Chowchilla kidnapper may be released

Court rules he must be released unless state appeals

By Jeff Shuttleworth

Bay City News Service

One of the three men who kidnapped a busload of Chowchilla schoolchildren in 1976 and buried them in a quarry in Livermore could be released from prison as soon as May due to a state appellate court ruling.

Scott Handleman, the attorney for 57-year-old Richard Schoenfeld, said Friday that he's "pleased" the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco ruled that Schoenfeld has completed his sentence for the crime, which received international headlines, and must be "immediately released on parole," unless the state files an appeal.

The three kidnappers were all from families in Atherton and Portola Valley.

Handleman said the court's ruling on Feb. 28 will become final at the end of April so he's hopeful that Schoenfeld will be released in early May if the state Board of Parole Hearings doesn't file an appeal.

California Department of Corrections spokesman Luis Patino said the board "is analyzing the ruling and is working with its legal team to determine what steps they should take next."

Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jill Klinge, who has attended parole hearings in recent years for Schoenfeld, his brother, James Schoenfeld, and Frederick Woods, said she's "disappointed" by the court's ruling because she doesn't think he's suitable for parole.

The Schoenfeld brothers and Woods were in their early- to mid-20s when they ambushed a busload of school children July 15, 1976, from Dairyland Union School in Chowchilla, a small farm community about 35 miles northwest of Fresno in Madera County.

The men left the bus camouflaged in a creek bed and drove the children and bus driver, Ed Ray, to the California Rock and Gravel Quarry in Livermore.

The kidnappers sealed their victims in a large van that had been buried in a cave at the quarry and fitted out to keep the children and driver hostage.

The kidnappers then demanded a $5 million ransom for the return of the 26 children and driver.

The hostages escaped from the buried van more than 24 hours after they were first kidnapped when Ray and the two oldest children piled mattresses to the top of the van and forced their way out.

The three men received life sentences after pleading guilty in Alameda County Superior Court in 1977 to 27 counts of kidnapping for ransom.

But an appellate court ruled in 1980 that they were eligible for parole, ruling that the victims didn't suffer any bodily harm. A key sentencing issue is whether the victims had been kidnapped with bodily harm.

Richard Schoenfeld was denied parole more than 20 times, but in October 2008, a parole panel ruled that he was suitable for parole. However, the panel didn't set a release date for him.

But in August 2009, a second panel decided against granting parole to Schoenfeld, saying that a third panel should consider whether granting parole would be "improvident."

On April 5, 2011, the third panel held its hearing on the matter at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, where all three kidnappers are being held, and it ruled that parole would be appropriate for Schoenfeld.

But the panel said that based on its calculations Schoenfeld shouldn't be released until November 2021.

However, the First District Court of Appeal said the parole panel "erred" because it violated its own rules and lacked authority to increase Schoenfeld's sentence after finding him suitable for parole.

Handleman said he thinks the ruling means that Schoenfeld has been "unjustly incarcerated" since he was found suitable for parole back in 2008.

Schoenfeld "is clearly rehabilitated and is no danger to society," Handleman said.

But in opposing parole for Schoenfeld at the hearing last April, Klinge said she doesn't think he is eligible for parole, in part because of his participation in a scheme in which inmates falsified their prison work time cards in an effort to get more pay and another incident in which he used a computer without authorization.

She also said she thinks Schoenfeld "has a propensity to be a follower."

Klinge said March 2 that in addition to still believing that Schoenfeld is unsuitable for parole she also disagrees with the appellate court's calculation about the proper length of his sentence.

Woods and James Schoenfeld haven't yet been found suitable for parole.


Like this comment
Posted by The Authority
a resident of another community
on Mar 4, 2012 at 12:39 am

Read the accounts of the victims during their time in that tomb. Then decide if, "bodily harm" was indeed inflicted. The three of them plead guilty knowing that they would be sentenced to life. Carry out the sentence.

Like this comment
Posted by rich kids
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 4, 2012 at 10:36 am

Three rich white boys playing god. They were lucky that kidnapping didn't get the death penalty any more. Let the victims vote on whether or not to let them out of prison now.

I read that the childhood estate of the Portola Valley kidnapper was recently donated to the open space district, after his parents passed away. It will become part of the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve. I hope they dedicate this parcel to the kidnapping victims.

Like this comment
Posted by anne
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Mar 4, 2012 at 8:20 pm

I think there is little point in paroling any of those three. I remember that heinous crime as if it were yesterday.

Like this comment
Posted by Thomas
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Mar 4, 2012 at 8:55 pm

I also remember Chowchilla as well as it was about the same time as Patty Hearst was holding up the Hibernia Bank with a sub machine gun with her S.L.A. captors and subsequently refused to testify against them after she was caught. Hearst was sentenced to 35 years in prison but served only 22 months. Her sentence was commuted by Carter and she received a full pardon from Clinton. While the Stockholm Syndrome played a part in her situation, these were all cases of privileged kids not yet fully baked making stupid mistakes and not the work of hardened criminals. No crime should go unpunished but in my opinion they've done their time.

Like this comment
Posted by karen robinson
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Mar 5, 2012 at 12:25 pm

Yes, I too remember this case as if it was yesterday. NO PAROLE for any of them EVER! Those children, the bus driver, and their parents were traumatized forever! The perpetrators were given the correct sentence and the public expects it to be carried out to the fullest. NO PAROLE!

Like this comment
Posted by aghast!
a resident of another community
on Mar 5, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Thomas, you epitomize an inherent problem with criminals. Just because Patty Hearst's sentence was commuted by a liberal president, then pardoned by the next one, doesn't mean it was right, and certainly should not be the benchmark for other heinous crimes. The fact that there was "no bodily harm" done to the Chowchilla victims was just dumb luck. If not for the heroics of the bus driver, they would have either baked or suffocated, and suffered immensely in the process. These 3 clowns should have been tethered in the sun for a couple of days, and released just a little short of "suffering great bodily harm". Then incarcerate them until every one of the victims has been proven to recover from the great psycological and emotional harm with which most have had to live. That would have been a punishment fitting the crime.

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Posted by bob
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 5, 2012 at 12:48 pm

People have got to remember that
Richard tried to convince the other two to let eveyone go before the bus was buried. Interesting that people here are speaking for the vicitms. Several of the vicitms have written letters supporting his parole. The other two should stay behind bars for a long time.

Like this comment
Posted by aghast!
a resident of another community
on Mar 5, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Nice to hear that "several of the victims" have recovered from their trauma. Let's hear from those who have not.

Like this comment
Posted by BMG
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Mar 5, 2012 at 1:12 pm

I knew Ricky. He was a gentle and kind person. The deputy DA labeled him as a follower, and that's a reasonable assessment. He made a very bad decision and committed a heinous crime. But he has paid the price by spending most of his life in prison. Mercy is a virtue. If the parole board believes Ricky is not a threat, then what has anyone to gain by him spending the rest of his life in prison? Will it really help the victims' lives?

I did not know Woods or Ricky's older brother and it appears like the parole board is. It recommending they be released.

Like this comment
Posted by Scott
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Mar 5, 2012 at 1:22 pm

I'd like to know how much taxpayer money has been spent to keep these
3 in prison. Regarding Richard, I went to school with him and I'm positive he is no threat to society. I don't want my tax money being
wasted on his incarceration.

Like this comment
Posted by member
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Mar 5, 2012 at 1:26 pm

The most purpose of prison is to protect society from someone who is likely to do damage again. Punishment is part of it, but how long must that go on? I would like to be assured that the 3 of them would not do something like that again. I think they've been punished enough and I would love to stop paying for their stay in prison. One reason that California spends so much time on prisons is that we (collectively) are very punitive and unforgiving. If we focused more on rehabilitation and training, we might actually turn out productive citizens instead of leaving these people to rot in prison, draining our taxes from better uses, like educating kids not to be criminals.

Like this comment
Posted by aghast!
a resident of another community
on Mar 5, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Well, the parole board would certainly not let anybody out of prison who was not rehabilitated, would they? Never hear of anybody getting paroled killing, raping, torturing, or kidnapping children after they have served their time, have we? Prison is the only life these 3 have known, and that's where they should stay, for the safety of us all, as well as themselves. They probably couldn't function in today's society anyway, unless maybe Bob or BMG wants to take them in and take repsonsibility for their actions and livelyhood.

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Posted by aghast!
a resident of another community
on Mar 5, 2012 at 1:33 pm

member & Scott--It will certainly cost us no more to keep them in prison at this point than it will to let them out. We will have to pay for housing, probably some level of welfare, certainly protection, vigilance of his activities.......He can contribute just as much to society, if not more, from within the prison walls that he has called home for 35 years, which will continue to offer all of the safety and security he will need, at probably a lower cost and no threat to anybody.

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 5, 2012 at 6:43 pm

If a punishment is to have meaning it needs to be carried out. If we don't really want to sentence people to life without parole we shouldn't do so. If we DO sentence them to LWOP they need to do their sentence no question, no chance for parole. If a punishment is to be a deterent then it MUST be carried out to its full extent. To do otherwise is to give a criminal hope that he can commit a crime and somehow not pay the full price.

Like this comment
Posted by WhoRUpeople
a resident of another community
on Mar 6, 2012 at 8:32 am

Menlo Voter - I agree wholeheartedly with your comments regarding punishments needing to be carried out. I also am opposed to plea bargaining when it is solely used to avoid the cost of a trial for the same reasons. However, in your comments you assumed a "fact not in evidence" in this instance. As part of their sentencing back in 77 they were sentenced to Life, and as a normal part of the process in such instances, the sentence was reviewed by the appeals court to determine if it should be Life or what you called LWOP. The court ruled it was life-meaning all three are eligible for parole. Subsequently, the parole system has determined 2 of the 3 are not "suitable" (different from being "eligible") for parole.

Like this comment
Posted by bob
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 6, 2012 at 10:28 am

Ahgast You have not been paying attention to this. Richard has a brother who has a landscaping business and has said Richard has a job and housing. So explain how letting him out would cost taxpayers. I also would that those victims that have not recovered would speak out, I don't think they need your help. I also went to high school with all three and Richard was a follower. The other two were bad guys.

Like this comment
Posted by X-Class Mates
a resident of another community
on Mar 6, 2012 at 10:48 am

You people should turn the page.

Like this comment
Posted by contrarian view
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 6, 2012 at 10:48 am


I have no doubt that it was terrifying to be kidnapped and buried for 16 hours, but at the same time as far as I know nobody was physically injured -- NOT that it obviates the seriousness and heinous nature of the crime in any way.

It seems R. Schoenfeld was around 22 at the time, has been in prison for 36 years, is not due to be released for another 10 years, which means he will have spent 46 years behind bars.

So I've heard deterrence as a reason to keep there for yet another 20-30+ years till he's dead. Deterrence? Really? Seriously? Is there a single criminal on the planet that is in the calculus of crime is going to think to himself, "gee, one of the three of those kidnappers got out after only 46 years but didn't have to spend his entire life there -- so I guess I'll attempt to commit a crime that I wouldn't otherwise commit"?

My problem is that on a relative basis, you have individuals who have committed ruthless and violent murders or attempted murders, rapes, child molestations, etc. getting out in a minority fraction of this time -- the only distinction in my mind is that their cases were lower profile with less sympathetic victims.

So to me it becomes a question of when does punishment become vengeance?

I don't have an easy answer but I can tell you its not as clear in my mind as it apparently is in some of those who have posted thus far....

Like this comment
Posted by Scholar
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Mar 6, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Oh he's a "follower" so I guess that means he has a diminished ability to make tough decisions, such as whether or not to follow an influential bad guy and kidnap children and bury them in a box for ransom. And he has a job waiting in landscaping, how ironic.

Like this comment
Posted by anne
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Mar 6, 2012 at 4:36 pm

Those kidnapped children are serving a life sentence of pain and extraordinary consequences.

Like this comment
Posted by susan smith
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 7, 2012 at 5:57 am

We live in the most punitive society in the World, and have more people in prison than the entire population of Australia. I remember when these kids, about my age, were convicted and have thought about them, and what they missed out of life as I have enjoyed and worked upon mine. That alone is a massive price to pay, let alone the number of years in jail,. youth wasted. Let him out. There is still time to make amaends, and I hope this person will. Our society could use a little change in this area, along with more protected vacation days for all working Americans.

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