One summer's day in 1976, something unimaginable happened. A bus full of elementary school children went missing in California. Here is the remarkable story that once shook America to its core.
Summer of 1976
Let's rewind all the way back to July 15th, 1976. It was a warm summer's day in Chowchilla, California, and the students of Dairyland Elementary were getting ready for a school trip to the town swimming pool.
The children were buzzing with excitement, with no idea of what the immediate future held for them. They enjoyed the afternoon swimming and sunbathing. Eventually, they returned to their bus, tanned, tired, and eager to get home. Little did they know that they wouldn’t be going home anytime soon.
Ed, The Bus Driver
The students greeted their driver, a man named Frank Ray, as they boarded the bus. Though his name was Frank, most of his passengers called him Ed. He had been a school bus driver for years, and many of the students were accustomed to seeing his face every morning and afternoon since they started attending the school.
On that fateful day, Ed was driving a bus with 26 children, all between the ages of 5 and 14. It was his job to drop them off at home, and since they were running short on time, their teachers requested that each child remain in their swimsuits and wait until they returned home to change.
Time To Go Home
So Ed set off down the street with a full vehicle, eager to finish his work day. After years of driving the same model of buses down the same routes, he was an expert at maneuvering the vehicle without getting distracted by a single thing, even with dozens of eager children behind him.
After 23 years as a bus driver, he was convinced that nothing could keep his eyes off the road ahead. But as he turned down a quiet backroad of Chowchilla, he found his gaze drawn to something on the side of the road in front of him… a white van that had pulled up ahead of them.
A Stop In The Road
It looked like the van may have broken down. Ed had the natural impulse to pull over and help the van owners, but he knew that he had no time to delay. He needed to get the kids home. Even so, he figured the least he could do was pause beside them to see what he could do to help.
He went to wind down his window, only to see the van turn into the road, blocking the bus’s path ahead. To his horror, three men stepped out of the van, each one with dark pantyhose pulled over their heads and a weapon in their hands. Ed’s panic began to set in as he watched the trio walk toward the bus full of children.
Ambushed & Afraid
Within seconds his worst nightmare had come true. The three men were standing at the bus door, with weapons pointed up at him. Ed knew that if he made any signs of movement or tried to move the bus forward or reverse, he would be putting himself in immense danger.
The men were gesturing for him to open the door, but Ed was frozen with fear and indecision. He didn’t know what to do. Letting the men onto the bus would undoubtedly put the children at risk - but refusing them was futile. They would get in either way. And if he didn’t open the door, they’d be angry.
In the space of a few seconds, the bus driver had to process this complex information while under immense stress. Eventually, he felt the safest thing to do would be to comply so as not to anger the strange men. And so he opened the door and let them in, while the rows of children behind him watched in shock.
The children began panicking, and some even began to scream, so the men moved quickly. They shuffled all of the children to the back of the bus while wielding their weapons. and gestured for Ed to do the same. "No Hero Stuff," one man said. "Just sit there quietly, and everything will be fine."
A Little Detour
The three men soon split up, with one taking Ed's place in the driver's seat while another returned to the white van and the third man stayed at the back of the bus to keep an eye on their hostages. The bus began to move, and after 15 minutes of driving, they took an exit off the main road.
This was the place the three dangerous men had decided on before they ambushed the school bus, as it was far out of sight of locals or police. They parked the bus and van conveniently in a field of trees, which would keep them hidden from the road. Once they were parked, Ed and the children were ushered off the bus.
An Unknown Location
They were split into two groups and loaded into two separate vans, both with windows that had been boarded up completely to hide the interior from passing cars. The vans got back on the road, and this is when the panic truly began to set in. The children were terrified, hungry, and still dressed in only their wet swimsuits.
The atmosphere was becoming increasingly terrifying, but the older children stepped in to try and calm down the younger ones and make the trip easier. They began singing If You're Happy and You Know It in a desperate bid to distract them from what was happening.
An 11-Hour Journey
The two groups of children sat anxiously in both vans for a total of eleven hours. After what felt like forever, the vehicles came to a stop, and the doors were thrown open. The fresh air was a relief, but unfortunately for the exhausted, teary-eyed children, their ordeal was far from over.
Ed was the first one to be taken out of the van, and as he looked around, he saw that they had been taken to a rock quarry. And if that wasn’t enough, the men were pointing them toward a hole in the ground with a ladder sticking out of the top. Ed and the now screaming children were forced into the hole at gunpoint.
And so 27 people, plus the three armed kidnappers, descended down into the hole in the earth. As they reached the bottom, Ed found himself looking at the inside of a truck trailer. Somehow these men had submerged it more than 12 feet below the ground, effectively a prison in the earth.
He knew that there was no way to escape, and the thought filled him with an even deeper sense of terror than before. There was only one way in, and one way out. And they were otherwise surrounded by metal walls and compacted soil in every direction. What was going on?
Soon enough, every child had been shuttled down into the metal container, officially prisoners of the three criminals. Slowly the men went to every child to take down their personal details, including their names, home addresses, and phone numbers. They even demanded a single piece of clothing from each child.
Once they had everything they needed, they returned to the top of the ladder, pulling it up behind them. They then went to great extremes to ensure that Ed and the children couldn’t escape by pulling a heavy metal plate and two car batteries over the hole to seal them off completely.
Down in the hole, Ed and the children heard the sound of a car starting up and driving away, and then nothing. The van was gone, and they were sitting so far beneath the earth that there was no chance of anyone even hearing their screams - let alone any of them being able to escape.
Though things were not looking good, the bus driver did what he could to reassure the children. He knew now that the men had taken them as ransom, which meant that if they pulled off their plan, no one would be hurt. For now, it was the only hope they had of escaping this hole in the earth.
Panic Sets In
The kidnappers weren’t completely cruel - they had left the children and their bus driver with a supply of food and drink. But within a few hours, all of it had been demolished. There were two fans installed in the metal trailer too, so there was enough ventilation to keep the space breathable.
But that didn’t mean it was bearable. Once the food and water ran out, the panic came out in full force. Ed and the children were all exhausted and dehydrated, and if that wasn’t bad enough, several holes had been dug to be used as ‘makeshift toilets,’ and those holes were almost full. Ed knew their time was running out.
Back In Chowchilla
But what about the parents and teachers back in Chowchilla? Naturally, they noticed the disappearance of their children within the hour, and they quickly descended into panic. Word began to spread through the town until, eventually, the majority of residents were searching for answers.
By the time Ed and the children had arrived at the rock quarry, the police had already found the abandoned school bus. They were tipped off by a local at 7:30 p.m. that night, and an investigation was launched immediately. The bus was scoured for clues, and the separate set of tire tracks from the two vans were also identified.
Bringing In Help
The police began to piece together what little information they had. They realized there was a good chance that the children were still alive, and it was more than likely that they were dealing with a kidnapping case on a large scale. They informed the parents of a possible ransom request in the very near future.
But they weren’t content to just sit around and wait for the kidnappers to reach out. The disappearance of 26 children was unprecedented. They needed as many resources as they could muster. So the Chowchilla police chiefs called in the federal forces, and by the next day, 30 FBI agents had landed in the small California town.
The Request Comes In
Just as the police had suspected, the criminal trio had one last step to take in their nefarious plan. Once they had returned to their hideout far from the quarry, they had to sit back and make their final demand - that the parents of their hostages pay a whopping $5 million for the return of their children.
If only it had been that easy. The men tried to call the Chowchilla police department three times with no luck. The line was busy, no doubt because of the panic and uproar that was going on in the town. They decided to try again the next day, confident that the children could wait another 12 hours. Somehow, they chose to sleep on it.
Running Out Of Time
The criminals were sleeping soundly, but the same could not be said for Ed and the 26 kidnapped children that had been left in his care. Though some children began to drift off, many were still crying loudly. They may not have realized it, but every tearful outburst was taking away the little oxygen that still remained.
But that wasn’t their only problem. Ed and Mike Marshall, the oldest child in the container, could see that the roof of the tinny metal trailer was beginning to buckle under the weight of countless tons of soil. Dust was slowly seeping into the cracks. They were surrounded by danger on all sides.
A Possible Escape
Mike and Ed began to discuss the possibility of their escape. Ed believed that the kidnappers were just above the hole, ready to force them back down if they tried to escape. But Mike disagreed and urged Ed to understand that if they wanted to save themselves and the children, they had to take the risk.
After all, the pair had correctly ascertained that if they stayed inside the underground trailer, their chances of survival were slim. Even if the trio were outside, they had a better chance of fighting them off than they did of surviving the dangerous conditions underground.
Hatching a Plan
So Mike and Ed began to build an escape plan based on the circumstances around them. It was clear that their only way out was through the hole they had entered through. It had to be their top priority to reach that hole, no matter what. And after looking around the container, Ed had a plan.
There were several dirty mattresses that had been left for them to sleep on, so the pair began piling the mattresses on top of each other. This allowed Mike to climb on top of them and reach the opening of the hole. With a piece of wood from a broken bed frame, he was able to hit the top of the entrance.
Unfortunately for Mike, Ed, and all of the traumatized children below ground, the hatch was immoveable. After all, they had no idea that there were 2 100-pound car batteries on top of the opening. He spent hours prodding, pushing and bashing the ceiling to no avail.
Just as the boy was getting ready to give up, an opening appeared at the top of the hole. While he felt a wave of relief, there was still a wooden box covering the area. He continued to hit at the box until, eventually, he could force the wooden slat up and through the soil. And what he saw above the soil beggared belief.
The Perfect Getaway
As Mike pulled himself up through the hole, he expected to be met by the three men who had taken them all hostage. But instead, there was no one there. They had left. This meant that if they could get every child out of the underground prison, there was a good chance they would be able to reach safety.
The teenager wasted no time, and he helped to pull each child through the hole as they climbed up onto the mattress pile. Eventually, every child had emerged into the sunlight, shaken, disheveled, but otherwise unharmed. Every single one of them had escaped after 16 hours trapped beneath the earth.
Despite the massive sense of relief that they all felt, they weren’t out of the woods just yet. Ed knew that the kidnappers could return at any time - they needed to get out of the area and find help as quickly as they could. So in one large group, the victims began to move through the quarry.
They soon came upon a group of construction workers, who were dismayed by the sight of two dozen+ sweaty and scared young children. Ed was just about to explain their situation and ask for help when one of the men interrupted him. "The world's been looking for you," he said. They were finally safe.
Questions Upon Question
In no time at all, the police swarmed all over the site, uplifting the children who were still shellshocked by the harrowing 27-hour ordeal. They were returned to their home as quickly as possible, but the hunt for their kidnappers did not cease. In fact, now that the children were safe, the search for the men became more intense.
The first thing they did was to take Ed in for questioning. Though they had no suspicions he was involved, they thought the bus driver might have useful information that would help them to identify the criminals. By using hypnosis, Ed was able to recall a license plate number from one of the vans!
Chasing a Lead
The number was an invaluable piece of information, as they were able to use their own system to go through all of the license plate numbers in the area. Sure enough, they found the number that Ed had given them. They were registered to a vehicle in a San Jose rental warehouse, which had recently been leased by one Frederick Woods.
Not only did the license plate number match up, but Frederick Woods was the owner of another rock quarry in the area. They set off to investigate the quarry and the Woods home. To their disbelief, they found a very telling clue soon after arriving at the house.
On Their Case
Inside Frederick Woods' home, he had left an unbelievably incriminating piece of evidence - a draft of a ransom note lying on the floor. The police were on the right track, now, they just had to confirm who had written it. After exploring the quarry and asking around about Frederick, they found their next clue.
It turned out that Frederick Woods had a son, Fred Woods IV, who had just recently packed up and left the town for no clear reason. No one could find him, and when the police tried to get in touch with his closest friends, Richard and James Schoenfeld, they found out that they had also disappeared.
Making The Arrest
The police acted decisively, letting the public know that the three missing men were wanted for the mass kidnapping. In no time at all, the entire country was looking out for the three suspects. After only one week of searching, Richard Schoenfeld turned himself in, confirming the police's suspicions.
Though James and Fred were still missing, the police eventually received a tip-off from a resident in Menlo Park. He had seen James Schoenfeld, and soon enough, he was tracked down by the police. Not long after, Fred was found hiding out in British Columbia. Finally, the criminals had been captured.
Loophole In The System
The act was so audacious - and called for such a large amount of money - that the public was shocked to discover that all three men came from comfortable backgrounds and wealthy families. This also brought up the very real possibility that the men would be let off due to their family connections.
At first, the men were sentenced to life in jail for the crime, all without the possibility of parole. Unbelievably, the men (and their families) had enough friends in high places that they were able to have the case thrown out, and a new judge re-evaluated the case, giving them a shot at parole this time around.
An Early Release
Throughout their time in prison, Richard and James kept their heads down and worked to live peacefully for the next four decades. In 2013, Richard was released for good behavior, and his brother James followed in 2015. The Schoenfelds were 77 and 82 years old when they left prison, respectively.
But the same could not be said for their fellow accomplice, Fred Woods. By October 2019, Woods asked to be granted parole for the nineteenth time. His parole officers considered him too insincere, showing little signs of regret for the crime. But in the eyes of their victims, even two of them being released is two too many.
A Shared Trauma
In recent years the grown-up victims of the kidnapping were interviewed by Inside Edition about that fateful day. Many of them explained that even today, they are still living with debilitating long-term effects caused by the trauma of the kidnapping. These symptoms include anxiety, claustrophobia, paranoia, and panic attacks.
For these people who are still haunted by the incident, the release of the two men is a bitter pill to swallow. As both parole announcements were made, it only forced them to relive those moments all over again. And according to their Inside Edition interview, the remaining trauma is something that they all share.
History In The Making
And the kidnapping still hasn't been forgotten. To date, it is 'the biggest mass abduction in US history.' And though the story ended on a somewhat happy note, things could have ended up very differently. Thanks to the bravery of people like Ed and Mike, everyone came out unscathed - at least physically.
It’s frightening to think about what would have happened if Mike Marshall had given up or if Frank “Ed” Ray hadn’t been there to hatch an escape plan. And though the story is rarely ever in the headlines these days, the scars will always remain in the hearts of those who experienced it.