California's parole board on Tuesday granted parole for a man convicted of hijacking a school bus and holding 26 children and their driver captive underground in 1976, the latest turn in a years-long debate over whether the three men involved in the crime have served enough time.
Richard Allen Schoenfeld was set for release in 2021. However, any governor in the next 10 years can ask the board to reconsider its decision, board spokesman Luis Patino said.
Schoenfeld, now age 56, along with his brother Jim, and Fred Woods, captured the nation's attention when they used guns and nylon masks to commandeer a Chowchilla school bus. They then buried the children and driver in a truck underground. The three were sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
The captives all escaped without serious injuries after digging their way out of the buried moving van when their kidnappers, all in their mid-20s, fell asleep. In the years since, a judge and an investigator involved in the case have helped push for their release.
"They were just dumb, rich kids and they paid a hell of a price for what they did," Dale Fore, who served as lead investigator on the case for the Madera County Sheriff's Department, said at a news conference in February.
However, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jill Klinge, who represented both Alameda and Madera prosecutors at Tuesday's hearing, said those arguments unfairly minimize the crime.
"This was an extremely detailed, long-term plan. These were kids with all the advantages of life and they went out and committed a terrible crime that affected their victims for the rest of their lives," she said in a telephone interview.
The board originally granted parole to Schoenfeld in a 2008 decision, but then twice reconsidered the order. At a hearing Tuesday, the board affirmed a release date for Nov. 13, 2021.
Gov. Jerry Brown's spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford declined to comment because the parole board has 120 days to review its decision before it gets to the governor.
The three men had fallen into debt because of a real estate deal gone sour and hatched the elaborate kidnap-for-ransom plan involving the bus as a way to rid themselves of financial worry.
They spent 18 months working on the plan. On July 16, 1976, they pretended their van had engine problems, prompting bus driver Ed Ray to pull over and park his bus full of summer school students as it traveled near Fresno.
The men moved in, forcing the victims into two vans and hiding the bus in a creek bed. They drove about 100 miles north to Livermore to a quarry owned by Woods' father and sealed the children and Ray in a trailer in a cave, then left to make their $5 million ransom demand.
The Chowchilla Police Department was swamped with so many calls that the kidnappers decided to take a nap before calling in their demand.
When they awoke, Ray and the two oldest children had managed to stack mattresses high enough to escape through the roof of the trailer. It wasn't long before all the abductees staggered to safety.
Richard Schoenfeld turned himself in eight days later. His brother and Woods were arrested the next week.
Schoenfeld is serving his time in the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo.