The chilling story of Chowchilla’s children, kidnapped and buried alive

A 70-year-old prisoner convicted of kidnapping children from a school bus in 1976 may soon be released.

Frederick Newhall Woods could be free soon. The 70-year-old man was found guilty of kidnapping children from a school bus in California in 1976th– this time was accepted by a judicial commission. However, the governor has yet to approve that decision before letting the American out. Fred Woods, along with two other accomplices, shaped the history of American news broadcasts by committing the unimaginable.

A February 24, 1976 photo shows the interior of the van that served as a prison for the 26 kidnapped Chowchilla school children.

A February 24, 1976 photo shows the interior of the van that served as a prison for the 26 kidnapped Chowchilla school children.

© Jim Palmer/AP/SIPA

On July 15, 1976, a school bus with driver Ed Ray and 26 children between the ages of 5 and 14 was taken hostage. The little passengers, all from school in Chowchilla, California, were crossing a country road in Madera County around 4 p.m. when they encountered their tormentors. They came back from swimming at the fairgrounds with no idea of ​​the tragedy they were about to experience. Forced off the bus, they were transported in two different vans for 11 hours. When they then arrived at the location chosen by the three suspects, they were loaded into a moving truck, which was buried in a quarry in Livermore. Their bus was discovered empty, hidden under bamboo and scrub in a ditch. Which horrifies the families of the students.

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The photo shows the interior of the van that served as a jail for the 26 kidnapped Chowchilla school children and their bus driver in Livermore, California

The photo shows the interior of the van that served as a jail for the 26 kidnapped Chowchilla school children and their bus driver in Livermore, California

© Jim Palmer/AP/SIPA

The children lived through hell for 16 hours. Sixteen hours during which the victims, buried alive, did everything they could to escape by digging in the ground until young Michael Marshall, 14, and the driver managed to emerge and call emergency services. All were then collected and returned to Chowchilla safe and sound by police escorted bus just before dawn on July 17, 1976. The investigation at the time revealed that America’s greatest kidnapping story was partially inspired by the film “Dirty Harry.” The three suspects’ plan was to hold the children captive in the truck converted into an underground bunker in order to demand a $5 million ransom.

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In this July 17, 1976 file photo, 10-year-old Darla Sue Daniels is carried by her father after being rescued.

In this July 17, 1976 file photo, 10-year-old Darla Sue Daniels is carried by her father after being rescued.

©AP/SIPA

After the children were taken to safety, police returned to the spot where they had been buried and found that the truck had been parked there as early as November 1975. It was on property owned by Frederick Nickerson Woods, whose son Fred Newhall Woods IV, then 24, was missing. Authorities have issued an alert for him, his accomplices and friends James Schoenfeld, 24, and his brother Richard Schoenfeld, 22, both sons of a prominent podiatrist.

Frederick Newhall Woods could soon be released from prison.

Frederick Newhall Woods could soon be released from prison.

©AP/SIPA

The youngest of the three turned himself in to Oakland police a few days later. His brother was arrested in Menlo Park just as he was about to surrender. Fred Woods was arrested on July 29 in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he had already fled. A year later, in 1977, the three young men pled guilty to kidnapping for ransom and were sentenced to life imprisonment. However, in June 2012, Richard Schoenfeld was released on parole, as was his brother in August 2015. Only Fredrick Woods remains in the San Luis Obispo County Jail.

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In this July 17, 1976 file photo, two Dairyland Union School District students, who were among 26 school children, and their bus driver were kidnapped and buried in an underground truck.

In this July 17, 1976 file photo, two Dairyland Union School District students, who were among 26 school children, and their bus driver were kidnapped and buried in an underground truck.

©AP/SIPA

But these releases are obviously not to the liking of the victims. In 2015, several of them confided in CNN about their trauma. Darla Neal, who was 10 at the time, said she suffered from “extreme anxiety” that made her life impossible. “Sometimes I get so overwhelmed that I have to leave work. I tell myself I should be able to overcome this. But see how I am, lost,” she had said. “They stole our childhood. Everything was disturbed,” Jodi Heffington-Medrano, also 10 years old, confided at the time of the crime. Jennifer Brown told Fox News that she is now “50 years old but still has panic attacks when[she]is in the car with[her]husband.” Speaking to CBS in 2020, she added that her kidnapping “feels like an animal going to the slaughterhouse.” Larry Park, 6, also recalled the nightmare moments experienced at the time on CBS: “Her eyes looked vacant. It was like watching death.” They all said in their testimonies then and in their memories now that the place where they were buried was called “the hole” by the suspects.

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