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The Chowchilla Investigation
The Parents Wept
The parents wept as the bus doors opened and the children, sleepy and dirty, some wrapped in blankets, became visible. Mike was the last one out. As he and his mother embraced, he said he just wanted to get home to bed. This was the most bizarre kidnapping in history and it sparked the biggest manhunt ever mounted in California. The Alameda County Sheriff’s Department exhumed the prison that held the children. It turned out to be a removal van, traceable to a firm in Palo Alto. They had sold it for cash on November 20, 1975, to a Fred Woods of Portol Valley, a wealthy community south of San Francisco. The owner of California Rock and Gravel was Wood’s father.
Three Men Dug A Hole With a Bulldozer
A guard had noticed that three men were digging a large hole with a bulldozer. They checked the records of the security guards at the quarry. Apparently Woods and two other men at spent a lot of time there in the evenings of November and December. A warrant to search his residence was obtained. He lived on a sprawling family estate in a private cottage. Deputies found the draft of a ransom note demanding five million dollars, with instructions for dropping it from the air in a mountainous area south of San Francisco.
The list on a paper bag of Ray and the children’s names was also found. Other evidence led them to a San Jose warehouse where space was rented in Wood’s name for the two kidnap vans. More evidence found led to the arrest of James Schoenfeld, 24, and his brother Richard,22, sons of a Menlo Park chiropodist, which connected them with the crime.
A week after the kidnapping, an alert for the three suspects went out. The next day, Richard Schoenfeld, accompanied by his father and his lawyer, surrendered to the authorities. Early on July 29, his brother James was arrested. Later that day Woods was arrested at the post office in Vancouver, after the FBI informed the Canadian police that he would be picking up a parcel. He was escorted to the border and turned over to US authorities.
The background and personalities of the three suspects don’t seem to fit with this sort of crime. Apart from being involved in the use of a car without the owner’s permissions, the three had no police record. Woods and James Schoenfeld were partners in a successful car restoration business. He came from a wealthy and respected family. What they needed this vast sum of money for could not be determined. With the lives of 26 children at stake, there seems little question that the kidnappers would have obtained their ransom from government or private sources.
Why Chowchilla? Some investigators believe that several small towns in central California had been selected as likely prospects for such a kidnapping. Or was there more to it? Could that note have been left as a false lead, was the bus chosen because there were nineteen young girls on board and only five boys. Was this perhaps a kidnapping, with the intention of using these kids for child trafficking, as they said the culprits did not seem to fit this sort of crime. Five million, five people, who was the other two? And was the money expected from the sale of the children? There was only food left for one day. Were they intending to bring more food, or did they escape just in time and there might have been plans to move them again that night. Surely they did not expect the money to be paid immediately, would there not have been some negotiations.
One fact about this story I find strange. What was Frederick Woods doing in Canada? What was in the parcel he was supposed to have received from the post office? Was there somebody else involved, perhaps living in Canada, the main organizers? Just wondering! The emotional upheaval caused by the crime has not ended. It still continues to disturb lives. To many parents, there are still unanswered questions. How did the kidnappers know about the only site in the area that could conceal a bus?
The Men Are Sentenced
Many of the parents had nightmares about the safety of their children, and several of the children were afraid and nervous to be left alone. Their sense of security had been destroyed. Many parents were seized with panic if their child was not home by an agreed time. While the children went missing the parents realized more than ever how precious a child is.
The three men were given life terms for kidnapping twenty six children and their bus driver. Richard Schoenfeld was released in 2012 and his brother released on parole in 2015. Nearly 40 years after he was sentenced, Frederick Woods was denied parole again in 2015 and can apply again in three years time.
© 2017 Anita Hasch