Buried Alive: The California School Bus Kidnappings of 1976
By Jake Rossen
It was late afternoon on July 15, 1976, when the man in the pantyhose mask climbed aboard the school bus.
Only moments before, the children of Dairyland Elementary in Chowchilla, California, had finished their second-to-last day of summer school. Few dreaded the obligation: Dairyland’s summer program was fun and full of activities like crafts and swimming at the community pool. Some of the kids were still wet from splashing around. Many wore their bathing suits. They had all boarded Dairyland Bus Number 1 and greeted the driver, Frank Edward Ray. Monica Ardery, 5, was the youngest. Mike Marshall, 14, was among the oldest. In between were kids from all different grades, 26 children in all.
As the man waved a gun and ushered Ray to the back of the bus, two other men in masks joined him. They said little other than to prompt the children to move from the front seats. As one man stood in the aisle, the legs of the pantyhose dangling from either side of his head, Ardery had no clue she and her schoolmates would be driven for 11 hours to a rock quarry, where they would be ordered to climb inside a moving van buried in the dirt. She couldn’t know what the men wanted, or how the older boy, Marshall, would act with a courage that belied his age to stifle what would soon be one of the largest mass kidnappings in the history of the United States.
All Ardery saw were those pantyhose legs, almost comical in their appearance. They reminded her of ears. Maybe, she thought, it was just the Easter Bunny.
Before their photos were plastered over newspapers around the country, brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld and their friend Fred Woods were no more or less than three men in their early-to-mid-20s who had come to a crossroads. They had become intertwined back in high school—James and Fred Woods had graduated within a year of one another. All came from wealthy families in the Bay Area. The Schoenfeld patriarch was a podiatrist. Fred Woods’s father owned real estate and various businesses, including California Rock and Gravel Quarry in Livermore, California.
Despite their familial wealth, none of the young men appeared comfortable with the trajectory of their lives. James Schoenfeld worked as a busboy to put himself through college. His father had given him money to buy a Jaguar, but he was unable to afford the insurance premiums for it and had to sell the car. The men tried to invest in real estate but wound up losing, by one estimate, $30,000. James owed Fred Woods money. Fred Woods owed a cousin money. Their attempts at autonomy—to financially support themselves—were failing. As James saw his neighbors accrue more possessions, he developed envy issues. He didn’t feel he could achieve financial prosperity without making an audacious move.
Earlier, the men had discussed getting into the film business. They had conceived of a screenplay about a “perfect” crime. At some point, they decided the idea would be more lucrative if they simply committed it for real.
Later, James recalled that he had read that the state of California was experiencing a billion-dollar surplus. He told himself that meant the state could spare $5 million if it guaranteed the safe return of several children. They plotted to intercept a school bus, using Woods’s father’s quarry as a place to contain their victims until the ransom was paid. Children were selected, James later recalled, because they would provide little resistance.
Frank Ray, who went by “Ed,” was a farmer who had been a part-time bus driver for 23 years. With his young passengers on board, he was driving down the narrow Avenue 21 in Chowchilla that afternoon of July 15, 1976, when his route was interrupted by a white van parked in the road with its hood up. At first, Ray thought he might be able to go around the van. Then he decided they might need help. Before he could make a decision, one of the men wearing a pantyhose mask and brandishing a gun demanded he open the bus doors. The gunmen then climbed on, ordering everyone to the back of the bus. They traveled for roughly 15 minutes before one of the men steered the bus into a thicket of tall bamboo, obscuring it. Ray and the kids were ordered off and marched to two vans nearby, the bus left behind.
The windows inside the vans had been blacked out, making it impossible for the children to know where they were going. All they knew was that the drive seemed interminable. An hour passed, then two, and then four. By the time the vans came to a stop, they had been driving for a total of 11 hours without any water or opportunity to use a bathroom. Older kids tried to console the younger ones by singing songs. “If you’re happy and you know it,” they sang, “clap your hands …”
If the kidnappers’ intent was to remain tight-lipped in order to keep the kids relatively calm, it worked. But once the children were led out of the vans and saw what was happening, several of them began to scream. One by one, they were led to a hole in the ground and ordered to descend a ladder. Below ground in the quarry was a moving van with an open hatch on top. It was buried in the Woods quarry so that the captives would be unable to pierce the metal walls of the cargo area and to keep it hidden from view. To the kids, however, it was nothing more than an oversized tomb.
The men demanded the names of the kids, along with their addresses, phone numbers, and a small article of clothing, like a piece of a shirt or, in Mike Marshall’s case, a cap. Under protest, they went inside, where they were confronted with mattresses and a paltry amount of food and water. When all of them, along with Ray, were inside, the men pulled up the ladder and dragged a steel plate over the opening, weighing it down with heavy tractor batteries. This was covered with plywood and dirt, which only added to the anxiety of the occupants.
Satisfied, Woods and the Schoenfelds drove away. It was 3:30 in the morning. The bus, which had long been overdue to make its final stop, had been reported missing. And the small town of Chowchilla was already in a panic.
The police were at a loss. Terrorism was mentioned, but Chowchilla, with its population of just 5000, seemed an unlikely target. The press reminded authorities that years prior, the Zodiac Killer in San Francisco had once threatened to kill a busload of schoolchildren. Without encouraging hysteria, the police said they were taking every possible scenario under consideration.
The empty school bus had been found around 7:30 p.m. the night of July 15, just hours after the kidnappers had intercepted it—a pilot canvassing the area had spotted it in the bamboo. Inside, police found no blood or any signs of foul play. Pieces of clothing were scattered on nearby roads, an apparent attempt to confuse anyone on their trail. From Friday night through Saturday, parents waited at home in a collective state of shock.
All the calls to police and to each other had jammed the local phone system. That proved problematic for the kidnappers, who had planned on phoning authorities with their demand for $5 million in ransom. Time after time, they tried making calls without any success. Satisfied the children weren’t going anywhere and tired from driving the 100 miles to Livermore and back to their hideout, they made a decision that would imperil their plans: They decided to take a long nap.
In the moving van, things were deteriorating. The kidnappers had put in air vents and fans to keep air circulating, but almost all of them had stopped working, leading to stifling conditions. The van reeked of urine. There was only enough food for one meal.
Ray did his best to maintain his position as an authority figure, consoling the kids and maintaining an upbeat attitude, but it was difficult. The dirt thrown on top of the moving van was heavy and the roof was beginning to sag. In the heat of a California summer, the inside of the van was easily 100 degrees or more. Ray had no way of knowing whether the kidnappers had designs on getting money and releasing them or letting them starve and develop heat exhaustion. As the hours passed, a positive resolution was looking less and less likely.
Like the others, Mike Marshall was tired, hungry, and scared. But he was also growing indifferent to the consequences of making an attempt to escape. Ray was initially hesitant. He feared one of the men had been left to stand guard and might become violent if confronted. But Marshall persisted, enlisting a friend—whose identity is unclear—to help stack mattresses near the hatch so they could climb up and reach it. Using a wooden slat from one of the box springs, Marshall started jamming it in the small space between the van and the steel plate covering the opening. When he had enough room for his fingers, he gripped the plate and kept shoving, dislodging the tractor batteries and the dirt as his friend and Ray helped. It took hours, but he was eventually able to dislodge the plate, the plywood, and the dirt, emerging out into the sunlight around 7:30 p.m. that Saturday. The children had been missing for 27 hours.
The kids climbed up the mattresses and began running with Ray toward an office in the quarry. Marshall ran into the woods, intentionally separating himself from the group in case they ran into the kidnappers and he needed to get help. Fortunately, the men had not bothered to leave anyone behind to guard the van. At the office, a man keeping abreast of the news knew who they were immediately.
“This world’s been looking for you,” he said.
Soon, parents went from the darkest day of their lives to the brightest. All 26 children and Ray were alive and largely uninjured. Their fear disappeared, replaced with a throbbing anger. They wanted the perpetrators.
Ray gave the police a terrific break. Under hypnosis, he was able to recall one of the license plates on the vans used to shuttle the victims to the quarry. He even remembered most of the plate number on the other van. Authorities matched the numbers to vans found in a San Jose warehouse that had been leased by Woods, whose father owned the quarry. A search of the Woods estate revealed a draft of a ransom note.
But the kidnappers were nowhere to be found: They had learned their plot was foiled when they woke up from their nap and heard radio reports about the escape. They took off. Soon, a national manhunt was on for Woods and the Schoenfelds, who were considered armed and dangerous.
Alarmed by the all-points bulletin announcing the search, Richard Schoenfeld decided to turn himself in after roughly a week. Days later, James Schoenfeld was arrested in Menlo Park after someone recognized him driving a van. Frank Woods was located in Vancouver, British Columbia. The ensuing coverage of their respective family wealth confounded parents and media.
All three men pled guilty to kidnapping for ransom as part of a deal to drop 18 counts of robbery. They maintained a plea of not guilty to charges of kidnapping with bodily harm and passed on a jury trial. Prosecutor David Minier convinced Superior Court Judge Leo Deegan that the crime carried with it bodily harm, since three of the children reported some combination of nausea, nosebleeds, and fainting. That charge carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. All three were found guilty. Each man received 27 such sentences, one for each of the kidnap victims.
For Ray and the parents of the victims, it appeared justice had been served. Their ordeal, after all, had not ended with the safe recovery of their children. For years—and in many cases, decades—afterward, the kids of Chowchilla experienced tremendous anxiety, including nightmares. They had been locked in a dark, urine-soaked metal box for 16 hours. While the town was jubilant, throwing a parade for Ray and accepting invitations for the children to head to Disneyland, it was obvious the incident would leave permanent marks. Life without parole was not a fate anyone in Chowchilla had a second thought about.
Then a curious thing happened. In 1980, an appeals court determined that the judge had been wrong to declare that the crime had included bodily harm. The nosebleed, fainting spell, and nausea didn't count. The kidnappers were still imprisoned for life, but the distinction meant they were eligible for parole. Each kidnapper was denied a release dozens of times. Then, in 2012, Richard Schoenfeld was released. His brother, James, followed in 2015. Both had unblemished behavior records while incarcerated. Only Frank Woods, who had gotten into some disciplinary trouble, remained inside.
“My client was 22 at the time, and the plan was never to hurt anyone,” Scott Handleman, Richard Schoenfeld’s attorney, told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “No one is condoning the crime, but to have taxpayers keep them in prison at this time is ludicrous. Vengeance is a luxury California can no longer afford.” Even former prosecutor Minier agreed, writing a letter encouraging the parole board to consider the release of Richard Schoenfeld in 2006. One of the lead detectives on the case, Dale Fore, dubbed them “dumb rich kids” who had “paid a hell of a price for what they did.” Fore, acting as a private detective for the Woods family, tried to get victims to write letters endorsing parole.
None agreed. In fact, they did just the opposite. In 2016, many of them signed up for a lawsuit accusing the two free men with false imprisonment and intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress, a civil action allowed by California law for 10 years following a release on parole. (In 2017, the lawsuit entered mediation: No public announcement of any resolution has appeared.) Richard and James Schoenfeld moved in with their 93-year-old mother, with Richard serving as her caregiver and James performing architectural drafting work, a skill he acquired in prison. Woods is due for another parole hearing on October 8, 2019.
In a sense, the Schoenfelds may have endured the consequences of their actions for less time than some of the children. Now adults, some have reported continued therapy, claustrophobia, sleeping with nightlights, or refusing to let their own children board school buses, remnants of a trauma they experienced more than 40 years ago.
Ray went back to work for the Dairyland Union School District just two months after the incident, driving Dairyland Bus Number 1, the same one that had been hijacked. Along with Marshall, he was the one primarily responsible for keeping the kids calm. Though he did not consider his actions heroic, he was celebrated by then-president Gerald Ford, who wrote a letter congratulating him on his courage. Ray passed away in 2012 at the age of 91. He had bought the bus from Chowchilla because he didn't want to see it sent to a junkyard. He later gave it to a neighbor, who keeps it indoors on his property, an enduring testament to 27 brave individuals as well as one of the most bizarre crimes ever recorded.
Marshall, interviewed intermittently over the years for various anniversaries, also never considered himself a hero. He was not, in fact, even supposed to be on the bus that day. His mother normally picked him up but forced him to take alternative transportation because she had caught him sneaking beers with a friend. The teenager who had helped avoid a tragedy picked Dairyland Bus Number 1 more or less at random.