Chowchilla bus kidnapper could be freed within year

Appeals court says youngest of kidnapping trio must be released

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comMarch 2, 2012 

Correction: Because of a reporting error, in a story about the Chowchilla bus kidnappings which ran March 2, the three kidnappers were improperly identified as brothers. Richard and James Schoenfeld are brothers. Frederick Woods was their friend. The Sun-Star strives for accuracy and we regret the error.

The youngest of the three Chowchilla kidnappers who buried a school bus full of students and a driver trying to collect ransom money more than 34 years ago could make parole from state prison within the year.

The horrific incident made Chowchilla the focus of international and national coverage and is still remembered vividly by local residents.

Reacting to the news, victim Jodi Medrano said, "I'm not really happy about it but there is not much I can do now. I think it is wrong."

"The Court of Appeals has determined that Richard has been punished enough," said Scott D. Handleman, lawyer for Richard Schoenfeld. "I don't want to minimize the suffering of the victims, but it's past due for Richard to come home."

The 1st District Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled Tuesday that the state parole board violated its own rules when the board found that Schoenfeld posed no threat to society but set his parole date for 2021.

In a 3-0 decision, written by Justice Robert Dondero, the court said Scho- enfeld, now in his late 50s, had completed his sentence and must be released on parole immediately, unless an appeal is filed.

If the board appeals, the case would go to the state Supreme Court, which would have up to four months to consider whether to hear the case.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation declined to say whether its parole board will file an appeal.

"The Board of Parole Hearings is analyzing the 1st Appellate District judge's ruling and is working with their legal team to determine what steps they should take next," said Luis Patino, spokesman for the CDCR.

Schoenfeld was 23 years old when he, his older brother James Schoenfeld and Frederick Woods, put on nylon masks and held a bus of 26 schoolchildren and a bus driver at gunpoint.

The three men then put the victims into several vans, drove the victims around for 11 hours and stopped at a quarry in Livermore where the 27 hostages were forced one by one into a hole in the ground that connected to a buried moving van.

Bus driver Ed Ray and several of the older children were able to stack and stand on 14 mattresses that were in the van in an effort to reach a covered opening at the top of the truck. Ray and the boys pushed open a metal lid, which was covered with two 100-pound industrial batteries, cleared away some debris, and the victims were freed after 16 hours underground.

A year later in 1977, all three defendants pleaded guilty to 27 counts of kidnapping for ransom and were sentenced to life without parole.

However, a few years later the court reversed its decision and granted all three eligibility for parole, based on the fact none of the victims experienced physical harm.

In 2008, after 20 parole hearings, the state parole board found Schoenfeld was "suitable for release and would not pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society or a threat to public safety if released from prison."

The parole board's decision was based on Schoenfeld's admirable conduct in prison, his strong family and community support and his realistic plan if paroled, according to court documents.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached (209) 385-2486 or

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