Supporters flock to San Francisco rally to free Chowchilla kidnappers 

The three men who kidnapped and buried a busload of schoolchildren during a famous failed ransom attempt in 1976 should be granted parole, according to law enforcement officials directly responsible for their imprisonment.

On Wednesday, police and prosecutors who helped put the kidnappers in prison 35 years ago — including the lead investigator of the crime and ex-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s father — called the men “model inmates” who are no longer a danger to society.

The kidnappers, who were from wealthy Peninsula families, had planned the elaborate crime for 18 months. In July 1976, Rick Schoenfeld, his brother Jim and Fred Woods ambushed a school bus in Chowchilla, kidnapping 26 children between ages 5 and 14 and the bus driver.

They drove their victims to Livermore and sealed them in a large van that had been buried in a cave at the California Rock and Gravel Quarry, which was owned by Woods’ father. They held the victims hostage underground for about 16 hours. The bus driver, Ed Ray, and some of the older boys managed to escape and summon help after the kidnappers fell asleep. The kidnappers had demanded a $5 million ransom from the state of California.

The men — all in their mid-20s at the time — were soon arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. They have been denied parole a combined 48 times. The trial judge, the late Honorable Leo Deegan, recommended the men be paroled 26 years ago.

Supporters blamed their continued prison stay on a “small group” of victims that oppose their release. Some victims say the traumatic event continues to haunt them.

Supporters said the famous story has become a political hot potato that lawmakers will not touch.

“They were dumb rich kids,” said Dale Fore, who was one of the lead investigators of the case. “How much time do you want out of these guys?”

Retired California Appellate Justice William Newsom, who overturned the three men’s original sentence of life in prison without parole, said the parole board has been “dead wrong” and “unlawful” in denying their freedom.

He said nobody was injured in the kidnapping.

Taxpayers are wasting more than $150,000 annually to keep them jailed, according to the kidnappers’ attorneys.

“Vengeance is a luxury California can no longer afford,” said Scott Handleman, the attorney for Rick Schoenfeld.

The kidnappers have been “model inmates in almost every way,” the attorneys said. They have done volunteer work and have become educated, and two of the three have jobs awaiting them upon their release, the attorneys said.

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