Friday, April 3, 2015

Possible Parole for One of the Chowchilla School Bus Kidnappers

the Alview-Dairyland school bus before it was moved from the dry riverbed

Matthew and I finally made it home. We didn't leave until 8:00 and still hit traffic in the area approaching  San Jose. Matthew offered to Internet-access my computer using his cellphone, but I'm sure it's totally illegal, so I told him no. 

I was reading news on my cell phone on the trip, as I almost never have time to do so during the school day. It seems that one of the Chowchilla kidnappers -- James Schoenfeld  -- has passed the initial step toward being granted parole.  I believe he'll have to pass another hearing and ultimately the governor will have to OK his release. Schoenfeld's younger brother Richard, also involved in the kidnapping, has already been paroled.

If you, like me, were not yet born when the Chowchilla kidnapping happened, I'll give you a very brief recap. My mother lived in the country outside of Chowchilla at the time of the kidnapping. She, in fact, lived within the boundaries of the Alview-Dairyland school district, a tiny two-campus rural elementary district,   which was the site of the summer school,  but my mom never attended summer school. She said she vaguely knew some of the children at the time and met more once she got to high school, where the rural and city school district kids  matriculated into the a union high school district, but  most of the children on the bus that day weren't actually kids who attended her elementary school. Children from the nearby town of Chowchilla who were part of the Chowchilla Elementary School District were allowed to attend Alview-Dairyland district's summer school on a space-available basis, as their district did not offer summer school. My mom said most of the children still on the bus when the kidnapping occurred were actually Chowchilla Elementary School District children. Most of the Alview-Dairyland children had already been dropped off at their homes. My mom believes that, as the bus was routed, had she attended summer school -- which she didn't -- she would have been off the bus before the kidnapping took place.

My mom was almost ten at the time of  the bus kidnapping. She says she remembers being very frightened that night even though she was safe in her own home. There was a thunderstorm, which is highly unusual for the San Joaquin Valley in July, which only added to the eeriness of the night. I don't think she knew if the empty bus had been found when she went to bed that night. i'm not even sure if it had been found. Her dad had just begun to fly commercially and wasn't home that night, adding to her sense of alarm.  She was afraid that whoever had taken the bus of children might show up at her house and take her. She says she can only imagine the terror that the children who actually were kidnapped felt, and as a parent now, she thinks the fright the missing children's parents felt was probably even greater than what the children themselves felt.

A school bus about half full of children being delivered home from summer school in a rural part of California was stopped by a van that blocked the roadway. Three gun-carrying men with nylon stockings over their heads commandeered the bus, moved the driver to the back at gunpoint, and drove the bus into a dry river bed known as the Berenda Slough, concealed by plant growth, where the kidnappers had stored an additional van. They moved the driver and children at gunpoint into the two vans and drove them for several hours until they finally reached a rock quarry in Livermore, California, which is in reality only maybe two hours or so away. They probably drove on back roads party of the way and possibly had time to kill so that they could enter the rock quarry undetected. The rock quarry was owned by the family of one of the kidnappers.

Though it was reported that a bus was missing relatively early, my mom believes it was a couple of hours before the bus was discovered in its hiding place, so the kidnappers had a considerable head start at getting to their destination, and were presumably far out of the area before anyone had any idea to look for anything other than the missing bus. My mom said pretty much every family in the country area was called to ask if they'd seen any sign of the bus. 

The children and bus driver were loaded into a truck bed that had been buried underground in the rock quarry. Large batteries had been attached to some sort of fan that pumped air inside, providing some ventilation. The ventilation was barely adequate, and probably wouldn't have lasted much longer, as the batteries weren't sufficient to power the ventilation system for much longer, and the kidnappers couldn't return safely until well into the next night.  

Ironically, it was the insufficient amount of battery power that made the ventilation system light enough for the children and the driver to push the batteries aside and dig their way out,

The kidnappers had planned to phone a ransom demand somewhere in Chowchilla, but the phone lines were so over-loaded that the kidnappers could never get through to make their ransom demand.

Eventually the buried truck bed was traced to one of the kidnappers, the other two were identified, and all three were apprehended. they pled guilty. Their initial sentences were for life without possibility of parole, but the "without parole" portion of the sentences was later overturned.

People have very strong feelings in both directions regarding the release of any of the Chowchilla kidnappers.  Most -- though not all -- of the victims, predictably enough, would like for James Schoenfeld to remain behind bars. Other people say that in the grand scheme of things, the two Chowchilla kidnappers still incarcerated have served longer sentences than have many murderers who deliberately killed their victims. 

The Chowchilla kidnapping was an incredibly stupid and poorly planned  scheme that could easily have resulted in the deaths of some or all of the victims but, through the grace of God and a couple of really resourceful kids, didn't.   I don't know exactly how I feel about parole for the kidnappers. In the case of Richard Schoenfeld, He's out, so the point is moot. In terms of the two kidnappers still behind bars, I suppose their relative youth -- I think they all were in their early twenties at the time, would be a somewhat mitigating circumstance, as would be the fact that it wasn't necessarily their intent to cause bodily harm. On the other hand, their stupidity came perilously close to killing all twenty-seven victims. Furthermore, the psychological damage to all the victims cannot be denied.


  1. Seems to me I saw a Lifetime movie about that incident. Very scary!

  2. There was a made-for-TV movie about it. it apparently was pretty creepy, especially since it too quite awhile even to find the empty bus.

  3. So scary for your mom to have been so close to the whole incident!