In July 1976, a school bus with 26 children and their school bus driver, Ed Ray, was hijacked on a country road while returning from summer school, leading to the infamous Chowchilla Kidnapping, which is still considered one of the biggest mass kidnappings in US history.
CBS' 48 Hours features never-before-seen interviews with the Chowchilla kidnapping survivors in its episode titled Remembering the Chowchilla Kidnapping. The episode airs this Saturday, March 18, 2023, at 10 pm ET.
The hostages were held in an underground box truck prison in a rock quarry for nearly 16 hours before they made an escape.
An ensuing investigation revealed that three young individuals from wealthy San Francisco families, including the son of the same rock quarry owner, were involved in the kidnapping. They were all sentenced to life in prison until recently when the very last of them was granted parole.
Kidnapped at gunpoint, use of darkened vans, and 3 other things to know about The Chowchilla Kidnapping
1) The children and their bus driver were kidnapped at gunpoint by three masked men
On a summer day in July 1976, a Dairyland Elementary school bus filled with 26 children, ages five to 14, and their bus driver, Ed Ray, were kidnapped by three masked men at gunpoint while on their way home from summer camp.
Reports state that they had pantyhose pulled over their heads and while one was carrying a gun, the remaining two had sawed-off shotguns with them.
2) The kidnappers used darkened vans to transport the hostages
The three kidnappers allegedly used two closed and darkened vans to transport the 27 captives. They were placed inside the two vans after ditching the bus and driving for 11 hours in the sweltering heat, traveling over 100 kilometers.
No restrooms or water breaks were permitted for the victims. The bus was later found empty, hidden underneath bamboo and brush in a drainage ditch.
3) All 27 of them were held captive in an underground prison for nearly 16 hours
The Chowchilla kidnapping hostages were taken to a rock quarry nearly 100 miles away in Livermore, California, after an 11-hour drive, after which the kidnappers started taking out the victims one by one from the van. Survivor Jodi Heffington, who was only 10 years old at the time, described the incident, saying:
"They'd take the next kid out. And they would close the doors. But when they opened the doors, you don't see them. I thought they were basically killing us one at a time."
The kidnappers then placed them in a boxed truck trailer before attempting to bury them alive 12 feet below the surface. The survivors described it as an underground prison.
4) The Chowchilla kidnapping victims made a daring escape led by their bus driver Ed Ray
The bus driver and some of the older students concocted a plan to flee and bravely led all the captives in their daring escape. They stacked mattresses high enough to reach a metal plate in the roof, which was obstructed by a huge truck battery and dirt.
All the hostages dug their way through the dirt and fled the scene after being underground for nearly 16 hours.
5) The kidnappers were arrested about two weeks later
Nearly two weeks later, investigators located the kidnappers - Frederick Woods, 24, the son of the owner of the same rock quarry where the children were held captive, James Schoenfeld, 24, his business partner, and Richard Schoenfeld, James' younger brother.
According to CBS News, the three men were found guilty using documents found in their possession, including a paper that had a "plan" for the kidnapping, a rough draft of a ransom letter, a list of all the victims' identities, and their fingerprints.
They were initially sentenced to life in prison without parole, which was changed a few years after an appeals panel declared they were eligible for parole.
All three Chowchilla kidnappers are out on parole.