Gov. Jerry Brown is playing a game. It’s a script from a Buck Jones Western, where the con man comes to fleece unsuspecting townsfolk. Buck exposes him, and the locals run the bum out on a rail!
Buck Jones is George Skelton, a political reporter for the Los Angeles Times since 1974. Brown was elected in 1975 and in 2011. The veteran journalist has watched Brown govern as a youngster and an oldster.
In 1976, the governor changed sentencing. Brown felt parole was not sensitive to rehabilitation. Brown inherited parole commissioners appointed by Gov. Ronald Reagan. So Brown changed sentencing from “indeterminate to determinate.”
Brown, in a recent interview with Skelton for the Feb. 1 Capitol Journal titled “Old Brown tries to fix a young Brown’s mistake,” said: “People were lingering in prisons and didn’t know when they were going to get out. It came to me that if they did the crime, they should do the time. And then get out.”
Never miss a local story.
Skelton asked why he was now reversing himself. Brown said the earlier move was an “abysmal failure.” The current law generated an “unintended consequence” as it “was the removal of incentives for inmates to improve themselves ... because they had a certain date and there was nothing in their control that would give them a reward by turning their lives around.”
Brown is proposing changing the law again. He’s also appointed or reconfirmed the current parole commissioners.
Brown flouted criminal justice in 2012, when he released the first of the infamous Chowchilla school bus kidnappers. Another was paroled in 2015. A third may eventually walk. Readers under 50 may not recall the crime was selected as one of the Top 10 news stories of the world.
On July 15, 1976, the Chowchilla Police Department in Madera County received calls from concerned parents that their children hadn’t returned from summer school. Twenty-six children ages 5 through 14 were taking a school bus home. However, they never arrived.
A farmer took his private plane up and found the bus parked in a sandy river bottom, hidden by a stand of bamboo. It was empty.
Both the Madera County Sheriff’s Department and Chowchilla police were limited in staffing. Families and friends of the missing children joined law enforcement personnel and prayed while waiting for a call from the kidnappers, which never came.
Three days later, with absolutely no news regarding their fate, the command center received a call that the children and their bus driver were safe. There was rejoicing in abundance.
Three “preppies” from the Bay Area, Frederick Newhall Woods and two brothers, Richard and James Schoenfeld, masterminded a get-rich-quick plan. They decided to hijack a school bus, then kidnap and ransom the children.
They blocked the bus on a country road and entered with nylon-stocking masks and shotguns. Bus driver Ed Ray was directed to park out of sight. They were loaded into two vans and drove off, arriving at their destination past midnight. The victims climbed down a ladder into a large trailer van, which had been buried. The ladder was pulled up and the hole covered with large metal plates. The children were left crying for their mothers, abandoned by their captors.
However, divine intervention took place as people were praying around the world. Ray was the base for a three-person pyramid; a large boy was second, a smaller boy at the apex. Eventually, he gained enough space to escape.
The night guard found him and notified the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department that the children had been found in a Livermore rock quarry. The world rejoiced.
People in the country had seen two vans recently. This led to an all-points bulletin. The three suspects learned their vehicles had been seen, so they made for the Canadian border. They were arrested and brought back.
They were convicted and sentenced to life without possibility of parole. Years later, prison reformers got their sentences changed to life with possibility of parole. The Schoenfeld brothers are now paroled and Woods may be paroled in the future.
Brown claims the proposed change back to the “indeterminate” involves only nonviolent criminals. Knowing he changed “life without parole” to “life with parole,” what shell is the pea under now?
The real irony is, if it wasn’t for divine intervention 40 years ago, the 26 children and their faithful bus driver might still be missing today.
Gary E. Brown, Chowchilla police chief in 1976, retired as police chief in Monterey.