The man prosecutors deemed the mastermind behind the 1976 kidnapping of a bus driver and 26 children in Chowchilla has been granted parole.
Fred Woods’ suitability for parole was affirmed Tuesday, according to Terry Thornton, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The hearing at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo was the 18th time Woods appeared before a parole board for a hearing, she said. The board affirmed a March 25 hearing that initially granted him parole.
Officials with CDCR would not disclose a time frame for when Woods would be released, citing safety concerns.
The 70-year-old was imprisoned Feb. 17, 1978, following the 1976 incident in which bus driver Edward Ray helped free 26 students kidnapped by Woods and brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld. The trio buried their victims alive in a rock quarry in Livermore.
Madera County DA on Fred Wood parole
Madera County District Attorney Sally Moreno challenged the initial finding, which led to a review from the entire parole board on Tuesday.
Gov. Gavin Newsom sent the decision to the full review board for its consideration. Under California law, the board’s decision stands and the governor could only step in to overturn it if the case involves murder, according to the CDCR.
Moreno responded to the decision with a stern statement.
“I’m angry, frustrated and disturbed because justice has been mocked in Madera County,” she said in a prepared statement. “Let me put it bluntly: if you can kidnap a busload of school children, abandon them buried alive and still get out of prison after committing that crime and spending your time in prison flouting the law, breaking the rules and demonstrating by your conduct that you have learned nothing since committing that crime, it says a lot about the state of our society and the state of California right now.”
Unlike the other kidnappers who were described as model prisoners, according to authorities, Woods had broken prison rules. He was caught with pornography in 2002-03 and contraband cell phones in 2013 and 2014.
Two victims of the kidnapping and a relative of a third victim, who has since died, spoke at the hearing against Woods’ release, Moreno said.
“It’s hard to articulate everything I’m feeling — all the suffering that he caused to those children throughout their lives, which will continue unabated,” she said.
1976 Chowchilla bus kidnapping details
The kidnappers drove the victims around for nearly a dozen hours before stopping at the Livermore quarry, where Ray and the 26 children were forced into a buried moving van.
The kidnappers planned to demand a $5 million ransom, but Ray and several of the older children were able to stack mattresses high enough to climb out of an opening at the top of the buried van. They pushed open a metal lid covered with about 200 pounds of industrial batteries, cleared away some debris and freed the rest of the children after 16 hours underground.
Richard and James Schoenfeld were paroled in 2012 and 2015, respectively.
Ray was honored in 2015 when the city of Chowchilla named a park after him, lauding him as a hero.