The criminal mastermind convicted of abducting 26 school children and burying them alive in one of the most infamous crimes in American history may soon walk free.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation approved Frederick Newhall Woods, 70, for parole after a suitability hearing on March 25, according to his inmate record.
Records reveal that Woods’ first parole hearing took place on July 15, 1982, and that the panel had rejected his request 17 times before granting him parole on Friday.
Woods is one of the three California men who orchestrated the 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping.
On July 15, bus driver Ed Ray was returning from the local fairgrounds in the city of Chowchilla, located approximately 150 miles southeast of San Francisco. Local records detailing the crime reveal that the 26 children aboard the bus had been celebrating the last day of summer school.
The group’s hellish ordeal began when Ray stopped the bus after encountering a van in the middle of the road.
A man with a gun then approached Ray while two others boarded the bus and ordered the children off and into the van and another vehicle.
The bus was abandoned, and the vehicles carrying the children and Ray were driven around for hours before arriving at a gravel quarry some 100 miles away.
Public records state that the children and Ray, who was 55 at the time, were then ordered to travel down a shaft and into a tractor-trailer where they were entombed by Woods and his two accomplices, brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld.
At the same time, a massive search and rescue got underway, with many parents fearing the worst after local police located the abandoned school bus.
Back at the quarry, the sweltering heat proved unbearable for the group, prompting Ray to devise an escape plan.
He enlisted the seven boys on board to help him stack the mattresses left by the kidnappers, which eventually reached high enough for them to access a trap door on the trailer’s roof. Soon after, one of the boys squeezed through and dug his way out of the grave.
The group had been trapped for 16 hours at that point.
That boy ran and alerted a security guard at the quarry to the news that a busload of children had been buried alive.
The children were freed and found to be in good condition after visiting a nearby rehabilitation center. They then returned home to Chowchilla on July 17, two days after their ordeal began.
Law enforcement quickly identified Woods as a person of interest in the case since his father owned the quarry.
Two weeks later, members of the Canadian Mounted Police in Vancouver located Woods hiding out at an unassuming hotel.
A search of his family’s estate also turned up a gun used in the crime and a draft of the ransom note demanding $5 million.
Woods had planned to call police demanding $5 million ransom after leaving the quarry, but all lines were busy after word spread about the missing children.
He instead went to bed and awoke to learn that the children had escaped from the bus.
Woods and his co-conspirators eventually struck a deal with prosecutors that dropped all robbery charges against them in exchange for their guilty pleas to all counts of kidnapping.
The three men were sentenced to life in prison but successfully appealed the court’s decision, reducing their punishment to eight years to life in prison.
Richard Schoenfeld would eventually be released on parole in 2012, while his brother Jonathan was released three years later in 2015.
Now Woods will join the three, assuming he gets the support of California Governor Gavin Newsom (D).
Governor Newsom can ask that the California Parole Board review the panel’s decision, but he cannot overturn the decision. Only convicted murderers can have their parole ruling overturned by the governor in California.
No date has been set for Woods’ release. Still, he has purchased a mansion with his considerable trust just 30 minutes from the California men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, where he is serving his sentence.
Woods has been reported to have a trust valued at up to $100 million.
Law&Crime spoke with Woods’ lawyer Gary Dubcoff on Wednesday, who said: “I am extremely gratified that the parole board has correctly recognized at long last that Mr. Woods presents no danger to anyone. It only makes me a bit sad that his greatest supporters — his parents, Senator Bob Presley, Justice Bill Newsom, Sgt. Detective Dale Fore, Attorney Herb Yanowitz — did not live long enough to see it.”
Dubcoff also provided Law&Crime with the document provided in support of Woods’ request for parole.
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