By Jeff Shuttleworth
Bay City News Service
A state parole panel Tuesday (April 5) upheld a previous ruling that grants parole to one of the three men who kidnapped a busload of Chowchilla schoolchildren in 1976 and buried them in a quarry in Livermore.
The kidnappers were all from wealthy families in Atherton and Portola Valley.
However, the panel also ruled that Richard Schoenfeld, 57, will not be paroled for more than 10 years, setting a November 2021 release date.
Any governor in the next 10 years could ask parole officials to reconsider their decision to release Schoenfeld, but Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jill Klinge, who opposes his release and attended his hearing Tuesday (April 5), said she thinks such a move is unlikely.
Schoenfeld, his brother, James Schoenfeld, and Frederick 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 south 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 1977 to 27 counts of kidnapping for ransom.
Richard Schoenfeld has been 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."
The third panel held its hearing on the matter Tuesday 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.
Woods and James Schoenfeld haven't yet been found suitable for parole.
Klinge said she told the parole panel that she doesn't think Richard Schoenfeld 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 said she thinks Schoenfeld "has a propensity to be a follower."
Klinge said a ruling by the California Supreme Court in August 2008 made it more difficult for a parole panel to find Schoenfeld unsuitable for parole.
Previously, even a model prisoner serving a life sentence could be denied parole based on the gravity of the crime. Now, the parole board must find an additional factor showing the inmate could be dangerous in order to deny parole repeatedly.
Schoenfeld's attorney, Scott Handleman, could not be reached for comment.
Handleman and others held a news conference in San Francisco on Feb. 23 to call for the release of all three convicted kidnappers.
Among those who said the three men should be released was retired California Court of Appeal Justice William Newsom, the father of Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.