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This Man Who Kidnapped and Buried 26 Children About To Be Granted Parole

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The last of three men convicted of “the largest mass kidnapping in U.S. history” is being released by the state’s parole board. He was convicted of hijacking a school bus full of California children for an attempted $5 million ransom in 1976. He will be released from prison on an undisclosed date.

Frederick Woods and two accomplices, Richard and James Schoenfeld, kidnapped the children and buried them alive in a van to obtain ransom money. They had tried to get $5 million from the state as ransom.

All three men were from wealthy San Francisco Bay Area families when they kidnapped 26 children and their bus driver near Chowchilla, about 125 miles southeast of San Francisco.

The hijacked bus was driven by Frank “Ed” Ray. The kidnappers then drove him and the 26 children onboard to a truck trailer they had buried 12 feet underground near a rock quarry owned by Wood’s father. The kidnappers kept the victims in the van equipped with a ventilation system and toilets. They provided the victims with little food and water while waiting for the ransom money they demanded. The victims were buried in this van for over 24 hours before they could finally dig their way out.

In 2019, one of the survivors, Jennifer Brown Hyde, said, “As a young kid, you don’t have a lot of sense of time. … There was no sunlight. So, you couldn’t tell if it was day or night. … We were out of food, we were out of water, the roof was caving in…. It just was a desperate situation.

Woods, 24 at the time, became a person of interest in the case after police connected him to the case. The quarry where the van had been buried was discovered to belong to his father. After searching his father’s estate, they also found a mountain of evidence, including a draft ransom note. 

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Arrest warrants were issued, and one of the suspects, Richard Schoenfeld, turned himself in. However, Woods and James Schoenfeld fled California and tried to escape from the law. Once they were all arrested, they pleaded guilty to all charges except the eight counts of bodily harm, which would send them to prison for life.

Regardless, they were all found guilty on all charges and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The sentence was later overturned, and an appeals court ordered Richard released in 2012. Later in 2015, the then governor, Jerry Brown, also paroled James. 

After over 17 denials, Woods was approved for parole in March but still needed to be finalized and reviewed by Governor Gavin Newsom. Newsom asked the board to reconsider its decision to parole Woods on Tuesday after two commissioners recommended his release. However, the board stood by its decision to release him on parole.

Newsom requested the reconsideration partly because Woods “continued to engage in financial related-misconduct in prison.” The governor also added that Woods had used a contraband cellphone to advise people operating a Christmas tree farm, a gold mining business, and a car dealership. However, he couldn’t block Woods’ release because he was not convicted of murder.

Newsom acknowledged that Woods is eligible for consideration both because he was just 24 when he committed the crime and because he is now an older adult at 70. He said Woods, who once studied policing at a community college, has also taken steps to improve himself in prison.

Three inmates who served time with him urged officials to release him, and some of his victims supported his release. However, four victims or their relatives said Woods’ misbehavior in prison shows he still views himself as privileged.