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What happens when an entire school bus of children goes missing? Learn the details of the 1976 Chowchilla school bus kidnapping.

What happened to these missing children in the 1976 school bus kidnapping?

Schools have always been considered one of the safest places for children. And why wouldn’t they be? From the time they’re in Kindergarten until they turn eighteen, they spend about six hours a day, five days a week in these places. Schools are supposed to prepare children for the world, so they should be a home away from home, whether it be in San Francisco’s most ideal neighborhoods or lesser known areas. But when you can’t feel safe at home, we have a major problem!

Given some particular events over the past few years, however, it’s easy to see why schools may not have the reputation they once had. And the Coronavirus pandemic is certainly doing nothing to help. But how do we feel about school busses?

Not too long ago, three men who were known for kidnapping children on school busses, were free to wander the streets. In 1976 in a small California town, a school bus was carrying twenty-six children. Their driver vanished. The morning of that day began as any other. Hardly anyone in this case knew they were going to capture the attention of the world, even forty-five years later. 

“There was great fear of a serial killer. People formed a search posse on horseback, and it was just a fear that we were going to find bodies.” Said Ronnie Ray in 2020. A state trooper’s wife remarked in 1976 that “We thought it was UFOs. And it seemed like it had to be. No way it could be anything else.” Now, we’re going to explore one of the most prolific missing children cases in history. 

The kidnappers

The Chowchilla bus kidnapping has been declared one of the largest abductions in history. To be more specific, on July 15, 1976, twenty-six children and their bus driver from Chowchilla, California were kidnapped then buried alive in a tractor trailer. But just who were the culprits and what happened to them?

It took almost two week after the incident for investigators to track them all down. But investigators arrested twenty four year old Frederick Newhall Woods. He was the son of the owner of the rock quarry where the missing children escaped from. 

Twenty-four-year-old James Schoenfield, Woods’ partner in a used car business, was apprehended as well, along with his younger brother Richard. All three of these men came from wealthy families who lived in San Francisco’s most ideal neighborhoods. Security guards noticed the three men rummaging through the quarry just months before the kidnapping took place. 

The missing children

The historical scary ordeal occurred when children between the ages of five to fourteen were on their way home from summer school. At around 4:00 p.m., three masked men with guns hijacked the Dairyland Elementary School bus which was driven by Ed Ray. Then the kidnappers drove the bus into a dry riverbed, hiding it in a tree brush. 

The frightened children were herded like cattle from the bus into two vans, but they were forced to jump from the bus to the vans in an effort to not leave behind any footprints. Then the school bus was abandoned. 

One of the missing children, Jennifer Brown Hyde who was nine at the time, remembered what it was like to be inside the van. She said she felt like, “. . . an animal going to a slaughterhouse”.  In the vans, the children dealt with makeshift jail cells. No one could see in or out. There was no air ventilation, nor food, water or toilets. 

Michael Marshall

Fourteen-year-old Michael Marshall and the bus driver took turns digging everybody out of their bondange. After many intense hours, Michael managed to dig himself to the top. It took twenty eight hours of panic. Ed Ray and the children walked toward the rock quarry where they were greeted by stunned workers. Police arrived and took photos of all the children as evidence.

Families of the kids were waiting anxiously inside the Chowchilla police station on July 17, 1976. Thankfully, all the missing school children were happily reunited with their families but the trauma certainly didn’t end there. 

Do you know of any other missing children cases? Don’t be shy in the comments!

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