Frederick Newhall Woods: Kidnapper who abducted 26 children and buried them alive in 1976 approved for parole

After 17 failed attempts, a California man who kidnapped 26 children from a school bus in 1976 has been recommended for parole.

When Frederick Newhall Woods and two other gunmen hijacked the school bus in Chowchilla, California, it was considered the greatest kidnapping in US history.

After hijacking the bus, which was returning from a summer trip to the Chowchilla Fairgrounds pool, Woods and his friends James and Richard Schoenfeld transferred the 26 children and their driver into vans and drove them 12 hours around the darkness to a location where, CBS News reported, they were being held captive underground in a truck trailer.

Woods and the Schoenfelds wanted a $5 million ransom for the children’s safe return to their families, but their plan quickly went awry. First, blocked phone lines meant that the kidnappers could not communicate their ransom demand. Then, after about 4 p.m., bus driver Ed Ray and some of the older children in the group made their way out of the trailer while the kidnappers slept and led the group to safety.

Now Woods, who was 24 when he carried out the kidnapping, is one step closer to his release from prison. Although he has been recommended for parole, Governor Gavin Newsom will have the option of referring the case to the full parole board for review if he chooses. He cannot unilaterally reverse the parole decision, as Woods was not found guilty of murder.

Members of the Alameda County Crime Lab and the FBI are pictured working to open the van where the children and their bus driver were held hostage

(AP)

For the victims of the 1976 kidnapping, the possibility of Woods being released from prison is complicated. Several survivors support Woods’ parole, while others oppose it.

Although none of the kidnapping victims suffered life-threatening physical injuries, the psychological effects of being held hostage at gunpoint and then held underground for nearly 20 hours were heartbreaking for many.

Authorities remove a truck buried in a rock quarry in Livermore, California, in which 26 Chowchilla schoolchildren and their bus driver, Ed Ray, were held captive

(AP)

“I’m 50 and I can have a panic attack about getting in the car with my husband,” survivor Jennifer Brown Hyde said. FoxNews earlier this year. Another survivor, Darla Neal, told CNN in 2015 that she faced crippling anxiety to the point that she “had to quit her job.” she says.

“I figure I should be able to shake this off and deal with it,” Ms Neal said. “Yet here I am, a mess.”

The kidnapping, which received massive media attention when it happened, has resurfaced in popular culture in recent years through CBS and Fox specials.

The three men were arrested within weeks of the abduction and initially sentenced to life in prison without parole, but an appeals court later changed the sentences to make the trio eligible for release conditional. Richard Schoenfeld was paroled in 2015; James was paroled three years later.

Woods, now 70, is the only member of the kidnapping group still incarcerated. At a parole hearing held online last week due to Covid-19 safety precautions that featured testimony from multiple survivors, Woods said he was a changed man.

Parents and families eagerly await news of children’s release

(AP)

“I was 24,” he said. “Now I fully understand the terror and trauma I caused. I take full responsibility for this heinous act.

Woods has spent the vast majority of his life in prison, where his disciplinary record reportedly includes citations for running an unauthorized gold mine, car dealership and Christmas tree farm. According to his lawyer, however, he has not faced any disciplinary action since his last parole hearing in 2019.

Woods is an unusual prisoner in another way: He is said to have inherited a huge sum of money from his wealthy parents, claimed in a court filing at around $100 million. It is possible that the money helped fund some of Woods’ prison activities. He married three times during the period of his incarceration and he also bought a nearby mansion.

Despite their families’ significant wealth, James Schoenfeld told CBS that he and Woods were in serious debt at the time of the kidnapping and that the crime was motivated by financial reasons.

Some of the rescued children walk to a car dressed in blankets after their ordeal

(AP)

“We needed multiple victims to get multiple millions, and we chose kids because kids are precious,” Schoenfeld said. “The state would be ready to pay a ransom for them. And they don’t fight back. They are vulnerable. They will care.

While James and Richard Schoenfeld have had success with the parole board the past decade, Woods – despite his many attempts – has not had success until this year. CBS reported that in previous parole hearings he was “evasive, unable or unwilling to follow prison rules and fail.”[ed] recognize the seriousness of his crime”.

Over the years, there have been other disturbing reports about Woods. The first was that he kept the two vans he and the Schoenfelds used to transport the children and their driver to Livermore, California, in hopes that notoriety of their crime would make the bus increasingly valuable.

Today, after nearly half a century behind bars, he is on the verge of freedom.

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