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The Chowchilla Kidnapping And Escape. Part 1

Updated on December 29, 2017
Anita Hasch profile image

I live on a homestead in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Writing and reading are my passion.

The School Bus Gets Hijacked

Ray, the bus driver of the local school, turned onto Avenue 21, about twenty minutes after dropping the first five children. He noticed a white van parked ahead with its open driver’s door extending across the white dividing line. He approached slowly, intending to drive around the door if there was no oncoming vehicle.

Suddenly a man, wearing a stocking mask and carrying a pistol in one hand and a sawn off shotgun in the other, leaped out and blocked the path of the bus. Amazed and shocked Ray braked to avoid him. The man stepped swiftly to his window and told him to open the door. Ray had no option but to obey.


The Children Get Loaded Into A Van

Two other stocking masked men appeared from the van and followed the gunman aboard the bus. The gunman told Ray to get into the back of the bus. He then directed the children to move up front. An accomplice drove the bus, wearing gloves. The white van followed. The bus drove four or five hundred meters along the road, then moved down a rough incline into the dry river bed. A green van was parked in the river bed. Reversing to the door of the bus with its doors open, the gunman told the children to move straight from the bus steps onto the back of the white van. Twelve children were loaded into the van. The rear doors were locked and it pulled away, and was replaced by the green van. Then Ray and the other fourteen youngsters were told to get in.

The Children Screamed For Their Mothers

As the vans drove off, the younger children sobbed and screamed for their mothers. The interiors were black and dark as the windows in the cargo sections had been painted black. They could not see the driver or the road. As the hours passed, the interior became hot and stifling, a few of the girls fainted. Ray was heartbroken by the children’s fear and panic. They kept asking when they were going home. He kept telling them that they will be home soon, although he didn’t believe his own assurances. He was stricken with anxiety about the kidnapper’s intentions. The children were begging for water and the use of a toilet, but there was no response from the front.

They stopped twice to fill up the tanks. The sound of petrol being poured into the tanks could be heard, but they were using petrol cans and were not at a petrol station. By midnight, most of the children were slee!ping or dozing, despite the heat, and cramped quarters.

Ray remained awake. At about 1.30 am, he felt the van leave the tarred road and bounce and sway as it moved along at reduced speed. Then the vehicle stopped and the rear doors of the green van opened. Edward Ray stepped to the ground, blinking in the glare of a torch beam. He was in a kind of tent like structure, erected to conceal the kidnappers’ lights and activities.

They Were Told To Descend The Ladder

A masked man asked his name and age, and instructed him to remove his trousers and boots. Then he was forced to climb down a manhole size opening with a ladder. He carefully climbed down about 2,5 meters until his feet hit a floor. The kidnapper then called the children out of the van. The two vans slowly emptied.

Each child’s name and age was written down before they were directed to descend the ladder. Some were crying for their parents. When the children were in their prison, the kidnappers pulled up the ladder. Ray heard them seal the entry.

Edward Ray slowly moved the beam of the torch around the enclosure. It looked like they were inside a trailer. There was wire mesh covering the ceiling and sides. The length was approximately eight meters long, 2.5 meters wide and 2,5 meters high. A small pile of food, boxes of dry cereal, loaves of bread, bags of potato chips, a jar of peanut butter and about a dozen large plastic jugs of water, had been placed on one side.

The School Was Situated in Flat Farmland

At 5.10 pm of July 15, 1976 Carol grew uneasy that the bus that transported her 14 year old son Mike had not yet arrived from school. The Dairyland School was situated in flat farmland about 11 kilometers south of Chowchilla, California. She phoned the office of School Superintendent and was told by his secretary that Mike had left with the school bus. The bus seems to have had some mechanical failure and somebody had been send to check the route and be of assistance.

Carol sensed that something was seriously wrong. Could there have been an accident? She decided to go and check for herself. Madera County Sheriff Ed Bates had put out a country-wide alert for the bus. Not that he was worried, as a late bus incident on a rural route was not unique. On such a hot day, the bus could have had radiator or water-hose trouble or even a flat tire. Many cars and pick-ups were moving slowly along the route, hoping to glimpse the bus or the children.


A Pilot Reported

Then Tatom received a call from a pilot who reported seeing a school bus in a dry riverbed about eight kilometers south west of the town. Sheriff Bates raced to the spot and found the empty bus. The river bed depth and a four meter clump of bamboo had concealed the vehicle. Walking through the bus, Bates picked up a few children’s swimming costumes, some books and notebooks. Outside he could not find a single footprint, although he did discover two sets of tire tracks that did not belong to the bus.

The driver, 55 year old Edward Ray, had a clean record for honesty and reliability. In addition to driving the bus, he farmed in the area. The bus carried 26 children from five to fourteen years of age, nineteen girls and seven boys. Who would do such a thing? And why was this central Californian town of 4,550 mostly middle income residents targeted. Bates drove to the Chowchilla police station and called the FBI.

A Command Post Was Set Up

A command post was set up in the police and fire station and 300 residents and reporters were standing about, talking and waiting. Chowchillans were eager to help in this emergency. They were prepared and brought in food. Farnesi’s Restaurant, the largest in town, kept sending in boxes of food.

Down In Their Prison

Ray felt air coming through one of two pipes which projected through the roof and heard the sound of a fan at its far end. Mattresses and box beds occupied most of the floor space. Two portable toilets had been installed over the wheel wells. The children were so thirsty they drank the water and ate the food speedily. Some of the younger ones kept crying for their mothers. Ray and the older children were kept busy trying to reassure the younger ones.

The food was soon finished. After 12 hours only three containers of water was left. The children would begin to dehydrate when there was no more water to drink. Mike Marshall, at 14 the oldest child, was wondering how they could get out. He could hear the roof of the trailer creaking under the mass above it. It already had begun to cave in and a little earth had entered the trailer.

Mike moved to Ray and asked whether he thought they could escape. Ray said he had been considering it but was worried that one or more of the kidnappers were stationed on guard at the surface. It would be risky but the children couldn’t take much more. Just after four o’ clock in the afternoon, Ray told Mike that they should try to escape. They piled up enough mattresses to reach the roof. Standing on this rocking platform, Ray, then Mike, then Ray and Mike together, tried to push open the metal hatch, but it would not budge.

Trying To Escape

They kept on until they were drenched in sweat. Then Ray noticed a piece of wood wedged between the side and the roof of the van. He pulled it loose and then forced it between the lid and the hole. Slowly the lid lifted an inch, enough to insert his fingers, and he pulled the lid open several more centimeters. There was something heavy on top of the lid. He squeezed an arm through and touched two objects, truck batteries.

Ray managed to grasp a battery, it was more than 20 kilograms, and he pulled it towards him. With Mike’s help, he lowered it, then the other, to the floor of the trailer. He pushed the plate from the top and a faint beam of the torch revealed a plywood box about one meter square. He could not move the sides or the top of the box. He needed tools. Several children jumped on the edges of a box bed until the slats broke. Pieces of slat were used by Ray, Mike and Robert Gonzalez to pound a corner of the box. At last they made a small opening and some earth spilled through.

Cries of Triumph

Ray took a rest then returned to the platform where he, Mike and Robert, continued to remove the earth until at last they could see a beam of daylight through the hole. Cries of triumph came from all. Then they heaved themselves against the nailed top of the box and broke it loose. They looked around. Except for the opening, the entire trailer was buried under earth, with dead shrubs stuck into it for camouflage. Trees partially surrounded them. A few parked trucks could be seen in the distance. It was a little after seven o’clock in the evening.

Free At Last

Ray dropped back to the trailer floor and handed the children, the youngest ones first, up to Mike and Robert. He saw that they were in an enormous stone quarry, after they had moved out from a clump of trees.

In a large construction shed a welder was busy working. Ray ran the few hundred meters and shouted for help. The welder turned and lifted his face guard. He stared at the bus driver, without shoes, standing in his underpants, hair matted, faces streaked with dirt, leading a bunch of filthy, terrified children. Ray explained that they had been kidnapped and buried in the yard and asked him to phone the police.

The startled welder indicated that they must go into the shed. After he had phoned the police, Ray asked him where they were. He said they were in Livermore, a city which was one hundred and fifty kilometers North West of Chowchilla. The kidnappers had been driving around for hours, a trip that only took two and half hours to confuse their victims, and to wait for the workers at the quarry to leave.

Home At Last

Several police cars and a sheriff’s department bus arrived at the quarry within ten minutes. The children and Ray were taken to the county’s Santa Rita rehabilitation Centre, where they were checked by a doctor. After having a meal they were questioned by the FBI. The chartered bus carrying the children and Ray, arrived at the police station parking area at 4am on Saturday morning. A crowd of hundreds of people, parents, family and friends broke out in a long cheer of welcome.

© 2017 Anita Hasch


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    • Anita Hasch profile image

      Anita Hasch 10 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      Yes, I would hate to be in a confined space with so many small children when the water and food was finished. Can you imagine it.

    • profile image

      GalaxyRat 10 months ago

      Wow. I thought that at least the kids would survive for a while with all the food, but then, "they ate it all speedily", so I was like, "RAY GET THOSE KIDS OUTTA THERE!" I am not disappointed. Good job on writing this true story. :)

    • Anita Hasch profile image

      Anita Hasch 11 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      Yes, it is a strange, chilly and scary story. I think it should be told so parents can be aware of the danger to their kids in today's society. Maybe even more so when you read about the abductions in recent years.

    • Anita Hasch profile image

      Anita Hasch 11 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      I agree, and I think they had Mike, Johnny and the bus driver to thank. They did not panic and could think constructively. The older girls were also very brave to look after the smaller ones.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 11 months ago from South Africa

      What an awful experience! I am speechless! And so glad the children could escape.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 11 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      What a scary and chilling story. The fact that it describes a true incident makes it evening more frightening. I've never heard of the incident before. Thank you for sharing the facts, Anita.