After 17 unsuccessful attempts, a California man who kidnapped 26 children on a school bus in 1976 was recommended for parole.
When Frederick Newhall Woods and two other gunmen hijacked the school bus in Chowchilla, California, it was considered the largest hijacking in US history.
After hijacking the bus returning from a summer field trip at the Chowchilla Fairgrounds swimming pool, Woods and friends James and Richard Schoenfeld took the 26 children and their driver in vans and drove them 12 hours away in the dark to a location where , CBS News reported that they were being held captive in a truck trailer underground.
Woods and the Schoenfelds wanted a $5 million ransom for the children’s safe return to their families, but their plan quickly went awry. First, blocked phone lines meant the kidnappers couldn’t communicate their ransom demands. Then, after about 16 hours, bus driver Ed Ray and some of the group’s older children dug out of the trailer while the kidnappers slept and took the group to safety.
Now Woods, who was 24 when he committed the kidnapping, is one step closer to getting out of prison. Although he was recommended for parole, Gov Gavin Newsom will have the opportunity to refer the case to the full Parole Board for review if he so chooses. He cannot unilaterally reverse the parole decision because Woods was not convicted of murder.
For the victims of the 1976 kidnapping, the possibility of Woods being released from prison is complicated. Several survivors support Woods’ parole, while others oppose it.
Although none of the victims of the kidnapping suffered life-threatening physical injuries, the psychological impact of being taken hostage at gunpoint and then being held underground for nearly 20 hours was staggering for many.
“I’m 50 years old and I can have an anxiety attack when I get in the car with my husband,” said survivor Jennifer Brown Hyde FoxNews earlier this year. Another survivor, Darla Neal, told CNN in 2015 that she was struggling with debilitating anxiety so much that she “had to leave work.” She said.
“I tell myself I should be able to shake that off and deal with it,” Ms. Neal said. “Nevertheless, here I am, a mess.”
The kidnapping, which was the subject of massive media attention in its day, has resurfaced in popular culture in recent years through CBS and Fox television specials.
The three men were arrested in the weeks following the kidnapping and were initially sentenced to life in prison without parole, but an appeals court later reversed the sentences to make the trio eligible for parole. Richard Schoenfeld was paroled in 2015; James was paroled three years later.
Woods, now 70, is the only member of the kidnapping group still incarcerated at this time. At a parole hearing held online last week because of Covid-19 safety precautions and which included testimony from several survivors, Woods said he was a changed man.
“I was 24 years old,” he said. “Now I fully understand the terror and trauma I caused. I take full responsibility for this heinous act.”
Woods has spent most of his life in prison, where his disciplinary record reportedly includes subpoenas for operating an unauthorized gold mine, car dealership and Christmas tree farm. However, he has not faced disciplinary action since his last parole hearing in 2019, according to his attorney.
Woods is an unusual prisoner in another way: He is believed to have inherited a vast sum of money from his wealthy parents, which a court filing puts at around $100 million. It’s possible the money helped fund some of Wood’s prison activities. During his incarceration he married three times and bought a mansion nearby.
Despite their families’ considerable wealth, James Schoenfeld told CBS that he and Woods were heavily in debt at the time of the kidnapping and that the crime was financially motivated.
“It took us multiple victims to get multiple millions, and we chose children because children are valuable,” Schoenfeld said. “The state would be willing to pay ransom for them. And they don’t fight back. You are vulnerable. They will object.”
While James and Richard Schoenfeld have had parole board success over the past decade, Woods — despite his many attempts — has had no success until this year. CBS reported that at previous parole hearings he was “evasive, unable or unwilling to follow prison rules and failing[ed] to recognize the seriousness of his crime”.
Over the years, there have been other disturbing reports about Woods. For one, he kept the two vans he and the Schoenfelds used to transport the children and their driver to Livermore, California, in the expectation that publicity about their crime would make the bus increasingly valuable.
Now, after almost half a century behind bars, he is on the verge of freedom.