I-Team

Parole hearing reveals new details about Chowchilla kidnapping

Thursday, November 29, 2012
, Chief Investigative Reporter
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A marathon parole hearing is exposing new details into a crime that shocked the nation -- the Chowchilla school bus kidnapping in 1976. Twenty-six children and their driver were buried alive until the plot unraveled. Wednesday night, the parole board at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo denied the release of one of the kidnappers. The I-Team's Dan Noyes was the only reporter there.

Fred Woods said greed drove him to kidnap the children for ransom. But the parole board believed he has not dealt with the issue during 36 years behind bars. The prime example -- Woods has been able to amass a collection of 60 cars, buying dozens from his cell at the Men's Colony. He's a rich man now, with family money in a trust fund.

Parole commissioners could not remember a longer hearing -- after seven hours at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo they refused to release Chowchilla kidnapper Fred Woods, now 61 years old.

Commissioners found that Woods continues to minimize his crime, despite therapy and self-help groups during 36 years in prison.

Woods downplayed the fear the schoolchildren felt after he and brothers Rick and Jim Schoenfeld hijacked the school bus in Chowchilla and loaded them into vans for the drive to Livermore.

"Some of those victims today may remember certain facts about the crime and harm to them differently, than what really happened," Woods said.

Woods said he saw none of the kids crying and that some were actually singing during the ordeal.

Victim Lynda Carrejo-Labendeira remembers it differently -- she was 10 years old at the time.

"We were crying, no one was singing, we were holding on to each other and wetting ourselves, we asked for food, we asked for our mommies, we asked for our daddies, we said, 'please sirs, please sirs, please,' all we got was a hard pounding on the van saying, 'shut up in there, be quiet,'" she said.

The kidnappers drove the kids, ages 5-14, and the bus driver to a quarry Woods' father owned and locked them in a buried moving van. Sixteen hours later, they were able to dig themselves out, before the kidnappers could deliver a ransom demand.

"You stated, and I wrote it down with quotations, 'We went into this crime not thinking there would be violence,'" California parole commissioner Jeff Ferguson said. "Your crime involved the abduction of children with guns and burying them in a box. That sounds like violence to me."

Under intense questioning, Woods revealed new details, including that the three kidnappers planned the crime for 1.5 years, that before deciding on Chowchilla, they staked out school buses in Rio Vista and Madera, and that they tried to hijack the same bus the day before, but the timing didn't work so they returned the following day.

It was also revealed that Jim Schoenfeld recorded a ransom demand on audiotape that was never used.

"Something like, 'We have your children, we want $5 million from the state Board of Education,' I believe was on there and 'We'll be in touch,'" Woods said.

Woods revealed he bankrolled the operation with his trucking business. He bought three used prison transport vans, along with the moving van that was buried and rented a warehouse in San Jose. He bought an x-ray machine to check the money once it was delivered, to detect any exploding die packs. And he hired a man to build a lead box in which to store the money and prevent any tracking devices from transmitting.

"The planning, the obtaining of the materials, the stalking of the buses, I could go on and on, this is the crime of the century, this is not stuff you see every day," Alameda County Prosecutor Jill Klinge said.

Another major stumbling block for Woods was porn found in his cell on three occasions -- more than 1,200 pictures, some of naked children.

Not only has Woods been able to buy dozens of cars while in prison -- he married twice. The first lasted a year, his second wife died in a car crash.

Rick Schoenfeld was released in February; his brother Jim is next up for parole in March.

(Copyright ©2014 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.)

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livermore, crime, prison, i-team, dan noyes
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