On July 15, 1976, a school bus full of 26 children went missing from the small town of Chowchilla, CA. “Most people can tell you exactly where they were when the bus and all those children disappeared. In the way of small towns, the connections to that dark moment are personal.”
At 4:00 pm on that July afternoon, school bus driver Frank Edward “Ed” Ray was driving 26 students, ranging from five to fourteen years old, home from Dairyland Elementary School. It was during Ed’s routine route that they approached a van blocking the road ahead.
Ed immediately noticed the hood of the vehicle was propped up, so he slowed down to see if someone was in distress. It was at this point when three gunmen with pantyhose covering their faces jumped out and boarded the school bus. The three gunmen that ambushed the bus were 24-year-old Frederick Newhall Woods, 24-year-old James Schoenfeld, and James’s brother, Richard Schoenfeld, aged 22.
Frederick, James, and Richard forced Ed and the children to the back of the bus. One of the gunmen began to drive the bus, while another followed closely behind them in the van. During the journey to their next location, it was said that one of the youngest students on the bus, 5-year-old Monica Ardery, asked one of the gunmen if they were the Easter Bunny – referencing the legs from the pantyhose that were hanging down on either side of his head, resembling bunny ears.
The gunmen drove the bus through a bamboo field and reached a spot where another van was waiting to collect them. The children were then split into two groups: One group would be sent with the new van, while the other group (along with Ed) were forced into the van that had been following the bus. Both vans were outfitted with black painted windows and wood paneling in the interior. The children were instructed to jump directly from the bus into the vans, as to not leave any footprints.
The children were transported for a total of 11 hours, spanning over 100 miles in 100+ degree temperatures. They were never given bathroom breaks, food, or water. Instead, they had to endure these conditions until their destination: Livermore Quarry.
During this 11-hour trek, Ed did his best to remain calm and levelheaded. He tried to encourage the children to do so as well by singing songs like, “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “Boogie Nights,” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands.” Though, he had modified the lyrics to, “if you’re sad and you know it…”.
Meanwhile, as word of the disappearance started to spread, search parties began combing through the small town looking for any trace of the bus or its students. Many people were horrified, as their thoughts immediately ran to the current high-profile cases of Charles Manson and the Zodiac Killer who remained at-large. During an aerial search, police spotted the abandoned school bus in the bamboo field. Unfortunately, the bus did not lend any helpful information as to where the students and Ed were currently being held, but police could determine that another vehicle had arrived at the because of the tire marks left behind.
The gunmen, Ed, and the children in the vans arrived at Livermore Quarry at 3:30am. The backdoors of the vans were opened while the gunmen pulled out one child at a time and shut the doors once more. The kidnappers forced each child to provide their name and one piece of clothing, eventually sending them down a ladder into a buried moving van. This moving van was buried in the quarry one month prior to the abduction, and contained mattresses, water, cereal, and peanut butter. It also housed several boxes with holes cut into them to use as makeshift toilets.
Once Ed and the 26 children were inside the buried van, the three gunmen removed the ladder and placed a manhole cover over the entrance. They then set two tractor batteries on top of the manhole cover so that it could not be lifted or moved. And finally, they threw dirt over the roof of the van – burying Ed and the children under 6 feet of soil.
As they all sat there in the dark, paralyzed by fear and the unknown, the unthinkable started to happen. The roof of the moving van began to creak and moan, sounding like it might cave in. Ed bravely told the children, “If we are going to die, we are going to die trying to get out of here.”
Ed and student Michael Marshall stacked the mattresses on top of one another, attempting to move the manhole cover. They quickly realized it would not budge so easily. Despite this, Ed, Michael, and the other students would not lose hope. They spent the next few hours trying to move the cover, pouring water over the heads to fight off heat exhaustion, and listening to their classmates shout words of encouragement – when finally, they saw the cover begin to move.
One by one, they started hoisting each other out of the hole and into the sunlight.
While Ed and the children were making their heroic escape, all three of the kidnappers were taking a nap. The gunmen learned that their hostages were free and safe by seeing reports on the local news.
Frederick Woods was the son of a very wealthy landowner who happened to own Livermore Quarry, where the children were buried, and a 100-acre Portola Valley estate. Richard and James Schoenfeld were also the sons of a wealthy Menlo Park podiatrist. The gunmen were hoping to use Ed and the children to receive a 5-million-dollar ransom. James later stated that despite coming from seemingly financially sound families, both he and Woods were drowning in debt: “We needed multiple victims to get multiple millions, and we picked children because children are precious. The state would be willing to pay ransom for them. And they don’t fight back. They’re vulnerable. They will mind.”
Despite their motivations, James, Frederick, and Richard were never able to call police to demand their ransom. The phone lines at the stations were tied up with desperate calls from parents and an entire community searching for Ed and the 26 missing children.
Richard turned himself into the authorities while James and Fred fled California altogether, though they were eventually caught. All three gunmen pleaded guilty to 27 counts of kidnapping for ransom and robbery. They were also charged with 8 counts of bodily harm but refused to plead guilty for that charge as a conviction on that count in conjunction with the kidnapping charges carried a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. They were, however, tried on the bodily harm charges and found guilty. Consequently, they were all given the mandatory sentence.
Even still, their convictions were overturned by an appellate court, which found that physical injuries sustained by the children (primarily cuts and bruises) did not meet the standard for bodily harm under the law. They were re-sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.
Richard Schoenfeld was released in 2012, and James Schoenfeld was paroled on August 7, 2015.
In October 2019, Frederick Woods was denied parole for the 19th time; his next parole hearing is set for 2024.
Meanwhile, Ed went on to receive a California School Employees Association certification for outstanding community service. Additionally, February 26th has been declared Edward Ray Day in Chowchilla. Ed also purchased the school bus he drove in 1976 for $500 as a memento and because he didn’t want to see it turned into scrap iron. Ed has since passed away in 2012 at the age of 91.
Special thanks to our new contributor, Mariya Hamilton, for all the hard work she put into researching and writing this fascinating true crime story for us.