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Chowchilla bus kidnapping well in the rear view 40 years later – but not quite forgotten

A look back at Chowchilla school bus kidnapping (July 15, 1976)

Former Madera County Sheriff Ed Bates recalls the hunt for a missing bus full of children -- and their kidnappers -- in July 1976.
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Former Madera County Sheriff Ed Bates recalls the hunt for a missing bus full of children -- and their kidnappers -- in July 1976.

For 40 years, strangers from around the world have asked Jennifer Brown Hyde about her kidnapping.

“People find out and are fascinated,” Hyde said. “And that’s fine. I don’t mind sharing it because the world stopped and was on its knees praying for us. And I feel, 40 years later, that I owe it to those people to share where I am at in life.”

Hyde was one of 26 children abducted July 15, 1976, during a summer school bus ride in Chowchilla. The students and their bus driver were taken at gunpoint and eventually were piled into a moving van and buried in a Bay Area quarry. They escaped without any physical injuries after less than a day in captivity.

“It is a part of my life, but I like to think it doesn’t define me,” said Hyde, who now lives in Tennessee with her husband of 20 years and their two teenage sons. “I’ve had to cope with life-changing issues, but it – and other things – made me who I am. I have led a very blessed life.”

Like Hyde, those directly involved in the kidnapping have thought about it often over the past four decades.

But for most of the roughly 18,000 people who live in Chowchilla today, the kidnapping holds little significance. Many working or walking around Robertson Boulevard – Chowchilla’s main street – weren’t born or didn’t live in the small town in 1976. Those who were there at the time say they think about it only when reporters call on anniversaries or when one of the three kidnappers is up for parole.

City leaders were not interested in rehashing the event that put Chowchilla – then a town of less than 5,000 residents – on the map. City Manager Brian Haddix instead hoped to talk about how Chowchilla is growing and moving forward. A new golf course and hundreds of new homes were built recently on the eastern outskirts of town, for example.

Jennifer Hyde, who left Chowchilla in 1982, can understand why the city hopes to move on. She also talks about the kidnapping less and less as time goes by. But she believes there still is some value in rehashing it from time to time.

Hyde, who left Chowchilla in 1982, can understand why the city hopes to move on. She also talks about the kidnapping less and less as time goes by. But she believes there still is some value in rehashing it from time to time.

“I don’t think it needs to be frightening,” Hyde said. “But things happen. Don’t walk around terrified, but you need to have a respect for life.”

Her ‘blessed life’

The kidnapping was not the worst thing to happen to Hyde as a child, she said. In 1981, her older brother, Jeff, died at age 15 in an accident while working with their father. Jeff also was on the bus and kidnapped in 1976.

“Our family had what I thought was a life-changing event at 9,” Hyde said in a telephone interview. “But that was something our family couldn’t work through, so my mom and I left town.”

Hyde had been the class secretary and a cheerleader when she left Chowchilla. Her mother left the decision up to her. It was tough, but she said the two tragedies made her an outcast in school. Other students refused to talk to her or sit with her during lunch.

“I had enough bad memories in that town,” she said. So the family moved to Merced, where she graduated from high school.

Our family had what I thought was a life-changing event at 9. But (Jeff’s death) was something our family couldn’t work through, so my mom and I left town.

Jennifer Brown Hyde, one of 26 children kidnapped in July 1976

Hyde considers herself lucky because her parents encouraged her to talk about the kidnapping and her brother’s death from an early age. She has spent much of her life in therapy, which she believes has helped her cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems caused by the abduction.

It is still a constant battle. Hyde, now 49, sleeps with a nightlight. Entering underground tornado shelters during storm warnings in Tennessee is a challenge. It was difficult for her to let her kids be independent, she said.

“I am the most over-protective helicopter parent you will ever find,” she said with a laugh. “After years of therapy, it’s been attributed to having control of my life taken away from me as a child. Now, control freak is a nice way to describe me.”

Despite all that, Hyde chooses to look on the bright side. This need for control has made her “an awesome, meticulous secretary” for a state university. She has a great marriage and her children. She’s active in her local church.

“Everybody has baggage that they carry with them,” she said. “I choose not to let it win.”

The kidnapping

About 4 p.m. on July 15, 1976, Frank Edward “Ed” Ray was driving a school bus carrying 26 children from Dairyland Union Elementary School when three men wearing stockings over their heads and carrying handguns boarded his bus. The trio hid the abandoned bus in a bamboo thicket and loaded Ray and the children – ages 5 to 14 – into two vans.

 

After 11 hours of driving, the men loaded the captives into a moving van and buried it in a quarry in Livermore, in Alameda County. The captives spent 16 hours underground before Ray and two of the older boys stacked mattresses and pushed their way out of the van. Ray and the 26 children escaped without any physical injuries.

The moving van was registered to the quarry owner’s son, Fred Woods. Investigators soon identified Woods as a prime suspect, as well as brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld. All three were arrested by the end of July 1976.

The kidnappers were convicted in Alameda County the following year and sentenced to life in prison.

The captors

One thing remains the same in 2016: California’s governor. Gov. Jerry Brown was in his second year of his first term in 1976 when he ushered state law enforcement into Chowchilla to assist with the short, frantic search for the children and the subsequent manhunt for the kidnappers.

Brown, who declined comment for this story, signed off on Richard Schoenfeld’s parole in 2012 and James Schoenfeld’s parole in 2015. Both were deemed fit for release by the California Board of Parole Hearings. Both had spotless records during their nearly four decades in prison.

Two of the kidnappers – both considered model prisoners – have been paroled; a third, Fred Woods, remains in prison.

Woods was denied parole for the 16th time in 2015. Authorities noted that, unlike the other kidnappers, he had not been a model prisoner. He was caught with pornography in 2002-03 and contraband cell phones in 2013 and 2014. He can apply for release again in 2018.

While some victims have remained outspoken opponents of paroling the kidnappers, others have fallen silent or even supported their release.

Madera County District Attorney David Linn began an investigation in March into reports that the three men, all of whom are from wealthy Bay Area families, bribed their former victims into staying silent during their parole hearings. Some who had previously opposed Woods’ parole reversed their positions in 2015, so Linn is looking into why.

Moving on

Linda Romeri has been Dairyland’s secretary since 1987. She remembers the kidnapping well – her four children went to Dairyland, the oldest beginning in 1971.

“The only time it gets brought up is on an anniversary,” she said. “Periodically, it gets brought up among friends – where we were when it happened, the weather and so on.”

The kidnapping left a scar, Romeri said, but Chowchilla is still a small town full of good, friendly people who help each other. The landscape has changed with the golf course, new housing developments and two state prisons, but she believes Chowchilla is and always has been a farm town.

Keith Dougherty moved to Chowchilla in the 1980s to work for his brother-in-law at Anderson Pump Co., which has supplied irrigation equipment to local farmers since 1948. He agreed the city is still an ag town. The entire city still gathers in the spring for the Cattle Stampede down Robertson Boulevard. But he believes Chowchilla has lost some of its small-town charm.

“Everybody used to know everyone else,” he said. “But that’s not the case anymore.”

The facets of a changing city are evident when driving down Robertson. Chain stores share complexes with small businesses – many of which still have Chowchilla in their names. There’s a Taco Bell, but there’s also Chowchilla Tacos. Clustered buildings give way to rural homes with working or less-than-functional farm equipment in the front yards.

The landscape and its people appear to be finding a new identity.

‘It could happen again’

Although Chowchilla seems poised to move on, a former Madera County sheriff cautioned its residents not to completely forget the past.

Ed Bates, now 91, was the Madera County sheriff from 1970-80. When asked about the case, he focused on the kidnappers.

He has long believed the kidnappers attempted to bribe their victims into silence, and he was glad to see Woods remain in prison.

“Woods is a sociopath,” said Bates, who taught criminology at Fresno State for a decade after retiring as Madera sheriff. “All of his waking hours are spent wondering what he can do to get more for himself.”

Back then, the courts said that emotional distress could not be measured. Damage to your mental capacity didn’t count. But there’s no doubt these kids were injured emotionally.

Former Madera County Sheriff Ed Bates

Bates said he wasn’t upset about the Schoenfelds getting out, but he believes none of the kidnappers should have had a shot at parole. Investigators had originally asked for life without the possibility of parole, but the courts ruled against it.

“Back then, the courts said that emotional distress could not be measured,” he said. “Damage to your mental capacity didn’t count. But there’s no doubt these kids were injured emotionally.”

In the 1970s, some psychiatrists believed the children would suffer no long-term side effects – in fact, they may emerge stronger having survived the challenge.

Analysis in the decades since the kidnapping have shown exactly the opposite: All have suffered some sort of emotional stress. Some – including Robert Gonzales, then a 10-year-old who helped Ray free his classmates – have spent time in prison themselves.

Bates wasn’t surprised to hear most people walking around Chowchilla in 2016 had little to say about the kidnappings.

“We senior citizens all know it,” he said with a laugh, “but people forget about these things quick unless they are personally involved.”

But Bates also offered a warning for the future.

“With all this terrorism going on internationally, someone could create a real problem,” he said. “It could happen again.”

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