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One of the three men who kidnapped a busload of Chowchilla schoolchildren in 1976 and buried them in a quarry in Livermore has been released from state prison after serving more than 35 years behind bars. Richard Schoenfeld, 57, was released to an undisclosed location from the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo on Wednesday night, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Luis Patino said. A state parole panel last year upheld a previous ruling that granted parole to Schoenfeld, but set a release date of November 2021.
However, the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco ruled in March that he must be released immediately. State prosecutors appealed that ruling, but on Thursday, the California Supreme Court declined to review the matter, paving the way for Schoenfeld’s release. Schoenfeld, his brother James, and Frederick Woods were in their early- to mid-20s when they ambushed a busload of schoolchildren from Dairyland Union School in Chowchilla, a small farm community about 35 miles northwest of Fresno in Madera County, on July 15, 1976.
The men left the bus camouflaged in a creek bed and drove the children and bus driver, Ed Ray, to the California Rock and Gravel Quarry in Livermore. They sealed their victims in a large van that had been buried in a cave at the quarry and fitted to keep the children and driver hostage. The kidnappers, all from wealthy families in the Peninsula communities of Atherton and Portola Valley, then demanded a $5 million ransom for the return of the group. The hostages escaped from the buried van a little more than a day after they were first kidnapped when Ray and the two oldest children piled mattresses to the top of the van and forced their way out.
The three men received life sentences after pleading guilty in Alameda County Superior Court in 1977 to 27 counts of kidnapping for ransom. But an appellate court ruled in 1980 that they were eligible for parole, finding that the victims didn’t suffer any bodily harm. Richard Schoenfeld was denied parole more than 20 times, but in October 2008, a parole panel ruled that he was suitable for release. However, the panel didn’t set a release date for him. But in August 2009, a second panel decided against granting parole to Schoenfeld, saying that a third panel should consider whether granting parole would be “improvident.” On April 5, 2011, the third panel held a hearing on the matter at the California Men’s Colony, where all three kidnappers have been held, and it ruled that parole would be appropriate for Schoenfeld.
But the panel said that, based on its calculations, Schoenfeld shouldn’t be released until November 2021. However, the First District Court of Appeal said the parole panel erred because it violated its own rules and lacked authority to increase Schoenfeld’s sentence after finding him suitable for parole. Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jill Klinge, who has attended parole hearings in recent years for all three kidnappers, couldn’t be reached for comment today.
At Richard Schoenfeld’s hearing last year, Klinge said she didn’t think he was eligible for parole, in part because of his participation in a scheme in which inmates falsified their prison work time cards in an effort to get more pay and another incident in which he used a computer without authorization. She also said she thinks Schoenfeld “has a propensity to be a follower.” Klinge said earlier this week that the victims in the case “are still affected by the kidnapping on a daily basis.” She said many of the victims still have difficulty sleeping and some of them have led troubled lives. Woods and James Schoenfeld haven’t yet been found suitable for parole but will have parole hearings later this year.
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