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.