Before he hatched a plan to kidnap 26 schoolchildren and their bus driver for ransom, burying them in a Livermore quarry in the infamous 1976 crime, James Schoenfeld read a newspaper headline.
In 1974, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan had announced a $5 billion budget surplus for California. The community college student and part-time busboy wouldn’t admit to his affluent family that he was deep in debt and thought the state could spare $5 million, Schoenfeld told the state Board of Parole in April, according to a transcript obtained by the Bay Area News Group.
The 158 pages of testimony reveal previously unknown details about the decades-old Chowchilla kidnapping, a case that captivated the nation.
“I kept thinking, you know, the state’s got more than it needs. They won’t miss $5 million, so I thought OK, well, that will be my target. And so the idea just started, is there a way to get this money?” Schoenfeld, now 63, told the parole board. “Is there some way that I can get a lot of money to solve all my problems?”
Schoenfeld was granted parole last week after Gov. Jerry Brown did not act on the state parole board’s decision to allow his release. Brown’s uncle Harold Brown represented Schoenfeld decades ago during a string of unsuccessful parole board hearings, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s father, William Newsom, a retired Court of Appeals justice, in 1980 served on a panel of judges that overturned Schoenfeld’s and his co-defendants’ original life without parole sentences, offering them a chance at release, and wrote letters of support for Schoenfeld’s release.
Brown spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said politics did not play a role in the release — “each case is reviewed on its own merit,” she said.
Schoenfeld’s Oakland attorney, Scott Handleman, said that if anything, it was political in keeping his client incarcerated for almost four decades. As of Monday afternoon, he remained in prison, a state prison official said.
The ransom plan by Schoenfeld, his younger brother Richard, who was paroled in 2012, and friend Fred Woods, who remains in prison, was thwarted after bus driver Ed Ray and older kids dug themselves out of a buried moving van as air began to run out. Many victims still appear at parole board hearings, pleading for the men to remain in prison, while others involved in the case say justice has been served.
Since his release in 2012, Richard Schoenfeld has cared for the brothers’ 92-year-old mother in Mountain View and has stayed out of trouble, according to the transcript. James Schoenfeld plans to move in with his mother and work at his brother’s San Carlos motorcycle shop.
I kept thinking, you know, the state’s got more than it needs. They won’t miss $5 million, so I thought OK, well, that will be my target. And so the idea just started, is there a way to get this money?
Chowchilla bus kidnapper James Schoenfeld, to the state parole board in April
While he had been reluctant to speak about his crime at past hearings, Schoenfeld spoke candidly about the botched kidnapping during the April hearing, explaining how he owed $23,000 on a loan at the time and he wanted to fit in with his rich neighbors after moving out of Palo Alto. Although Schoenfeld came from a well-to-do family, he said in the transcript that he struggled to meet his father’s expectations and felt like he was a failure in everything he tried to do. “In Atherton, I was no longer something special. I was just — in fact, I was not special at all, so I wanted to be — have that feeling again. I wanted to fit in with these new people that we moved next to,” he said, mentioning how his friend’s parents had twin Ferraris.
After reading about the state’s surplus, Schoenfeld said he debated how to get some of that money.
“So the only thing I could think of was a kidnapping. … I wasn’t going to commit any crime, risk my life or risk my reputation for anything less than a million, so a bank robbery wouldn’t work, a drug deal wouldn’t work. I didn’t know of anything except for a kidnapping that I’d seen on TV,” he told the parole board.
Why did he target kids?
“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’ll do what we tell them to do,” he told the board. “The plan was to hijack a school bus. We felt it had to be a school bus because the state would be responsible for the occupants on a school bus.
“The state pays us the ransom. We’re happy forever. All of our troubles are solved and we let the victims go, everybody’s happy. The state is only out a tiny percentage of their surplus. I lied to myself thinking that nobody would get hurt. I had no consideration for the feelings and the trauma that I was causing.”
Prosecutor Jill Klinge represented Alameda County at the hearing and read letters from some of the victims who did not attend the hearing.
“I was 9 years old when my abductors boarded my bus with guns and masks and literally buried me alive. I personally have lived a life of immense struggles since 1976 directly related to the actions of James. The anxiety attacks and confined places, fear of the dark, nightmares, and lack of self-esteem, an overall loss of my childhood have been directly related to the actions of James,” one female victim wrote.
Another woman spoke about her memories as a 10-year-old girl.
“I remember being so frightened and crying for my mom and dad as one of the men pointed a shotgun at my head. I remember being surrounded by darkness and wondering for hours where they were taking us and what they were going to do to us. I remember being shaken to the very core of my being as I watched them remove my classmates one by one out of the van I was in and then close the door. My heart pounded against my chest so loud in my ears when it was my turn.”
Woods will have his next parole hearing Nov. 19.