Chowchilla kidnapper set for release

One of the three men who kidnapped a busload of Chowchilla schoolchildren in 1976 and buried them in a quarry in Livermore for ransom will be paroled soon after Gov. Jerry Brown let stand a parole board’s ruling that he be released from prison, the man’s attorney said Friday.

On April 1, a two-member state Board of Parole Hearings panel granted parole to 63-year-old James Schoenfeld, who has been behind bars for 29 years for his role in the kidnapping.

Brown had 120 days to approve the panel’s decision or ask for all 12 members of the panel to review it but that period expired at midnight on Thursday without Brown taking any action, Scott Handelman, Schoenfeld’s attorney, said.

Brown didn’t have the authority to reverse the panel’s decision because he only has that authority in murder cases, a spokeswoman for his office said.

In addition, the state Board of Parole Hearings’ legal staff reviewed the panel’s ruling and concluded that it was consistent with the evidence that was presented at Schoenfeld’s parole hearing, Handelman said.

Brown’s decision to let the panel’s ruling stand means that Schoenfeld can be released “any day now,” Handelman said.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Luis Patina said the prison agency has up to five days to process the departure of an inmate who’s being paroled but for security reasons it doesn’t disclose the exact time, date, or location of a parolee’s departure in advance.

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 in Alameda County.

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.

The Alameda County District Attorney’s has opposed parole for the three defendants and until recently the Board of Parole Hearings had 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 was discharged from parole in June, Handelman said.

Woods is still in prison but will have a parole hearing later this year.

District Attorney spokeswoman Teresa Drenick declined to comment today on the pending parole for James Schoenfeld.

Handelman said, “There’s a compelling if not overwhelming” case for Schoenfeld to be paroled, saying that his disciplinary record in prison is “very impressive” and his psychological reports have been favorable for decades.

Handelman said:

“Parole hearings are not about vengeance but are for determining if an inmate is still dangerous.”

He said he doesn’t think Schoenfeld is dangerous because when the crime occurred, Schoenfeld didn’t have any prior convictions and he’s now 63 years old.