Chowchilla kidnapper, former Atherton resident, to be paroled soon

Three kidnappers were from families in Atherton and Portola Valley

One of the three men who kidnapped a busload of Chowchilla schoolchildren in 1976 and buried them in a quarry in Livermore for ransom will be paroled soon because Gov. Jerry Brown has let a parole board's ruling stand, the man's attorney said Friday.

On April 1, a two-member state Board of Parole Hearings panel granted parole to 63-year-old James Schoenfeld, who has been behind bars for 29 years for his role in the kidnapping.

The three kidnappers were from families in Atherton and Portola Valley. James Schoenfeld and his younger brother, Richard Schoenfeld, were from Atherton, and Frederick Woods was from Portola Valley.

Richard Schoenfeld was paroled in 2012. Frederick Woods could have a parole hearing this fall.

Brown had 120 days to approve the panel's decision regarding James Schoenfeld's parole or ask for all 12 members of the panel to review it, but that period expired at midnight on Thursday without Brown's taking any action, Scott Handelman, Schoenfeld's attorney, said.

Brown didn't have the authority to reverse the panel's decision because he has that authority only in murder cases, a spokeswoman for his office said.

In addition, the state Board of Parole Hearings' legal staff reviewed the panel's ruling and concluded that it was consistent with the evidence that was presented at Schoenfeld's parole hearing, Handelman said.

Brown's decision to let the panel's ruling stand means that Schoenfeld can be released "any day now," Handelman said.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Luis Patina said the prison agency has up to five days to process the departure of an inmate who's being paroled, but for security reasons it doesn't disclose the exact time, date, or location of a parolee's departure in advance.

Schoenfeld, his brother Richard Schoenfeld, 60, and Frederick Woods were in their early to mid-20s when they ambushed a busload of schoolchildren from Dairyland Union School in Chowchilla, a small farm community about 35 miles northwest of Fresno in Madera County, on July 15, 1976, according to prosecutors.

The men left the bus camouflaged in a creek bed and drove the children and bus driver Ed Ray about 100 miles to the California Rock and Gravel Quarry in Livermore in Alameda County.

They sealed their victims in a large van that had been buried in a cave at the quarry and fitted to keep the children and driver hostage, prosecutors said.

The kidnappers then demanded a $5 million ransom for the schoolchildren and Ray.

The hostages escaped from the buried van a little more than a day 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 Schoenfeld brothers and Woods 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, finding that the victims didn't suffer any bodily harm.

The Alameda County District Attorney's Office has opposed parole for the three men, and until recently the Board of Parole Hearings had denied their parole requests multiple times over the years.

The panel recommended parole for Richard Schoenfeld in 2011, and he was released from prison in June 2012. He was discharged from parole in June, Handelman said.

Woods is still in prison but will have a parole hearing later this year.

DA spokeswoman Teresa Drenick declined to comment Friday on the pending parole for James Schoenfeld.

Handelman said, "There's a compelling if not overwhelming" case for Schoenfeld to be paroled, noting that his disciplinary record in prison is "very impressive" and his psychological reports have been favorable for decades.

Handelman said, "Parole hearings are not about vengeance but are for determining if an inmate is still dangerous."

He said he doesn't think Schoenfeld is dangerous because when the crime occurred, Schoenfeld didn't have any prior convictions and he's now 63 years old.

Related story: Chowchilla kidnapper found fit for parole April 2, 2015.

— Bay City News Service

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Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 3, 2015 at 7:59 am

Was the younger Schoenfeld brother released back to Atherton? Will the older brother be released here, too? Do they still have family in the area?

4 people like this
Posted by MV Resident
a resident of another community
on Aug 3, 2015 at 12:49 pm

Richard Schoenfeld (the younger brother) was released and apparently moved in with his mother in Mountain View. The media quickly determined which apartment complex he was residing at (it was Willow Park Apartments, 555 W Middlefield Road at the corner of Moffett Boulevard): Web Link

I remember the TV trucks that day as I live in that area.

I do not know if either one still resides at that location.

Like this comment
Posted by Carolyn S.
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Aug 3, 2015 at 1:18 pm

Is Fred Woods up for parole soon? I heard that this property in Portola Valley was seized and is now part of the Open Space preserve, does anyone know if this is true?

6 people like this
Posted by MV Resident
a resident of another community
on Aug 3, 2015 at 1:38 pm

@Carolyn S.

The property is indeed now a part of the Open Space. However it was not seized. It was willed by the incarcerated Fred Woods' father, Frederick N. Woods III who died in 2008.

Here is the Almanac News story: Web Link

2 people like this
Posted by Mark Toshland
a resident of Woodside: Mountain Home Road
on Aug 3, 2015 at 6:20 pm

I remember the Woods property in Portola Valley, and the huge number of old cars Fred Woods had parked on his parents' acreage. I also remember the Schoenfeld family - the father was a podiatrist in Menlo, and the family lived on Stockbridge not far from the Alameda de las Pulgas. Regarding the sentence: I'm reminded of the very light (2 years?) sentence Dan White got for killing two people (Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk) in 1978. It doesn't seem just or correct that these boys got so many decades in prison, considering the fact that they never intended to hurt or kill these children - and to my knowledge - none of them was physically harmed at all. So my question is: Why was Dan White given such a light sentence just a few years after the Chowchilla kidnapping, and these boys given nearly 30 years each? It doesn't seem fair, does it? It shows us that money can't necessarily buy a light sentence. And didn't Dan White give himself 'Capital Punishment' after being freed and allowed to go back to SF and live with his wife in their home? Didn't White use the vacuum cleaner hose attached to his car to end his life? He was probably without friends, and unemployable after he murdered two people and served a very, very short sentence.

14 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of another community
on Aug 3, 2015 at 9:24 pm

I believe the court system behaved correctly in the Chowchilla kidnapping incident and meted out the correct punishment.

The Dan White case was far more complex and his light sentence was rooted in a number of extenuating factors. He was at the time a city supervisor who had just resigned, as well as a former SF cop, fireman and Vietnam veteran. He was also a former health food junkie who had recently slipped into eating junk food which was seem as symptomatic of a larger condition of depression. It was the condition of depression that the prosecution successfully used to convince the jury that Dan White was incapable of premeditated violence.

Dan White served five years of a seven year sentence (voluntary manslaughter) and committed suicide two years after his release. He did try to reconnect with his wife and family, but the marriage failed. The cause of death was carbon monoxide asphyxiation from his car's exhaust pipe via a garden hose.

Humans run courts and sometimes there are failures. It is up to you whether the judicial system stumbled with Dan White. One positive outcome of the Dan White judicial case was the eventual elimination of California's "diminished capacity" law.

Note that the judicial system is particularly harsh with adults who threaten children. In the Chowchilla case, the victims weren't old or strong enough to repel their captors. Remember that the Chowchilla children are alive only because they found a way to escape. They were left by the kidnappers to die. The fact that they didn't doesn't indicate any benevolence on the part of their captors. They were lucky to dig themselves out.

Personally, I think the judicial system acted correctly with the Chowchilla kidnappers, but failed with Dan White. White should have back-to-back life sentences for the murders of Moscone and Milk.

1 person likes this
Posted by Reader
a resident of another community
on Aug 4, 2015 at 12:09 pm

The SJ Mercury News just posted an article about the Chowchilla kidnapping and the motives behind it (money): Web Link

The newspaper notes that Richard Schoenfeld takes care of his 92-year-old mother in Mountain View and runs a motorcycle shop in San Carlos. His soon-to-be-released older brother James plans on working with him at the shop.

2 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of another community
on Aug 10, 2015 at 10:27 am

James Schoenfeld and Richard (Rick) Schoenfeld might also live with their older brother John in a house that is located between the Notre Dame de Namur campus and El Camino Real in Belmont. John Schoenfeld owns Peninsula Motorsports in San Carlos, where James and Richard apparently repair motorcycles.

The Schoenfelds and Dan White should never have been paroled. Kidnapping and murder are despicable crimes.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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