James Schoenfeld Allowed Parole in California School-Bus Hijacki - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

James Schoenfeld Allowed Parole in California School-Bus Hijacking

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By Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The governor of California has allowed parole for one of three men convicted in the 1976 kidnapping of 26 children and their school bus driver who were held captive in a buried trailer.

Gov. Jerry Brown had until midnight Thursday to decide whether to approve parole for 63-year-old James Schoenfeld or send the case back to the board that recommended his release. The governor chose not to act, which allowed the parole board's decision to stand.

Schoenfeld, his brother, Richard, and a friend, Fred Woods — all from wealthy families in the San Francisco Bay Area — were convicted in 1976.
The men spent 18 months devising the plot and planned to ask for a $5 million ransom for the children, who ranged in age from 5 to 14.

The hostages were taken from Chowchilla to a quarry near Livermore and kept inside the ventilated trailer stocked with mattresses, food and water. The scheme unraveled when the Dairyland Union School District students and bus driver Ed Ray escaped while the kidnappers took a nap.

The three men were given life sentences after pleading guilty to kidnapping charges. An appeals court later reduced their sentences to life with the possibility of parole.

James Schoenfeld is serving his sentence at California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Luis Patino says once the prison is notified of the decision, it will have five days to schedule Schoenfeld's release.

His brother, Richard Schoenfeld, was paroled in 2012. Woods could have a parole hearing this fall.


PREVIOUS STORY: In 1976 a school bus filled with 26 children and their driver disappeared in Chowchilla, California. Those children were kidnapped and left for dead. It's the biggest mass kidnapping in U.S. history. Now, one of the men involved in the kidnapping -- who was sentenced to life in prison -- has received initial approval for parole.
     
The Chowchilla, California kidnapping has been remembered for decades by people across the country, and right here in our area. One of the victims has family in McMinn County.

James Schoenfeld, 63, his brother and another man kidnapped the children and their bus driver -- and buried them underground in a moving van. Sixteen hours passed before they were able to escape from a rock quarry.

Schoenfeld has been incarcerated for close to 39 years, but that could change if he is granted parole.

Nearly 40 years have passed, but for victims and their families, the nightmare still seems as real as it was the day it happened.

"I called my mother and I said, 'Mom! What is this? Because they named the names. Darla Sue Daniels? That's my niece!" recalled Mary Daniels, who now lives in Riceville.

In the days long before cell phones and texting, Daniels was glued to the TV for
16 hours, waiting for news updates out of Chowchilla.

Her niece, Darla, was 10 at the time.

"16 hours of a total nightmare," Daniels said.

Darla still lives on the West Coast. She posted an old photo to Facebook this week. It shows her dad carrying her and her mother crying tears of relief moments after the kids escaped.

"I'm a survivor, not a victim," she writes. "This is me right after the kidnapping with my parents. I thank them for teaching me to be a survivor."

"The whole family was just mortified and terrified. It was torture," Daniels said.

Darla declined to speak with Channel 3 about that day, still distraught about one of her kidnapper's possible release from prison.

However, she wanted to share her letter to the parole board that recounts the horrifying moments of being trapped underground.

"I worked really hard on trying to forget the awful things i had to go through," she said. "I  felt safe because all three of these monsters were in prison."

"I guess at some point in time, God wants us to forgive everything," Daniels said. "Forgive me, God, but I can't forgive this one. I can't>

James Schoenfeld will remain behind bars in California for at least six months as officials, including the governor, work to determine whether or not he will go free.

Darla is one of many who have joined a Facebook group dedicated to keeping the kidnappers behind bars.

Schoenfeld's brother, Richard, was released on parole in 2012. The third man, Fredrick Woods, remains in prison.

According to reports, the trio had planned to ask for a ransom, but  the phone lines to the police station were tied up that day with calls, and they were unable to reach an officer to make any demand.

Here is the letter Darla sent to the parole board:

To the Board of Parole Hearings:

My name is Darla Neal and I am a victim of the kidnapping case. I was 10 years old in 1976 when we were taken hostage and buried alive.  I remember being so frightened and crying for my mom and dad as one of the men pointed a shot gun at my head. I remember being surrounded by darkness and wondering for hours where they were taking us and what they were going to do to us. I remember being shaken to the very core of my being as I watched them remove my classmates one by one out of the van I was in, then close the door.  My heart pounded against my chest so loud in my ears when it was my turn. I remember feeling a tinge of relief when I looked into the eyes of my bus driver that I had not seen since they split us up into the two vans, yet a darker feeling of hopelessness and sorrow took over as I studied the expression on his face and in his eyes that he was trying to hide. I knew at the very moment I stepped into this dark, makeshift tomb that this was a very serious situation and we needed to be rescued. Panic overwhelmed me as one of the air vents stopped working and we were all gathered together trying to breathe around the only air vent left, 27 of us! We were running out of air to breathe! It was obvious as I watched the older children and our brave bus driver trying desperately to dig us out. I knew that if we didn't get out we were going to die.
You can never imagine the horror of feeling like you might die unless you have experienced it yourself. We were LEFT THERE in an extremely dangerous situation. IF WE had not done something or if WE could not get all the dirt and debris and those huge, heavy truck batteries off of our only escape way, you would be dealing with murder of children, not kidnapping. This tragic event had a happy ending, but nonetheless, it did damage. I was extremely terrified for years of strangers and white vans, endless nightmares. A lifetime of claustrophobia along with anxiety and panic attacks. If I can't see anything, such as in the fog or pitch dark, I immediately believe that I can't breathe and I panic. This ordeal altered the course of our family's life! My mom kept me and my brother under her wing so to speak and still does to this day. My children never rode the bus and if they had to go on a field trip, I had to go to protect them.  When I finally let my youngest ride the school bus, it was because she has autism and they pick her up and drop her back off right in front of our house. I remember just a few years back, the bus broke down and it was late. I called the bus shed and no one knew where the bus was yet. I lost all control and just went into a full blown panic, which later I had to explain. I trust no one until I get to know them and have a very hard time understanding why you (the law) are letting me down, by releasing these men that caused all this. I have so much more to say about how these awful men damaged my life and how it has trickled down into my children's lives. They have caused grief in 3 generations of my family so far, and I haven't even scratched the surface on how much.
Until now I believe that the only way I have been able to live a semi-normal life is to try and put the event as far back in my mind as possible. I worked really hard on trying to forget the awful things that I had to go through and felt physically safe because all three of these monsters were in prison where they belong. I don't understand how someone can be ok with this. I am totally against this, I mean how do you get 26 life sentences and then come up for parole? I would be ashamed to see our justice system allow someone such as him out into society. I'm frantic at the thought of this and appalled that I have to deal with this emotionally, yet once again in my life! I'm also angry because I got no help at all for the emotional trauma that I have had to deal with for a lifetime! I really hope this letter helps you to understand the impact that this tragedy has caused, then and now, in each of our lives -- and you reconsider letting these men come up for parole in the future. Can you really see his release as a positive one? If so, I have lost all respect for the justice system in our country.

Sincerely,
Darla (Daniels) Neal

 

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