, 1976, according to prosecutors.

The men left the bus camouflaged in a creek bed and drove the children and bus driver Ed Ray about 100 miles to the California Rock and Gravel Quarry in Livermore. They sealed their victims in a large van that had been buried in a cave at the quarry and fitted to keep the children and driver hostage, prosecutors said.

The kidnappers, all from wealthy families in the Peninsula communities of Atherton and Portola Valley, then demanded a $5 million ransom for the schoolchildren and Ray. The hostages escaped from the buried van a little more than a day after they were first kidnapped when Ray and the two oldest children piled mattresses to the top of the van and forced their way out.

The Schoenfeld brothers and Woods received life sentences after pleading guilty in Alameda County Superior Court in 1977 to 27 counts of kidnapping for ransom. But an appellate court ruled in 1980 that they were eligible for parole, finding that the victims didn’t suffer any bodily harm.

However, the Board of Parole Hearings has denied their parole requests multiple times over the years. The panel recommended parole for Richard Schoenfeld in 2011 and he was released from prison in June 2012. He will be discharged from parole in June, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jill Klinge said today. Woods is still in prison but will have a parole hearing later this year, Klinge said.