Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him;
Do not fret because of him who prospers in his way,
Because of the man who carries out wicked schemes.
Cease from anger and forsake wrath;
Do not fret; it leads only to evildoing.
“There was great fear of a serial killer. People formed a search posse on horseback, and it was just a fear that we were going to find bodies.”
—Ronnie Ray, 2020
“We thought it was UFOs. And it seemed like it had to be. No way it could be anything else.”
—Unidentified state trooper’s wife, 1976
The aerial search is already underway.
There are about 400 reporters, one for every 10 people in the whole town. The Salvation Army has brought a food truck from San Francisco. Pac-Bell has brought 60 press phones and operators. Parents keep an all-night vigil at the police station.
It is the largest kidnapping ever in the United States.
In a rarity for summer in the Central Valley, a thunderstorm is rolling in, and lightning streaks are firing across the sky. It is July 1976.
In recent years, California has become the national shorthand for sensationalism. Two years ago in Berkeley, the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst. Whittier’s own President Richard Nixon has resigned and had to negotiate a pardon from his former vice president. Charles Manson has only been in prison for five years, and the Zodiac Killer is still at large. Fault lines are cracking all over the state, and Californians are bracing for “the big one.”
But all that is happening out in the cities, a million miles away from the inland farming town of Chowchilla, where our story takes place. The heartland, then as now, is almost a different state, with different fears.
Put 2 1/2 million dollars in each of the suitcases, total 5 million
Use old bills
Have ready at the Oakland Police station
Further instructions pending until 10:05 PM Sunday
We are Beelsabub [sic].
To hear the people of Chowchilla tell it, the reporters and newsmen who descended on their quiet town treated the kidnapping like a winning lottery ticket, and they’d have trampled over their own mothers for a piece of the horrific and eminently marketable tragedy: 26 children and one adult man, vanished into thin air.
If it bleeds, it leads. Months later, people could still remember the New York reporter who got off a plane in Los Angeles and took a cab to Chowchilla. It was a seven-hour drive that cost either $400 or $1,000, depending on who you heard it from.
The median annual family income there is just over $6,800.
It’s pretty common-looking, Chowchilla. Common in a good way, like an old country song. It mostly sprang up during the Great Depression because of Dust Bowl refugees heading west. These days, around 20,000 people live there. It’s got a roadhouse where you can get a steak and whiskey, it’s got a pizza parlor, a taco stand, plenty of churches, and it’s real sleepy. If you stand out in a field and squint, you can imagine a time not terribly long ago when there was just dust and a horizon line.
The official Chowchilla city website has an “Interesting Facts About Chowchilla” section. It says there was an arch built there in 1913, but it burned down in 1937, possibly as a result of hobos. The first custom grain elevator in California was built there in 1916, but it eventually burned down, too, although the website doesn’t say when. Meanwhile, Hotel Chowchilla “suffered through several fires,” but held on long enough to become a furniture store. (It’s not there anymore.)
The website also goes on to list things like cookouts everybody remembers and, you know, that time ol’ Larry won a pie-eating contest. It talks about palm trees and the Chowchilla Pacific Railroad. It offers only a couple hundred words on the only interesting fact about Chowchilla to anyone without roots there.
It’s hard to blame the town for sidelining it, because Chowchilla was not just the site of the largest kidnapping for ransom in American history, but also of one of the most idiotic crimes ever visited upon the state of California. It was a crime so perverse and unbelievable that it sounds like, for lack of a better phrase, utter bullshit.
What happened to Chowchilla is the story of a generation-defining crime that briefly shook the world, and the ripple effects it had on the state’s heartland. It’s about the huge differences between urban and rural California, the rich and the poor, how a town overcame being dragged to hell and back, and what we have to learn from the fading ghost stories of the 20th century.
It’s also about cars.
It’s 1976, 11 days after the bicentennial. The American Freedom Train, a government-sponsored restored steam locomotive, is rolling through the country hawking patriotic kitsch. In a few months, Jimmy Carter will surrender his peanut farm to become president of the United States and end the Nixon era. Evel Knievel is figuring out a really flashy way to try to go off and kill himself (a tank of live sharks). Elvis Presley is really sweaty and has a year to live. Alec Guinness is filming a shitty sci-fi movie called Star Wars and he hates it but doesn’t yet know what 2.25 percent of royalties in perpetuity is going to look like. Oh, and “Convoy,” a fake country song about truckers written by a New York ad guy, is popular. Really popular. You can’t avoid the damn thing. It’s turned CB radios into a huge fad for adults. (That’ll come up later.)
In Chowchilla, 150 miles southeast from San Francisco, it’s a normal July afternoon. Languid, hot, and unremarkable. A bus driver is picking up kids from summer school. His name is Ed Ray. A humble rancher with a humble day job, married to a humble bank teller named Odessa. Stocky, about 55 years old. Looks like a guy you don’t want to fight; a guy who works with his hands and knows his way around baling hay. He doesn’t talk much. He’s from down the road in Merced but went to high school here and doesn’t plan on going anywhere else.
His nephew, Ronnie Ray, a retired newspaper columnist, describes him this way: “He wasn’t a tall man. 5’7”, 5’8.” Stout. Probably weighed about 200 in his prime. Barrel-chested. My family is all built like that. You don’t know where our chest stops and our belly begins.” That family, like many others in the area, joined the agricultural migration that sent millions from the South and Midwest to the Central Valley seeking farm work in the 20th century, a mass exodus that peaked in the 1930s with the Dust Bowl.
Ed Ray, a second-generation Californian born to “Okie” parents, has almost no education and can barely read or write, but he’s good with numbers. Ronnie says, with some pride, that everyone in town knew him to be bull-strong. In his younger days, Ed cut alfalfa with a team of horses, and lived the progression from horse to tractor. He was always working. When people asked him why, he’d say, “The hard jobs are my hobby.”
Today, Ed’s bus is rowdy, but by all accounts, the kids just love him. He’s patient, and he’s reliable. Always on time. Right now the kids are thrilled because they just went to a swimming pool, a hell of an afternoon for a bunch of kids who may or may not have ever seen the ocean. Some of them are even singing.
There’s a petition going around, signed by 65 people, to keep summer school going for another three weeks. Jokingly, Ed bets a couple of the younger kids, a brother and a sister, that the extension won’t happen, then he drops them off. They run through cornfields to tell their mom about the bet. Ed presses on to his next stop. When he turns onto Avenue 21, he sees a white ’71 Dodge van blocking the road with its door open.
He tries to weave around the empty van when a guy in overalls with pantyhose covering his face jumps out in front of the bus with a revolver. The man walks to the driver’s side window and asks Ed, with no intimidation in his voice, “Would you open the door, please?” Ed opens it.
Two more identically dressed figures jump in, one with a rifle, which is quickly pointed at Ed. Everybody goes to the back of the bus. The one without a rifle starts to drive, and the one with the revolver hops in the van to follow them. They drive about a mile and park the bus in a bamboo thicket. Nobody’s yelling. It’s so calm, it’s violent. Twelve kids are ushered into the white van. Ray and the other 14 kids get into the back of a second van, this one green. There’s a partition behind the driver’s seat and the windows are sealed. It’s hotter than hell, and pitch black. Some of the kids sing songs to cheer up, like “If You’re Happy And You Know It” and “Boogie Fever” and “Get Down Tonight.”
Back in town, it doesn’t take long for people to get worried. You can set your watch by Ed. Something’s happened. “We got a phone call, and then immediately it was on television, on the local stations, that the bus was missing,” said Ronnie. “Parents began to wonder what was going on 15 minutes after their kids didn’t get home.”
The town becomes a CB radio posse. People start driving all over the county looking for the bus, for the kids, for Ed. By 6:30 pm, about two and a half hours since anyone saw the children, the sheriff’s department has a plane in the air. Ronnie, meanwhile, forms a small search party with two others. They go out in a Jeep with no top, driving through orchards with spotlights, looking for anything at all.
A couple of hours later, the bus is found by a police sergeant, empty, devoid of clues.
That night, parents gather in all the public buildings to hold vigil. Special services are held across town. Over at First Baptist, Rev. Buskirk’s sermon cites Psalms 23, 37, and 91 because they “best respond to this kind of evil.” President Gerald Ford gives all law enforcement agencies a blank check to look for the kids. California Gov. Jerry Brown does the same. Every white van or discarded children’s shoe in California merits a call to the cops. The FBI books every room at the town’s two motels. Soon, reporters and TV crews descend. Flashbulbs are going off constantly, and small rumors are becoming big lies. Revenge on the town by San Quentin inmates? International terrorists? Aliens? The Zodiac?
Meanwhile, Ed and the kids are driven around in the burning hot dark for 11 hours, no pit stops, finally arriving at a rock quarry only 100 miles away in Livermore. It’s 3:30 in the morning, at which point Ed, keeping a farmer’s schedule, had probably been awake for 24 hours. The back doors swing open. Two guys are waiting. Ed is the first out. One asks for his name, the other makes him take off his pants and boots. He’s handed a flashlight and told to go down a hole with a ladder in it. Above ground, roll call is being taken for the children and their names are written on an old Jack in the Box bag. Then they’re stripped and sent to join Ed.
Their prison looks to be a moving van, the sides and ceiling warped from the weight of the surrounding dirt. Ed immediately worries the ceiling will cave in. He wonders if they’ll suffocate: There are two air shafts, hoses that run aboveground to a tree. There are some mattresses on the ground and a pathetic amount of necessities. Wonder Bread, peanut butter, potato chips, water jugs. Some holes carved for toilets. After all the kids are inside, a steel plate slides over the entrance, and it’s weighted down by two 100-pound tractor batteries. They beg to be let out. Some of the children scream.
California is stereotypically judged based on the outsize cultural influence of Los Angeles and San Francisco. But it really shouldn’t be, if only because it’s so vast: 163,000 square miles. It’s the fifth-largest economy on Earth. Bigger than the UK and India. You can drive for 13 hours, from Calexico down south to Yreka up north, without ever leaving the state.
To risk a truly vapid cliché, California contains multitudes. It’s a place of bombastic contrast, from landscape to weather to wealth inequality. Mansions sit walking distance from tent cities; the most populous county in the US is a couple hours of highway driving from a zip code so sparse that it’s technically designated as neither “urban” nor “rural,” but “frontier.” Its cosmopolitan hippies and surfers and acid burnouts still exist, but they share a state with millions of people who are more rural, more conservative, more rugged. In 2016, more people in California voted for Donald Trump than live in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Alaska — combined.
Even the relatively short drive from Los Angeles to Chowchilla illustrates profound contrast. When you come careening down the Grapevine (at 100 miles an hour as God intended), it gets different, fast. Suddenly, you can see the wide open spaces of America’s breadbasket unfurl before you: the Central Valley, where our country gets a quarter of its food.
It doesn’t look like it. The sky is white, settling into a vague brown as you get closer to the ground. There are mountains somewhere to the east, but you often can’t see them. You just see the horizon sort of blur out. It’s hot, too. Heat just radiates off everything: the cars, the asphalt, the tractors, the warehouses, the corrugated sheet metal. There’s no water, it never rains enough, and the air is terrible, some of the worst in the country (the Central Valley is a bowl that traps smog; fire season and big agribusiness don’t help). On a really bad day, it’s like breathing through an exhaust pipe.
There’s only one word for this landscape: brutal. Even for me — a Bakersfield native — the change in landscape is jarring. There’s a sense of apocalypse around the corner throughout the Central Valley.
There are other kinds of landscape changes, too. The stores stop being cute and don’t take shit. It’s not particularly gentrified. There are combination beauty supply/liquor stores. There are tons of vacant lots and formerly vacant lots now occupied by big-box stores like Walmart. There are countless trucks rolling coal with those “Calvin urinating on Osama bin Laden” bumper stickers on the back window.
And the white trucks don’t stay white for long: You’re always at war with the dust. The Central Valley feels like one big city predicated on the idea that everybody is fine driving four hours to get to its far-flung attractions. A city where neighborhoods are 100 miles apart. Growing up, I didn’t know anybody who wasn’t down for an eight-hour drive. And the 99, the deadliest highway in America, was our Mississippi River of smog.
The 99 has a lot of history. It was California’s mother road, our 66. It used to go from Canada to Mexico, passing through a bunch of largely agricultural towns you’d only know if you had family there. Hardscrabble joints, places where bars are called saloons or honky-tonks. Places that feel different, like the 21st century hasn’t quite happened to them yet.
That’s because in a way, it hasn’t. In the ’50s, when World War II was over and folks headed to California not because they were forced to, but because they were flush with cash and wanted a cut of that California dream, Highway 99 was bypassed by the 5 under Eisenhower’s interstate system. It changed the economic folkways of the state. People began moving to the suburbs, and industry and white-collar work boomed. The towns on the 99 became a bit forsaken, and the metal on the neon signs of the old motels started getting rustier. There’s a feeling when you drive through the tiny towns on the 99 that you’ve been warped into 1976, like Brigadoon if it starred Harry Dean Stanton. One big fire and it was never there.
From Bakersfield, you’ve got about two more hours of driving north to get to Chowchilla, 90 minutes if you speed. Most everybody does. It’s a game you play with the California Highway Patrol, figuring out where they’re going to hide their radar guns, then getting in the slow lane like you just got back from church. The drive is mostly grain silos and fast food signs and a bunch of tiny towns that are pretty much the same, all equipped with a highway-side motel that’d make a good place to get shot.
I got to Chowchilla after dark. I saw an Arby’s sign, a Carl’s Jr. sign, two or three cars on the road, and a whole lot of wide, flat nothin’. I was here to get my hands around the whispered horror story I was told but mostly eavesdropped on growing up, the one the adults kept from the kids, the one that made me just a bit uneasy whenever I saw a school bus out on the horizon; the one that has come to define this town to outsiders for 45 years.
The police in Chowchilla get a call at about 7 pm, from an anonymous woman, who directed them to the quarry. “Livermore can become famous.” Later in the night, Mayor Jim Dumas’s wife gets a call from another anonymous woman. “The children will be found, but there will be others. It’s not over.” A hundred miles away, 27 people are buried in a moving van, sweating, crying, and struggling to breathe. And despite the mysterious phone calls, the police have no idea why. There’s no motive. And no ransom note: The kidnappers forgot to deliver one.
Assigned to the case was Madera County Sheriff Ed Bates. Cowboy town, cowboy sheriff, and everything that means: the hat, boot-cut jeans, Western jacket, bolo tie, a .45 Long Colt on his hip. If you can believe it, he was considered tough on crime.
There are lots of tall tales about Ed Bates. When World War II broke out, Bates, a junior in high school, went to the Marine recruitment center with a forged family Bible, claiming he was born in 1923 instead of 1925. Another story I heard repeated about him goes like this: The Hells Angels are coming into Madera County, and they’re taking a route that will force them to take a specific bridge in the county. There’s no alternate route. Bates parks his squad car in the middle of the bridge, gets out, and leans against the hood with a shotgun. The Hells Angels don’t make it to Madera County. Regardless of the story’s veracity, the point is the same: You didn’t fuck with this guy.
Early on in my trip to Chowchilla, I went to the Madera County Sheriff’s Office, out by the municipal airport, hoping to find anybody who could meaningfully recall the investigation.
“Nobody’s gonna talk,” Commander Bill Ward told me. “Not a single person in this town wants to talk about it again.”
He ushered in another deputy.
“Who’s still around in Chowchilla?”
“The old-timers are all gone now, huh. There’s nobody left.”
Then Bill remembered something: Ed Bates was still alive. Bill guessed he’d be around 100 years old, but somebody’d said he was still sharp. I called him up.
“I’ve been a fortunate guy,” he said from his home near Yosemite. “I was in the Merchant Marines with German submarines trying to get me. I was in the Navy for almost 10 years with the Japs and Soviets trying to get me. I’ve been shot at and they missed. I’ve been shot at and they hit. I’ve been cut with knives. A guy hit me across the back of the head with a two-by-four, and I had to have a neck operation.
“That’s one of the reasons I retired.”
Point is, if there was a lunatic on the loose kidnapping children, he was the guy for the job. He was fearless. He could take on anybody and he’d seen just about everything. When word traveled to him about Ed Ray’s bus gone missing, he was ready. “My wife was with me, and we were just getting in the car, getting ready to go out to dinner, when the call came in that one of our deputies was checking the route of the Chowchilla ‘bus-nap’ case,” he said. He immediately went down to the station.
“I guess I’m a fundamentalist on this,” he said, early in the investigation, “but I can’t help but think anybody who would do this, who would take boys and girls and kidnap them, whatever their motive, can’t help but be psychotic. Whether it is political, whether it is self‐serving … I can’t help but think it’s psychotic.”
Essentially, whoever was vicious, unfeeling, and deranged enough to commit this crime, to take so many innocent lives and throw them in the garbage, Bates wasn’t intimidated by them.
Frederick Newhall Woods IV, 24, is a funny-lookin’ kid. He’s got long gold hair and a goofy mustache. He looks kinda like Lee Marvin if Lee Marvin was melting and lived with his parents. And like a lot of people whose names end in IV, he’s got more money than God.
His middle name comes from Henry Mayo Newhall, who traveled to California in 1850 with the miners to strike it rich, and did, in land and railroad speculation. He formed the Newhall Land and Farming Company, which his children incorporated in 1883. By 1976, the family was making $80 million a year in ranching, oil, and land ($370 million today). It was Henry Newhall’s land that became Santa Clarita and Valencia. The oldest community in the area — Newhall — is even named for him.
Fred’s dad, Frederick Newhall Woods III, owns a rambling estate in the wealthy Bay Area town of Portola Valley, called the Hawthornes. It’s 79 acres. He lives quietly with his wife, Frances, and his mom, Fred’s grandma, who lives in a cottage on the property, tended to by a 24/7 nurse. Fred IV lives in an apartment garage around back.
The wealth of Portola Valley can be described in exactly one way: fuck-you money. Today, it’s one of the richest towns in America. The kids in Portola Valley get cars for graduation. They’re the kind of people who light cigars with hundred-dollar bills. “Most kids here are rich punks,” says a bartender at the nearby Alpine Inn, where these kids and all their Stanford friends drink. They act as recklessly as you might imagine. “There’s a $1,000 reward for some kid who poisoned six dogs. I don’t know anyone around here who doesn’t do drugs. Everyone here can afford them.”
This is the world of Fred Newhall Woods IV, who is nowhere near mature enough when he watches Dirty Harry, a film in which some guy hijacks a school bus in the Bay Area and asks for a ransom and a flight out of Santa Rosa before fleeing to a quarry and holding a kid at gunpoint.
Fred is a big-time loner who’s lazy at school, directionless, and doesn’t much talk to girls, even though he was married to one for a few months. He has a trust fund that may or may not be worth over $100 million, shared with an institutionalized sister he doesn’t care to acknowledge. All he really cares about is cars, and he has north of 50 on his parents’ estate, many of them junkers. He carries pictures of his cars in his wallet. The neighbors complain about how often they hear shotgun blasts from the property. Apparently, he loves his cars so much he shoots out the windows for kicks.
Fred’s whole life is buying, selling, and repairing old cars on his dad’s live-oak- and manzanita-strangled estate. Technically, it’s a business he shares with his friend James “Jim” Schoenfeld, son of a wealthy Atherton podiatrist. James, 24, and his brother Richard, who goes by Rick, hang around Fred’s house a bunch, though James is a bit closer to Fred than Rick, who’s two years younger. They look like generic products of the ’60s with charmed lives. Gangly, good hair, boring. Dull boys all.
Fred has another business with another buddy, named David Boston. He’s a filmmaking major at San Jose State. They started a partnership in ’72 called Townhouse Enterprises. The dream is that Fred will flip cars and use the proceeds to finance David’s projects. They say they’re going to be producers.
In a letter to David, Fred writes that he has an idea. And he thinks this idea would make a good movie. This idea comes after Fred makes the huge mistake of watching Dirty Harry and decides he wants to dream up a heist of his own.
Fred starts talking about this big idea with James and Rick, and there, on his father’s estate, the Chowchilla kidnapping is born. At first, it’s hypothetical: lazy daydreaming and brainstorming sessions while the three work on cars. They’re just rich layabouts concocting the perfect crime, something everybody does. They’ve got nothing better to do.
Fred’s taking it seriously, though. And with Townhouse Enterprises, if he comes up with a good enough heist, he figures he has the potential to make twice as much cash from it: After the first payday, he’ll get another one as a film producer. It’s a tantalizing prospect — and slowly, the Schoenfelds start to think he’s onto something, too. At some point, they assign roles to each other. Fred, of course, is the leader. James is the planner, because he likes to write in notebooks and keeps a coded diary. Rick is just there for the ride.
They’re all in it for the money. But not just any money: government money.
To them, the money felt like a drop in the bucket, something harmless. In 1974, Gov. Ronald Reagan had announced a $5 billion budget surplus in California. “I kept thinking, you know, the state’s got more than it needs,” James later said. “They won’t miss $5 million. So I thought ... is there a way to get this money? Is there some way that I can get a lot of money to solve all my problems? The only thing I could think of was a kidnapping.”
The logic is that they’d need multiple victims for multiple millions. And they’d need to be children because people will do anything for children. And it had to be a school because keeping kids safe at school is a government responsibility. They’d pay the ransom no problem. “I wasn’t going to commit any crime, risk my life or risk my reputation for anything less than a million, so a bank robbery wouldn’t work, a drug deal wouldn’t work,” James continued. With a kidnapping, “the state pays us the ransom. We’re happy forever. All of our troubles are solved and we let the victims go, everybody’s happy.”
Now, it may seem counterintuitive that three wealthy Bay Area kids would want to commit the biggest kidnapping of all time for … money. But in reality, it was even more banal than that: They didn’t think their cars were fancy enough, and they wanted more. They weren’t trying to finance domestic terrorism or pay down a debt to the mob. They were trying to buy Ferraris.
“Years ago, I learned from an old lieutenant at the LAPD that the best way to find a crime’s cause is to make an equation: C = D + O,” Sheriff Bates told me. “That is, crime is the result of desire plus opportunity. If a person has a desire to commit crime and the opportunity, they’ll do it. That’s why multimillionaires steal money. They may have excellent DNA, social environments, parents, but they steal [anyway].”
If you look a little deeper, you’d see that these guys didn’t have a lot of liquid cash because they were in debt from parental loans for their “business ventures.” They wanted to get some freedom back, some respect. And among the youth of Portola Valley, cars were the primary indicator of coolness.
Per James’s notebook, this is how the three think it’s going to go down: They’ll need a bus, a plane, and three vans. One to get Fred and Rick to Chowchilla for the hijacking, and two more at a hidden location to transport the kids from the bus to the quarry.
Rick and Fred will board the bus. Rick will disable the driver with chloroform, and Fred will drive the bus to the hidden location where Fred keeps an eye on the bus. Rick will escort the kids two by two to the vans where Jim is waiting. Watch for kids making a run for it. Count the kids!
The notebook continues: Conceal the kids. Hide the vans. Go somewhere else to collect the money. From there, Rick will get a plane to take James to a small, uncontrolled airport like Lodi. They’ll meet Fred, who will hijack the plane. Then, “Rick and Fred load the dummies into the plane with parachutes, and an extra parachute of course! Jim is taking possession of the money thus; a state-employed secretary will be appointed to bring the money in three brown paper parcels and instructed to …”
… And that’s it. They don’t finish the sentence.
Another section of the notebook details other general stuff they had to remember: to burn the book (they forgot), to get infrared to see at night (they didn’t), to get a “Vote for Regan” (spelling theirs) bumper sticker to “be anonymous.” Some other items: Ask for used bills. Don’t spend money for seven years. Get an X-ray truck with gas masks and lead vests. A microwave oven to foul bugging devices. Melt all plastic. And in the heaviest lift a parenthetical has ever had to do, to “pick up the money using an illusion (like magic).” They forgot to learn that, too.
If this is confusing, it’s probably because it was a bad, poorly planned idea — hatched by teenagers who had never been denied anything, and whose idea of the perfect crime had largely come from movies they’d caught on TV. This was their master plan. Their whole preparation for the biggest kidnapping in America. Its main components — parachutes, plane hijackings, X-ray trucks, gas masks, and secret hideouts — sound like things a latchkey kid fresh out of high school would consider badass. It’s a plan you come up with after watching too many episodes of The Rockford Files and The FBI. A flight of fancy.
Which is exactly what it was.
But they continue with it all the same. Over the fall of 1975, Fred, James, and Rick are in Portola Valley, leaning on cars with shot-out windows and figuring out what else they need to buy. They already have plenty of guns — a shitload, actually. They buy three surplus shore patrol vans in Alameda and move them to a warehouse in San Jose. They go to Fred’s quarry and bury a moving van, cutting holes for vents and toilets. They reinforce the ceiling with lumber so it won’t collapse after it’s buried. By December, they’re ready to go.
They decide the $5 million ransom will get delivered to a drop site in the Santa Cruz mountains. This is the only part of their plan that could be considered clever. “It was pretty ingenious,” says Ed Bates. “They were going to drive up the coast to someplace heavily wooded, then go back inland and have airplanes patrol for 200 miles up and down the area until they saw a certain series of lights indicating [the drop site]. Then the money was to be dropped on them, and they’d be gone. By the time they had the money, nobody would be able to get there. You just can’t stake out 200 miles.”
They buy an X-ray machine from a Navy surplus disposal station in Alameda in case the ransom money is bugged. They make homemade bulletproof vests with scrap metal. Fred rents a trailer in Reno for a safe house and gets a passport under a fake name: Ralph Snider. He buys a printing calculator to count his money.
In December ’75, James writes in his diary that The Exorcist is making him question his sanity and making him afraid of Satan. On New Year’s Eve, he writes about his impatience and laziness and being a doormat to Fred. He feels he’s becoming immoral.
Half a year later, Ed Ray and 26 children are wondering if they’ll die in a van buried 12 feet under the earth.
There ain’t much to Chowchilla. You can’t really get lost. It’s just one palm-tree-lined main street with pretty much every local business on it. It’s nice. A dusty little Western town. You got your steakhouse, you got your burger place, you got your barber, you got your mechanic, you got your pizza place and taco stand. It still looks pretty much like the stock photos I looked at from ’76. Not many chains have moved in. They’re helpfully demarcated on the eastern side of the freeway. In an Eggleston way, Chowchilla is quite pretty. You can pull up right to the front of the store and say hi to the guy who runs it and it’s always nice when people know each other. It feels like home.
“Chowchilla was originally, I was told by the old-time officers, a pretty bad town in that there were a lot of — I don’t use this as a derogatory term — Okies,” was how Ed Bates described it, which is exactly what it is: an agricultural town with roots in Oklahoma and Arkansas. (Once upon a time, “Okie” was a derogatory term used to stigmatize Dust Bowl refugees who moved to California in the 1930s, where they found low-paid agricultural work, harsh living conditions, and prejudice from locals.)
I drove around Chowchilla aimlessly, thinking about what it would be like to grow up here in the region’s prime. How stoic it could make you. How practical it could make you. How little patience you’d have for city folk, or even having nearby neighbors. How it could make loners out of people.
That particular day, I pulled up to the city hall, searching for a phone book — my best shot at finding people who might remember what went down in ’76. Thumbing the pages, I called up Patty Mandrell, a name recommended by Commander Ward. She was a reporter at the paper, back when towns had those. She was with it and, crucially, didn’t hang up the second I said “bus kidnapping.”
“You’re looking for the human story? This is the story of a town coming together. There wasn’t a single person in this town who didn’t know somebody on that bus,” she said in that great old Central Valley accent that isn’t quite an accent so much as a signal that they won’t put up with any bullshit, especially not from you.
“It affected every single person. The amount of unity and pulling together was beautiful. Churches we might have had doctrinal differences with came together and held prayer services.” She took a breath. “But things changed. After that, you didn’t see kids on the street, and if you did, their parents were grasping them for dear life.”
“It was like a storm, a calamity, that the town had to weather.”
She paused again.
“I have to go, I’m driving.”
She didn’t answer my calls again.
27 US CHILDREN DISAPPEAR
Australia, Canberra Times, 7/17/1976.
MISTERIOSAMENTE, 27 CRIANCAS DESAPARECEM
Brazil, Folha de São Paulo, 7/17/1976.
FBI IN HUNT FOR ABDUCTED CHILDREN
Ireland, Irish Independent, 7/17/1976.
UN’INTERA SCOLARESCA SCOMPARSA IN USA: SEQUESTRO?
Italy, L’Unita (Italian Communist Party Newspaper), 7/17/1976.
ENCONTRARON AYER ILESOS A 26 NINOS SECUESTRADOS
Mexico, Guadalajara El Informador, 7/17/1976.
DISPARITION DE 27 ECOLIERS EN CALIFORNIE
Switzerland, L’Impartial, 7/17/1976.
“1976 was the 200th birthday of our country, and there was parade after parade, and Fourth of July celebrations,” Ronnie Ray told me during a recent phone call. “It seemed like it was going on forever. And this [kidnapping] was the end of it. Across the whole country, not just here, it ended it.”
Even after all these years, Ronnie Ray’s recollections support contemporary accounts and news coverage in painting a picture of a town briefly united by fear, grief, and — maybe most of all — distrust of outsiders.
The night of the kidnapping, a lightning strike took out electricity to a lot of the town. It was dark. Parents lit candles, played board games with their kids, and tried to assure them it was all right. But kids are perceptive. They know when you’re lying more often than you’d think.
At the Ray family ranch, everybody gathered at Ed’s house. They left the TV on the whole time, tuned to the news. Ed hated television, and would shell walnuts whenever his family had it on, but they needed to know everything they could. People tried to remember the last time they’d seen Ed. Baling hay at noon. Asking for a Pepsi after he was done and sitting under a shade tree. (Back then, the Central Valley seems to have been more a Pepsi than a Coke market. Ed didn’t drink coffee, but he loved a cold Pepsi.)
The bus was found, empty, about a quarter mile east of Pete Cornaggie’s dairy barn. People started crying. Ed’s older brother was ghostly white and couldn’t move. It was too much. Too much consoling. Too many people bringing well-meaning but utterly uninteresting food and prayers, checking in on Odessa. The sinking feeling was hitting people. The fear that someone was dead.
But soon, that was replaced by anger. A news segment, done by some two-bit reporter from out of town, questioned Ed Ray’s integrity. In transparently bad faith, and although the bus driver had no criminal record, the two-bit reporter had asked, “Could he be involved in this bizarre crime?” The room was stunned. You didn’t ask that about Ed Ray.
“It was unbelievable the way the press stormed into town,” Ronnie told me. “They had table after table of phone lines, and computers were really getting a stronghold, and they had reporters from all over the world. And during all this time, we didn’t know where Ed was.”
Meanwhile, Sheriff Bates was fielding phone tips down at the station and trying to do right by the victims’ parents. It was a mess. As soon as the kidnapping hit the news — and before that, among locals — people were calling in false tips by the bucketload. Child’s shoe on a desert highway side? Call it in. Suspicious-looking fella down the street? Call it in. Some guy who has tattoos and doesn’t take good care of his van? Call it in.
“We only had one phone line going into what we called an ‘office’ in Chowchilla. I had raised all billy hell with the supervisor of the district,” recalled Bates in 2020. “As soon as these people kidnapped the children, every line was busy. So I called the FBI and told them. Next thing I know, I got 50 FBI agents down there. They called the telephone company and put up 30 or 40 phones.”
The lines were jammed and stayed that way. But all of it was noise. And for all the gathered law enforcement and well-meaning locals, frustration was mounting because they had nothing to go on.
But they kept searching. Bates connected an FBI agent with one of his men, a reserve officer. They had a horse outfit that rescued people in the mountains. They had a four-wheel-drive unit, a snow unit, and lots of ham radio operators. These “special forces for volunteers” had taken a basic law enforcement and firearms course, and they had uniforms made. They all showed up. Every sheriff from every nearby county showed up, too.
All of a sudden Bates was working with nearly 100 people, and the station was his Mission Control. They walked the whole route of the bus, picking up anything that could even possibly be evidence. Cigarette butts, beer cans, chip bags, anything. None of it would prove useful. They didn’t have a damn thing to go on besides intuition.
So many gathered investigators, and none of it was bearing fruit. And the FBI, weighed down by pageantry and self-importance, wasn’t much help.
Bates would later recall an assistant director of the FBI barging into the case, “a big shot from Los Angeles who doesn’t know me from Adam.” Bates was in his full cowboy regalia. You could drop him onto the set of Gunsmoke and he wouldn’t look out of place. The G-man from LA was firmly rooted in white-collar 1976, and his condescension showed it.
When the FBI man (Bates didn’t remember his name) entered the command center where all the lawmen were set up, he looked around, passing over Bates, then he addressed a highway patrol commissioner sent to Chowchilla for extra manpower.
“Sheriff, we’re here to help you.”
“Sheriff’s over there. Talk to him.”
The FBI man took one look at Bates and left the room.
Late into the night, the kidnapped children’s parents and some good Samaritans all gather at the firehouse. Bates calls the jail to bring bologna sandwiches, which is all they have. The fire department passes out coffee, and the churches donate entirely too many desserts. Way more than anybody can eat. Even though there isn’t much to say, Bates decides to get up and address the parents and their loved ones.
“Let me tell you something,” he begins. “No one is going to try and get away with hurting 26 children and a bus driver. Where are they going to hide them? Where are they going to put them? They have to take care of them somehow. If you had a herd of ducks, you’d have to keep them somewhere. Whoever did this doesn’t want to hurt your children. They want money. And you haven’t got any money. They’re going to ask the government to provide it. Nobody else has money like that.”
In Livermore, Ed Ray and his 26 passengers have been in the dark for 15 hours. They’re all half-naked and sweating constantly, trying to sleep, crying, exhausted. They’re in hell, and death has crossed the minds of many of them. Even Ed has been losing hope and has tears in his eyes, though he diligently pours water on himself and Marshall to cool them down. It’s unbelievably hot.
For the past five hours, two of the older boys, a 14-year-old named Mike Marshall and a 10-year-old named Robert Gonzales, have been stacking up mattresses with Ed and using all the energy they have left to remove the weighted metal plate entombing them and push away the tractor batteries. Mike says he’s not going to die without trying to get out. Ed is worried that the kidnappers might still be there, with guns trained on them, but he’s still helping.
Heave. Heave. Heave. Pour more water on yourself. Heave.
They remove wooden slats from the bedsprings on their mattresses and attempt to pry up an opening.
Ed Ray is a burly guy. He’s worked his whole life on a ranch, and bucked his fair share of 160-pound hay bales, but still, it seems impossible. He lies on his back and pushes at it with his legs. Another hour goes by. Mike and Robert keep heaving, sweating too hard to think about dying. They’re just pushing. Ed’s shining a flashlight on them.
Then Mike sees the steel plate budge. Just a little. Maybe half an inch. A thin line of blue light.
Around 8 pm on July 16, Ed Ray, in his underwear, led the children down a dirt road to a nearby grain elevator. A quarry employee was finishing up a welding job. He saw the kids in the distance and pushed an alarm button, assuming it was trespassers. Ed ran to the tower.
“We’re the ones from Chowchilla.”
The guy gave Ed a Pepsi and some coveralls.
Back in Chowchilla, the news was already coming in. By midnight, a crowd of hundreds gathered by the police and fire stations, waiting for Ed and the children to return. People talked about what a blessing it was that no one was injured. They wondered who the kidnappers had to be. Madmen. Crazy men.
Ed and the kids were loaded into a red, white, and blue Greyhound and escorted to the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution for food, new clothes, and a health evaluation. Four hours later, around 4 in the morning, the Greyhound pulled into the alley behind the police station. Everybody whooped and hollered and flashbulbs went off like gunshots and microphones were shoved in faces and TV cameras were everywhere and parents ran toward their children.
Ed came out last, exhausted and bewildered. The last thing he wanted was to talk to a bunch of reporters. Besides, he’d already been questioned by the FBI for hours. Eventually, Odessa, still pissed off by the news report impugning Ed’s character, walked out to the congregated media and told them Ed would tell his story under one condition: no questions. Sheriff Bates stood by her side as reporters (you have to imagine begrudgingly) agreed to the terms.
He walked out to the cameras. He tried to look pleasant, but the bright lights were blinding, especially at 4 am after several days without sleep. Finally, in a virtually extinct Dust Bowl drawl, he started talking.
“We was ordered down into this van. Buried in the rock,” he began. “They give us a flashlight. It was dark down there. All we had to eat was a couple bags of tater chips and Cheerios. [Phonetically, chair-ee-ohs.] They put a couple mattresses and box springs in there for us to sit on. We took the flashlight and shined it around. Me and a couple of the older kids figured the only way out was the way we came in, but we didn’t have no ladder. We stacked up those mattresses and box springs to reach the hole. They’d put a piece of plywood over the hole. We tried to push it off. It was too heavy but we could tell there was some dirt showin’ ’round the edges.” What he didn’t say, and couldn’t possibly have known, was that the batteries plus the dirt and rock weighed a few hundred pounds.
“Ed’s sole purpose during this whole episode was the safety of the kids. He saw it as his job to get those kids home safe,” said Ronnie of why he handled the ordeal the way he did. “That’s why when they pulled a gun on him, he stayed put. Ed was a strong enough man that one blow from his fist would have laid those guys out.”
Ed’s patience and desire to keep the kids safe did not go unappreciated — to either the parents or the entire town. That Sunday, virtually every citizen of Chowchilla would attend church and sing “How Great Thou Art.” I can’t speak to other religions, but if you’ve ever been to a Southern Baptist service, you’d know that this is one of the hits. People love singing this hymn. It’s one that makes people throw away their self-consciousness and sing whether they can or can’t because it’s so soaring and joyful.
O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds thy hand hath made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy pow’r throughout the universe displayed;
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee;
How great thou art! How great thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee;
How great thou art! How great thou art!
To Chowchilla, what had happened was on the order of a miracle. It was the power of prayer. It was the grace of God: He was watching over those kids, over Ed. It was cause for joy and exultation. If you told somebody 26 kids went missing, the most ever in America, that somebody would likely assume they were dead. But they’d survived! All of them! Many potlucks would ensue.
Mayor Dumas was already plotting Ed Ray and Children’s Day, an event to honor him with a parade and 7,500 pounds of barbecue beef. President Ford was invited. Dumas said letters in support of the idea had come from places as far as Hong Kong, Brazil, and Australia. But for the parents, it wasn’t enough: Underneath the relief and celebration, something else was already bubbling. People in Chowchilla were happy the kids had made it home safe, but there was anxiety — and anger. A little town of farmers, rodeo riders, churchgoers, why us? It seemed like nobody could sleep comfortably until the kidnappers had been hanged.
“I’m basically a pessimistic person, but I wasn’t this time,” mused the mother of two victims. “You just have to be a mother to understand it. I don’t know how I feel about the kidnappers right now. But I do believe in capital punishment.”
“People who do this type of thing need to be prosecuted and hung on national TV,” said the father of another one of the victims.
“I wouldn’t let ’em live if I could get ahold of ’em,” said Ed Ray.
To this day, it’s still unclear exactly what the kidnappers did after they left Ed Ray and a busload of children buried alive. But we can piece together parts of it — everything breathtakingly stupid. We know that on Friday night, when word started to spread that the children were missing, Richard Schoenfeld was back in Portola Valley, at Fred Woods’s estate. He was nervous. The idea of pulling off the perfect crime, outsmarting the law, and making your getaway — in the movies, it’d been romanticized. But what he was feeling was the opposite of that. For Rick, it was something more like running off a cliff and forgetting humans don’t fly. He just wasn’t cut out for a life of crime.
There was also definitely some phone tag among the three men after they found out the children had escaped. They all agreed it was time to scram. A few packed duffle bags later, they made a rendezvous in the middle of the night — James and Fred in one car, and Rick in another — at a nondescript and remote warehouse off I-280, where they stashed their vans.
Once they parked, there was presumably some frantic whispering, and lots of cussing. They were probably really sweaty and panicked from the combination of fatigue and adrenaline that comes with committing a crime and then running away from it. They also knew: This thing was over.
Shortly after grabbing whatever they thought they needed from the warehouse, James and Fred sped off into the night in a 1963 Chrysler, toward the trailer in Reno that would serve as home base on the sojourn to their final escape destination of Canada. But Rick went home. He already knew he’d be turning himself in. He confessed to his dad, who did what any rich dad would do: set him up with a lawyer. This lawyer is, in part, why no one knows how these three spent the hours between when they pushed the tractor batteries over the giant hole they’d dug up, and when Ed and the kids pushed them off. The lawyer was very expensive.
By the 19th, law enforcement had traced the kidnap van. Bates found an FBI agent who was less elitist and talked to him about trying to track the other ones — and, hopefully, the kidnappers themselves.
“I’m going to put out an all-points bulletin to be on the lookout for these vans.”
“Oh, we don’t do that.”
“Don’t do what?”
“We don’t send those out. We keep that information silent from the news. We say the FBI director has announced the kidnapping and it’s under investigation.”
“Well, that’s what you do. But that’s not what I do.”
Bates put out the APB.
Fifty state and local investigators began looking for the kidnappers, searching up and down the West. By the 22nd, Frederick Newhall Woods IV was officially a suspect. It was noted that he was arrested, along with the Schoenfelds, back in ’74 for joyriding. After the Woods estate was raided and reporters asked him about the situation, Fred Woods III said, “I can’t say if I have one son or 10 sons.” His ailing mother emerged from her sickbed to ask reporters for Lana Turner’s address so she could write her a letter.
By the 23rd, the undelivered ransom note was found. It was exactly what you’d expect. Naive. Dashed off. Lots of words crossed out with pen, like it was written in 30 seconds. It says “you’re [sic] bus has been kidnapped.” It claims they’re members of some unknown Satanic cabal called “Beelzebub,” but they don’t even spell it right. And it mentions Fred by name. It reads like a rough draft for their own use. Like an afterthought. Like the money wasn’t even that important. The vans were found soon after, along with about 4,000 pieces of incredibly damning evidence at the scene.
Beelsabub [sic] was finished. The search was on for Fred Woods IV and the Schoenfeld brothers.
In Chowchilla, Judge Howard Green skipped a fishing trip to sign warrants and set the bail at $1 million, taking into account the “wealthy background” of the suspects. The next day, a guilt-racked Rick Schoenfeld, who had spent his time as a fugitive pacing around his parents’ house and reading the news, surrendered in Oakland with his dad and lawyer present. The scene was subdued. Onlookers chanted as he walked past. One remarked casually, “I haven’t heard any plans for revenge, but I think he should be turned over to the fathers of the victims.”
The judge, known for his down-home style, had slightly different opinions. “A person is a human being, and if you can leave him with his dignity when he leaves court, you’ve done your job,” he later said, before adding, “That doesn’t mean I won’t punish them, though.”
Meanwhile, a nationwide manhunt was on for James and Fred. There were sightings of them clear out to Tennessee. James would later write the following in his notebook: “I save swear words for bad situations but all I could think of was oh shit!”
After the kids escaped, Fred and James had driven out to their safe house in Reno. Then, using his phony passport, Fred had flown up to Vancouver, leaving James behind with no good options. Alone and terrified, he fled to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, because of its proximity to a border crossing. But on the 18th, when he tried to get to Canada, 100 miles north, he was turned away by border patrol because he was too nervous (and, well, his car was full of guns).
Driving back to Coeur d’Alene, James couldn’t keep his cool. He was too exhausted. In a desperate last ride, he drove to Spokane to sell his guns at a sporting goods store. Then, believing he’d done his due diligence, he tried again to enter Canada at Cascade. He was refused, this time because of Fred: He’d left two pistols in the center console and two rifles in the trunk, which James had somehow missed when he was specifically looking for guns to get rid of. He turned back to Coeur d’Alene and sold them before abandoning his ’63 Chrysler, trading it for a ’50 Chrysler van. He was filthy, broke, smelled like garbage, and hadn’t slept in a bed in five days. And he continued writing in his diary through it all.
“Remember there is something good in everything. Why don’t people see the good? They only see the bad. I will continue to see good in everything no matter what happens. Refer to the myth of Sisiphus [sic].”
“Turn yourself in, it’s the only respectable thing to do!”
“The crime should not be copied therefore those responsible should be made examples to those with similar ideas. Correct Atittutde [sic] but I hope they take into effect that we will never do a dishonest thing again and that the initial verdict of life would sufice [sic]as a deterant [sic]. Perspective criminals will expect to get life (they may not but note the 3-7 probation).”
As tempting as it is to attribute his failure to leave the country to incompetence (though that’s not irrelevant), the notebook suggests maybe he just didn’t have it in him. That he didn’t have the stubbornness Fred had, and didn’t have the drive, to live outside the law. With newfound resolve (and a guilty conscience), he finally headed home to turn himself in — but thanks to an APB out on his license plate, he was pulled over in Atherton. He didn’t even succeed at surrendering.
Fred got to Vancouver at 6 pm the Saturday after the children’s escape, and checked into the St. Francis Hotel on Seymour Street by the freight yards. He paid in advance and asked the hotel manager if he could get some work. “He seemed like a big dunce of a kid,” the manager later said. “He dressed like a cowboy and grinned all the time.”
During this time, Fred didn’t do much. Sat around in the lobby. Wrote some letters. Watched bad episodes of old TV shows in syndication (The F.B.I.). Waited for James. Laid low. Drank coffee. He wrote a letter to his screenwriter friend, David, telling him that his crime would make a good movie of the week, if not a feature. It was too sensationalistic for someone not to cash in — so why not him? “My ending is not exciting enough, so you might have to kill some people or something! If you do make it into a film All [sic]I want is a % of it, you make it up I don’t care how much but be fare [sic]!”
This letter would contribute to his downfall. On Friday, acting on an FBI tip, plainclothes officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police staked out the main Vancouver post office. They knew Fred had been sending letters under the name Richard Snider. They waited and waited, and finally sprang into action, only to mistakenly tackle two German students.
They started waiting again, and waiting. And eventually, they saw Fred. He walked in, checked his mail, didn’t get any, then turned around to leave and walked right into custody.
“I am really sorry I’m going to miss this on the news tonight,” he said. “I’ve got a feeling I won’t get a fair trial down there. In a community like that, you would assume that if anybody is suspected of this thing at all, like not proven guilty, but suspected, that they’ll just automatically say they’re guilty.” When informed that his bail was set at $1 million, he added, “It seems kind of high.”
After the three kidnappers had been busted and sufficiently humiliated, Chowchilla slept a bit easier. It felt impossibly fitting that all three of these kidnappers had self-consciously styled themselves like cowboys and were brought down by a community of real ones. Ed Ray and Children’s Day was held and went off without a hitch. There was a parade, and Ed rode a float down Robertson Boulevard to the fairground with all the kids, who kept hugging him. There was prayer and a country feast, and they ate lots of beef. There were marching bands and equestrian units. There were lots of plaques and donations.
When Ed finally said something, it wasn’t much.
“More people turned out today than I thought there would be,” he began. “I didn’t know I had so many friends. I don’t really feel like a hero, but for the past month, everybody has been telling me I am.”
Later on, asked if he should have handled the situation differently, Ed thought for a second and said simply, “If it happened again, I’d do the same things again, except I wouldn’t stop for a van in the road.”
The porch in Port Royal, Virginia, where John Wilkes Booth bled to death, was a tourist attraction in the 1800s and into the 1900s. After its owners left, it fell into decay. By the time of the Dust Bowl, the house was falling down. Now, there’s nothing left but some weeds by the side of the highway — a place where nothing will ever happen again. But I can’t help but wonder if, standing there, I’d hear the ghosts of 1865.
I wondered the same with Chowchilla. I went to the kidnapping site, to see if there was something psychically different about it. Wondering if I could hear some ghosts — something that sounds foolish on paper but is a pretty normal thing to do. I drove out, parked the car, and decided to stand in the road until I saw another car, which I never did.
There was nothing there. No sign that anything had ever happened. No marker. Just dirt and asphalt. Across the way, a dry canal. I took some pictures of the spot, or at least I think I did. But I can’t tell it apart from any other picture I’ve taken of dirt and asphalt.
I suspect if you asked Ed Ray what he wanted people to know about him, his answer would be nothing. He just wanted to bale hay and drink Pepsi and shell walnuts. He wanted to be left alone. Over time, the media drive to make him a celebrity made him more and more withdrawn. He certainly didn’t want to see reporters peering over his chain-link fence.
Nobody was getting over his fence, though. Ever. After the kidnapping, Ed was gifted a German shepherd named Buddy. I’ve been assured that Buddy could kill you in five seconds.
A few months back, I was at city hall talking to Chowchilla’s then-mayor, Dennis Haworth, about Ed Ray and his family. Fun guy. Doesn’t fuck around when he’s talking. Bald, middle-aged, tough; looks like he’d be hard to knock down. He should be: He’s a cop.
We sat down and Haworth told me about how, on what would have been Ed Ray’s 94th birthday a few years back, Chowchilla renamed its biggest park Ed Ray Park. There was a ceremony there and everybody turned out, including the press. The mayor was supposed to give a speech about Ed, but the family didn’t want any speech from an elected official. So he just read the official proclamation and left. Then Ed’s family took the stage and offered some obligatory platitudes, and that was it. That was the whole ceremony. They’re intensely private people, Haworth told me, and so was Ed Ray.
But Ed wasn’t the only one who wouldn’t talk about the kidnapping. In fact, in Chowchilla, it became pretty standard practice. Haworth told me that when he was in elementary school, his mom said never to ask about it, and that all questions about it should be talked about quietly at home. “It was rude to discuss. It was one of those things we discussed privately so we didn’t forget it, but there were no memorials. We never got together, but we weren’t ashamed. It was out of respect. The kids who were involved were hurt, and it scared the hell out of everybody. It was solemn.”
But as with lots of things nobody wants to talk about, there were always whispers — and the further you got from Chowchilla, the louder they got. In 1976, when the kidnapping happened, Haworth was 3, and his dad had a farm in Tonga, in the South Pacific. A few years after the crime, while he and his dad were in town getting dinner at a hotel, they sat next to a New Zealand couple and started chatting.
“Where you guys from?”
“We’re from California — Fresno. Well, a little town outside Fresno.”
“Oh … What’s the name of the town?”
The lady turned to Haworth right then and there and asked, “Were you on the bus?”
This was in Tonga.
“When I told my mom after we got back home, she just said, ‘Yeah, it affected every parent on the planet,’” he says. “There are people who kept their kids home from school in other countries because it scared them so bad. The social backdrop of the ’70s gets lost: Political violence, assassinations, Hearst … [then] a busload of children disappears? Everything was going crazy at once. Throw in this tiny-ass little town, and if it can happen there, it can happen anywhere. Nobody’s safe.”
After the parade, everything went back to normal — or, more accurately, the performance of normal. Fred, James, and Rick all went to the local jail — Sheriff Bates’s jail — to await their court date. Justice would be served. But for a few, it wasn’t coming soon enough: According to Ed Bates, some local farmers and ranchers had apparently hatched a plan, and sent a representative to get his approval.
“Ed, we know you and we know you’re a tough guy on crime,” the messenger said. “What would you do if some of us came into your jail and took those three guys out and hung them?” Bates didn’t hesitate in his response: “I’m sorry, I’d have to kill you. Nobody’s taking those prisoners out of this jail except by lawful authority.”
Later that night, someone drove by the jail and shot out all the windows with shotguns, presumably to send a message and rattle the kidnappers. But Fred, James, and Rick survived the night unharmed.
On July 25, 1977, Woods and the Schoenfelds pleaded guilty on 27 counts of kidnapping for ransom without inflicting bodily injury, reversing their initial pleas. In exchange, the prosecution dropped the 18 counts of armed robbery against them. For the five charges of kidnapping with bodily harm — a crime that carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole in California — the three pleaded not guilty. As a result, the case would go to trial, and after the three waived the option for a jury, the decision as to whether they would ever be able to get parole was left to Superior Court Judge Leo Deegan.
Ed Ray was there that day. As he left the court, he said, “Now, I’m ready to party it up tonight.”
The trial began in Oakland in the fall, under intense media attention. The kidnappers would be largely silent and stone-faced the entire time, lest they derail their robust defense team, who were buying time and trying to prove the kidnapping victims had survived unharmed.
The first witness on the stand was Ed Ray. He gave a straightforward account of what happened during the kidnapping, admitting he ate a piece of bread the kidnappers left, which he felt he shouldn’t have done. Then all the kids testified, one by one. Many tears ensued. One 10-year-old said she’d felt like the air was disappearing. “It started to get hard to breathe,” she said. “All I thought was the whole thing was going to cave in and we’d be squished.” They called their buried prison “the hole.”
The trial ended on December 15, in a half-full court. The judge softly said that the children’s testimony was pretty much enough: The level of terror they survived constituted bodily harm. This all but ensured that parole was out of the question for all three kidnappers — or would have been out, if they didn’t have luxury-model attorneys. Over the years and with constant legal maneuvering, they all became eligible for parole. The conviction on the bodily harm charges was eventually overturned.
The Schoenfeld brothers are out now. They were model prisoners, both. A few years back, they got paroled and went to Mountain View to tend to their nonagenarian mother. They’ve never talked about the case since. But at James’s last parole hearing, 39 years after the crime, he was totally transparent about his motive: He really did just want a nicer car.
“I wanted to fit in with these new people that we moved next to,” he said. “And you know, my friend’s parents had twin Ferraris, his and hers with telephones in them. My dad lent me some money. I bought a Jaguar. I found out that the insurance was more than I made in a whole year, so two months later I had to sell the Jaguar. ... I just figured I need money. Money would solve all my problems.”
Fred’s still locked up. As the real architect of the crime, he’s been denied parole more than 15 times. “As far as I’m concerned, the brothers were duped,” says Ed Bates. “They were just young, uneducated guys looking for a little excitement and got suckered in.” He added that Fred’s parents had since died and left him their fortune — so he’s likely doing just fine. “When you got that kind of money, you can get other prisoners to do anything you want.”
It seems unlikely he’ll ever get paroled. Just a few months ago, it came out that he was running a used car dealership in Tehachapi and a Christmas tree lot in the Bay Area — all from the confines of his prison cell. He keeps getting caught with contraband pornography and cellphones. He recently bought a mansion on the coast. But perhaps his justice is the most poetic of all: All he ever cared about was cars, and he’ll probably never get to drive one again.
Meanwhile, Chowchilla pressed on like it never happened. Every few years, a news van or two would show up for the anniversary hoping to find some drunks who wanted to talk, but except for those anniversaries, there was really no lingering proof it ever happened. Ed went back to his bus route after going on an episode of Hollywood Squares, and all the kids went to Disneyland. They all felt trauma and pain and stayed awake late at night. Some are still afraid of the dark.
Ed went from private to reclusive in the aftermath. Too many people tried to exploit him, get him to sign different contracts for ghostwritten books, to profiteer. “It wasn’t him,” said Ronnie about how Ed could have exploited what had happened to him. “He wouldn’t take advantage of you, me, or anybody else for a dollar. He was a working man. He absolutely did not want anybody to say he made a nickel off that, and he did not.”
The limelight also just never suited him. He wasn’t a political man or a talker. He was humble. If you wanted to talk to him after the kidnapping, he’d change the subject, open up about work. Some project he was working on. Fixing the bus. Haying. When it came time to plant cotton, he might have been inclined to speculate about the weather, if rain was coming or not. If you were family and you got past his gate, he’d warmly tell you, “Well, come on in and have a cold drink, have a Pepsi.” If you were a reporter, well, he’d probably have nothing to say.
He didn’t care much for the rewards and gifts he got, either — especially from people outside of town. “He won a couple trips, I don’t know where to … and some luggage from different sponsors,” Ronnie said. “And when he got home and they sent him a bill for the sales tax, he about died. ‘I won $3,000, and I get a bill for sales tax.’”
There were other indignities, too. Most of all, the novelty songs. Specifically, the worst novelty song that you will ever hear, “The Ballad of Chowchilla Ray.”
Imagine this. A secondhand disco groove. Backing singers getting paid by the hour. Music designed for Ed Ray to strut to by someone who knows nothing about him whatever. It’s by the late maudlin crooner/actor Robert Goulet, probably most famous now for Will Ferrell’s impression of him. It’s both 3 minutes, 42 seconds, and a hundred years long.
It contains punishingly literal lyrics like this:
But old Ed Ray kept his cool that day
And he did everything that they would say
He’d make one move and they’d shoot away
And one dead child was too much to pay
And a chorus like this:
What could have been an endless nightmare
What may have ended in a massive grave
Was saved by the hand of a bus-driving man
There’s some kids who’d like to thank him
And their folks would like to thank him
Yes the whole world wants to thank him.
And if he didn’t have a million reasons already, it would have been all the explanation Ed Ray would ever need to never talk to the public again. With any luck, he never heard it.
A movie was eventually made, too, but it wasn’t what Fred had in mind. It starred Karl Malden and was directed by Vern Gillum, the esteemed director of five episodes of Miami Vice. Everybody in town who saw it hated it, not least because it was filmed in Topeka, Kansas, which looks not a damn thing like Chowchilla.
“Everything was wrong,” said Ronnie. “They drove the bus wrong, and the way he was working in the field, it just didn’t fit this area. It didn’t fit the San Joaquin Valley. It fit Kansas.”
The excitement eventually quieted down, as excitement always does. Ed went back to his bus route, back to planting cotton, back to work.
“Oh, I got over it,” said Ed to a reporter in his living room on one of the anniversaries when they’d bothered to show up. Odessa was wrapping fried chicken for the fridge. “I don’t know if you’re over it,” she said. “It still bothers you.” Then she turned to the reporter. “I know a lot of nights he still doesn’t sleep. I know when things are bothering him. He’ll go along for a while, then it’ll come back.” Ronnie told me that in the years after the kidnapping, Ed acted like everything was fine but every so often, he would catch him crying alone in his barn.
He wasn’t alone. Nobody got to be the same after that, despite their best efforts to act like it hadn’t happened. To Chowchilla residents, as much as the whole thing was a miracle, the crime was still the work of Satan; the evil of the world. It broke people. It gave them PTSD. It followed them for the rest of their lives. To the kidnappers, who were only thinking of themselves and how smart they were, it had been a perfect crime. Government money and nobody gets hurt. But they didn’t consider the human consequences, the pain. They failed to imagine the scope of their cruelty — the lifelong trauma. It never occurred to them.
But sin has a way of rippling outward and expanding. It metastasizes rapidly in ways you could never imagine. What the kidnappers didn’t take into account is that by burying the children underground, even if they were all physically fine, it affected them for the rest of their lives — and it affected the lives of everybody who ever heard their story, too. The town of Chowchilla would sure like to act like none of it ever happened, to let it pass away into dust. This, after all, was too horrible to remember. At least, too loudly.
Said Mike some years later about the ripple effects of his 17 hours in hell: “Now, I believe I can do anything I want. I know I believe I can get out of any jam I’m in.”
Said Laura Yazzie, one of the younger passengers, in 1983: “I had a dream about a Dracula chasing me. And his little dog bit me. And I died.”
Said one of the victims’ mothers that same year: “I still don’t like to sleep in the dark. I’ve got to have a light.”
Ed Ray died in 2012, at 91.
In the weeks before his death, almost everybody who was buried in the van with him came to his bedside to say goodbye. His birthday is a local holiday now.
Asked about his legacy, his granddaughter simply said, “He was always worried about somebody else. I think that’s why he lasted so long, because he knew we needed him.”
Of Ed’s last days, Ronnie told me something beautiful that to my mind summarizes who Ed was. He told me that when Ed was in the hospital and everyone knew the end was coming, his grandkids gave him a toy bus and he kept it on his nightstand. A couple days before he passed, Ronnie went to visit him. He was drifting in and out of consciousness and reality.
He opened his eyes and looked at Ronnie. Then he gestured to the toy bus.
“I finally got that transmission out of the bus. Now I have to put in the new one.”
There is an obvious question here that’s yet to be answered, one that echoes down every dirt road in Chowchilla, that sits in every mouth that utters the town’s name: Why them? Why there? Why Chowchilla?
Why pick this particular small town, a three-hour drive from their homes? We know why Fred, James, and Rick decided to kidnap children instead of some nearby doddering multimillionaire: because children are precious and people will pay any amount of money to get them back (unless you’re J. Paul Getty). But why Chowchilla? What the hell did it ever do to them?
The answer is, as is usually the answer with criminals, unsatisfyingly simple. Early on in their planning, they thought about kidnapping kids in San Francisco for a minute, because that’s where the bus stuff in Dirty Harry was. But the density and complexity of the city was too overwhelming for them. The way they saw it, they’d have better odds in a very rural area, with fewer bystanders. Probably not even one.
James had some awareness of maps and knew you could get government ones that catalogued public buildings — most notably, rural elementary schools. Once they decided to bury their victims in Livermore, they figured somewhere in the Central Valley would be the easiest drive and their best bet. So in late 1975, they bummed around all up and down the California heartland, casing various country towns and accounting for their advantages and disadvantages.
And Chowchilla looked good. Sparsely populated, simple layout, bystanders unlikely, population manageable. So they went to Chowchilla’s annual rodeo to get a vibe for the town, and followed Ed Ray’s bus until they were certain of its route. Once they decided they weren’t intimidated, Chowchilla it was.
The town itself meant nothing to them.
On my last day in Chowchilla, I went to Farnesi’s off 99. It’s Chowchilla’s main sit-down restaurant, in the classic midcentury lounge style. The sort of place it feels wrong not to smoke in. Old red vinyl booths, coffee in the pot, the traditional greasy spoon menu of mostly gravy. There’s an old bar in the back, so stranded in the ’70s the beer cans nearly had pull-tabs. I decided to stay until closing. Almost nobody came in, just two or three people eating in silence. At about 9, an old-timer married couple walked through the door and got seated. The woman started talking so quiet she was almost whispering.
“I’ll never understand how you could be up for parole after doing that to those kids.”
“They’re not kids anymore. Not for a long time.”
A long pause. The woman somberly mentioned the name of a victim. A longer pause. “Yeah, those kids of hers. ... She’s 50. Wow.”
“They’ll never know about it, either. She’d never tell them.”
It was the only time I heard someone talk about the kidnapping the whole time I’d been in Chowchilla. Like the last note of a song, suspended just beyond silence for nearly 50 years.
I paid and left and walked past the train tracks to city hall. Outside, I saw the town’s biggest memorial to the events of 1976. It was a rock about 4 feet tall. Mounted on the side was a bronze plaque.
“With heart felt [sic] thanks, the people of Chowchilla commemorate the safe return of 26 school children and their bus driver who were abducted July 15, 1976 and who escaped unharmed 80 hours later.”
At the base, there were a bunch of little rocks that some kids had probably painted for school. One said “you are rad.” Another said “Chowchilla rocks.” Another said “I believe in you” — believe spelled with a drawing of a bee and a leaf.
It was only about 10 pm, and the town was totally still. But if you listened closely, you could hear the big rigs on the highway, zooming past the lights of town, into the long, dark night, going about 80 miles an hour.
This story was reported using court documents; interviews with and materials provided by Chowchilla locals; witnesses; members of the Ray family, then-Mayor Dennis Haworth; and relevant public officials. Additional sourcing comes from Why Have They Taken Our Children? by Jack Baugh and Jefferson Morgan, archival reporting by the Los Angeles Times, the Oakland Tribune, the Fresno Bee, the Salt Lake Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, the San Francisco Examiner, the Palo Alto Times, the Merced Sun-Star, the Contra Costa Times, and others.
Kaleb Horton is a writer from Bakersfield. His work has appeared on MTV News and in Pitchfork, Vanity Fair, and Vice.
Marcus Russell Price is a photographer, documentary filmmaker, and visual artist whose work has been featured in numerous outlets, including Netflix, Comedy Central, Marie Claire, and New York magazine. He is an executive producer of Expecting Amy, an HBO Max documentary series featuring Amy Schumer.
Will Staehle is an award-winning designer based in Seattle. He’s been one of Print magazine’s New Visual Artists and an ADC Young Gun. He has had a solo exhibit at the Type Directors Club. He previously designed the story The Haunting of Girlstown for Vox and Epic.