Obit of the Day: Hero of the Cowchilla Kidnappings
Frank Woods and brothers Richard and Jim Schoenfeld thought they had the perfect plan. The wealthy, and greedy, 20-somethings decided they could make a quick $5 million if they kidnapped a school bus full of children and ransomed them back to their parents.
So on July 15, 1976, the threesome pulled over Ed Ray’s (above, center) school bus while wearing stocking masks and armed with handguns and took 27 children, ages 5-14, and Mr. Ray hostage. The group was placed in two white vans that had the windows covered and were driven 100 miles from Cowchilla, California to a quarry owned by Frank Woods’ father, in the town of Livermore. By some estimates, Mr. Ray and the children spent eleven hours in the van.
Arriving in Livermore the hostages were moved from the vans into a the container section of a moving van that the kidnappers had buried seven months earlier. After spending another twelve hours in the truck, all while parents and law enforcement frantically searched for them, Mr. Ray led an escape effort.
With some of the older children, mattresses and box springs were stacked in order to reach a hole in the top of the van. After prying off a board that covered the hole, Mr. Ray discovered and removed two 100-pound industrial batteries that were used to prevent escape. He then made sure that every child made it out before he pulled himself to freedom. Wandering through the quarry, the hostages were found by several workers who provided water - and a pair of overalls for Mr. Ray who had his pants taken by the kidnappers - and called the police.
After 36 hours the hostages returned home to Cowchilla into the relieved arms of their parents, while Mr. Ray was toasted as a hero whose leadership and calm demeanor helped get the children through a terrifying ordeal.
Within two weeks, and assisted by the Schoenfeld’s confessions, all three kidnappers were in custody. At trial they were found guilty of kidnapping and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. In 1981, the sentence was changed to life with the possibility of parole. Since then Jim Schoenfeld has been denied parole 16 times. Frank Woods was denied 12 times. Richard Schoenfeld was granted parole in April 2011 and is scheduled to be released in November 2021 (not a typo - 2021).
Ed Ray would continue to drive buses until his retirement in 1988. While on his deathbed, many of the children he helped to rescue 36 years earlier came to offer their thanks one more time. He passed away at the age of 91.
(Image of Mr. Ray at a press conference on July 16, 1976 is copyright Skip Shuman/Sacramento Bee)