The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Captor paroled 46 years after hijacking bus, trying to bury 26 kids alive

Frederick Woods, 70, demanded a $5 million ransom for the children and their school bus driver in a crime that shocked the country

Officials remove in 1976 from a rock quarry in Livermore, Calif., the moving van trailer in which 26 children and their bus driver were held captive. (AP)

Nearly a half-century has not been enough to free Lynda Carrejo Labendeira from the nightmares or haunting flashbacks of three men hijacking the school bus she and 25 other children were riding, burying them alive in an old moving van and trying to score a $5 million ransom.

It’s not been enough time for Jennifer Brown Hyde, a fellow victim of the 1976 kidnapping that started near Chowchilla, Calif., to escape the “lifetime effects of being buried alive and being driven around in a van for 11 hours with no food, water or a bathroom in 100-degree weather,” the Associated Press reported.

And it’s not been enough time in prison for Frederick Woods — one of three men who kidnapped Labendeira and Hyde when they were 10 and 9, respectively — both women argued earlier this week before the California parole board, according to the AP.

Members of that board disagreed. On Tuesday, they granted Woods’s bid to be paroled after serving more than four decades in prison for what one prosecutor called “the largest mass kidnapping in U.S. history,” the AP reported. His two accomplices, brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld, were released in 2012 and 2015, respectively. A partial panel of the board initially granted Woods parole in March. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) petitioned the full 21-member board to reconsider. At Tuesday’s meeting, it affirmed the decision to release Woods.

His attorney, Dominique Banos, did not immediately respond to The Washington Post late Thursday, but on Wednesday, she told the AP that the parole board realized her client had “shown a change in character for the good” and “remains a low risk, and once released from prison he poses no danger or threat to the community.” The AP reported that at least two of Woods’s victims supported his release.

July 15, 1976, was hot, the second-to-last-day of summer school, and the bus driver, 55-year-old farmer Ed Ray, was returning dozens of students ages 5 to 14 from a swimming field trip at the local fairgrounds.

While driving past alfalfa fields and almond orchards, Ray spotted a white van stopped along the county road and slowed the Dairyland Union School District school bus to see whether someone had car trouble, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Three gunmen popped out, took over the bus and drove it to a dried-up canal where a second van was waiting, according to the Times. The kidnappers herded Ray and the 26 children into the back of the vehicles. For the next 11 hours, Woods and the Schoenfelds drove their hostages through the sweltering San Joaquin Valley with no bathroom breaks and no water.

At 3:30 a.m., they arrived at a quarry in Livermore, a city on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay area about 90 miles northwest of Chowchilla.

Woods and the Schoenfeld brothers, all in their 20s and members of wealthy California families, wrote down the names of the children and took an article of clothing from each hostage before making them go down a ladder into a moving van trailer that had been partially buried at the quarry, according to the Times. Inside the trailer: dirty mattresses, containers with water and two ventilation pipes connected to the outside.

The kidnappers covered the opening to the van with a steel plate, weighed it down with two tractor batteries and then covered the trailer with more dirt to finish burying it. As the children screamed and he cried, Ray tried to console them, although he was sure the van’s roof would cave in, the Times reported.

Woods and the Schoenfelds left the quarry, which was owned by Woods’s father. They tried to call in a $5 million ransom demand to the Chowchilla Police Department but got a busy signal. After taking a snooze, they awoke to learn that Ray and the children had escaped.

Ray and some of the older children had stacked mattresses, climbed on top of them and used wooden slats to dislodge the plate and the batteries, according to the Times. Once they removed the cover, one of the children, 14-year-old Michael Marshall, dug up until he reached the surface.

Sixteen hours after being entombed, the hostages had freed themselves. Ray and the children walked toward the quarry and “were greeted by stunned workers,” CBS News reported.

Investigators learned that the quarry was owned by Woods’s father and were soon hunting for him and the Schoenfelds. Within weeks, they’d arrest all three.

Hyde, one of the survivors, made it clear to the parole board this week that the summer day more than 46 years ago had changed her life. Because she’s serving a life sentence of sorts, Woods should, too.

“His mind is still evil and he is out to get what he wants,” she said at the meeting, according to the AP. “I want him to serve life in prison, just as I served a lifetime of dealing with the [post-traumatic stress disorder] due to his sense of entitlement.”

In 2011, Hyde spoke with the Times as efforts to parole her three kidnappers were gearing up. She told the newspaper she had slept with a night light ever since she was abducted and rarely let her two children out of sight. News of her kidnappers’ possible parole had once again forced her to replay her two days in captivity, particularly the 11-hour drive to Livermore.

“I keep thinking about how, in that van, I could see them up there in the air conditioning, popping sodas,” Hyde told the newspaper. “There was an open crack between us. I screamed, kicked, begged, pleaded. They could hear us — after a while, smell us. They just banged on the side and told us to shut up.”

Because of her abduction, Hyde woke up in the night screaming well into her 20s, she told the Times.

After the board granted Woods parole on Tuesday, Hyde said she was disappointed but that it was “time to close this chapter and continue living the blessed life I have been given,” the AP reported. She lauded her fellow hostages as “true survivors and not victims.”

In 2011, before any of the kidnappers were freed, Hyde struck a similar tone. She said it felt like “a slap in the face” when she learned some of the judges, prosecutors and investigators responsible for putting Woods and the Schoenfelds in prison were supporting their release.

But then she pivoted.

“Many years ago, I decided that it wasn’t my mission to make sure they burned in hell,” she said. “I found peace.”