One of three men who kidnapped a busload of school children more than three decades ago and left them in a van hidden in a California quarry was granted parole on Thursday, state officials said. Although the 26 children and their bus driver all survived the ransom plot, kidnapper James Schoenfeld, now 63, has been in prison for 37 years for the 1976 abduction in the Central California town of Chowchilla.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials granted parole approval in April. Governor Brown did not take action on the parole board’s decision, allowing the parole to advance, spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said.
She said that, because Schoenfeld was not convicted of the crime of murder, “the governor does not have the authority to reverse or modify the Parole Board’s decision.”
The Fresno Bee newspaper said the victims and two district attorneys opposed his release.
“They buried me alive, they stole my childhood and caused me immense emotional pain over the years,” victim Jennifer Brown Hyde, who was 9 at the time, told the newspaper in April.
James Schoenfeld, his younger brother Richard, and accomplice Frederick Woods all pleaded guilty for their roles in the crime, which was dramatized in a 1993 made-for-TV movie “They’ve Taken Our Children.”
Richard Schoenfeld was released in 2012 after more than 34 years in prison. Woods remains in prison, according to jail records. The bizarre but carefully planned incident unfolded in July 1976 when the children – 19 girls and seven boys aged 5 to 14 – were abducted on a country road on their way back from a swimming trip.
The children and their driver were herded off the bus at gunpoint into two vans and driven around for 11 hours to a rock quarry about 100 miles (160 km) away. They were then entombed in a van that had been placed in a ditch and covered with a metal plate topped with two heavy tractor batteries and dirt. After 16 hours, the bus driver and some older children dislodged the roof of their underground prison and dug their way to freedom.
The three kidnappers, who were then in their 20s, came from affluent families and hatched the scheme to get $5 million in ransom money to help recoup losses from a failed real estate deal.