In 1976 a bus of kids was headed back home after a long day at the pool. But unfortunately, it never returned. This is the unbelievable story that brings to life every parent's worst nightmare…
The Fateful Day
For the kids of Dairyland Elementary in Chowchilla, California, July 25th, 1976, was just another average summer's day. Excited for their pool day, they were unaware of the panic that would soon strike...
Their day in the hot sun went by in a flash, and the kids boarded the bus back home, excited for their summer vacation to kick off in just a day. But the ride back to their families would take an incredibly unexpected turn - something none of the kids could have foreseen...
The Man at the Wheel
At the time, the kids had absolutely no reason to be alarmed. They were in the trustworthy hands of their regular bus driver named Frank Ray - often referred to as Ed. He was as experienced as they came, and on this day had 26 kids to get back home, some as young as 5 and as old as 14.
Time was of the essence, so the kids boarded the bus in their damp swimsuits rather than changing at the local pool. It was thought that they would change once they got back to their drop-off location with their parents eagerly waiting. At least, that was the plan...
The Journey Back
As mentioned, there was little that could phase such a seasoned bus driver like Ed. With over two decades in the profession, he'd seen it all, from rowdy kids to bad weather. So a bus full of tired-out children didn't seem like a challenge exactly. Ed anticipated a smooth ride home.
He opted for a route that took the bus down some quieter roads on the journey back home. The ride was going exceptionally well with little traffic when suddenly Ed spotted a white van stopped up ahead. It was safe to say his attention and curiosity were piqued.
A Whirlwind of Events
Ed weighed his options. Sure, out of the kindness of his heart, he wanted to offer some assistance to the stopped vehicle. But on the other hand, he had two dozen wet and tired kids on board. He decided to pass by and reach out to see if there was something he could do to help.
However, before even reaching the van, it lurched into the middle of the road, blocking Ed's ability to pass. He honked his horn in alarm, and to his shock, three masked men hopped out of the van and began approaching the vehicle. Ed couldn't believe what he was seeing...
No Way Out
Ed had quickly looked back to ensure the children were alright, and in that split second, the men had made their way to the bus - and they were armed. They threatened Ed and the kids, telling him that they would be in great danger if he tried to drive the bus to get away.
Next, they demanded that the shocked bus driver open the door so they could get aboard. Now Ed was really stuck. Did he risk the children's safety by obeying the orders? On the other hand, he knew that they could force their way on anyway. It was a nightmare of a situation.
Fearful of the safety of the children aboard, Ed decided after a quick think that the best way to proceed was to obey the orders given by the masked men. After all, with their weapons in hand, these weren't the type of people he wanted to anger. The men boarded the bus to the horror of the children.
Motioning threateningly with their munitions, the masked strangers corralled the terrified kids to the bus's rear and forced Ed to join, too. "No hero stuff," one of the men warned the worried driver. "Just sit there quietly, and everything will be fine." But nothing about this was fine...
With Ed and the children crammed at the back of the bus, the masked men started their next phase of the plan. One went to move their van, one guarded the children, and the third started driving. Only 15 minutes passed before they detoured off the main road and arrived at the fateful location.
The masked men seemed to have thought this plan through. They stationed the bus on a deserted road shielded by trees, making it difficult to see for passersby. Next, they ordered the kids and Ed to exit the yellow school bus and divide themselves into two groups.
Off the Grid
Why the two groups? Well, with the bus hidden in the forest, the kidnappers switched transportation modes and loaded the groups into two smaller vans with the windows blocked out. With no awareness of their surroundings or what was to come next, the kids broke down in tears.
Trying to keep morale as high as possible, the teenagers of the group tried to distract the younger, more hysterical children by singing tunes like If You're Happy and You Know It. It wasn't much, but they thought it could help pass the time during the frightful ride.
Endless Hours Later
Nearly a dozen hours passed as the 26 children and Ed traveled in the blacked-out vans. But after 11 hours, they came to a sudden halt, and the masked men frantically opened the doors, pulling out the children one by one. It was a new chapter of this nightmarish journey.
Ed was the first to exit the van and took note of his surroundings - a water reservoir surrounded by boulders. But his attention quickly returned to the situation at hand: They were being shuffled to a ladder and ordered at gunpoint to descend underground. The children were horrified.
12 Feet Under
It took a moment to adjust to the dim lighting, but Ed eventually realized that he and the children found themselves in a repurposed truck that was over 10 feet under the ground. With no windows or a clear way out, it was clear that their situation was dire.
So far deep underground, there was no point in even trying to bust through the truck's siding. After all, all they would achieve was reaching more packed dirt. The children soon joined the bus driver in the bunker as Ed racked his brain as to how to keep them safe.
The Next Steps
As if the situation of Ed and 26 kids trapped underground wasn't enough, the kidnappers followed up with another demand. They wanted the contact information for each of the children's families in addition to an article of clothing from them. It was all so calculated...
Having gotten what they wanted, the masked men exited the bunker, being sure to take the ladder with them. Once out, they then placed an enormous sheet of metal to close the hole and piled up two car engines to add weight. Then, they drove off, leaving their victims trapped underground.
A Bleak Reality
Ed tried to put on a brave face, but as he heard the captors leave the scene, reality started to set in. Here they were, trapped underground with no possibility of being heard. Plus, he felt like the chances of them being found without a witness was slim to none.
Thinking rationally, Ed knew the situation was as bleak as they came. But for the sake of the kids, he tried to bring some calming energy to the situation. On the plus side, he thought, the information collected for the victims' families suggested the men were after a ransom - which would mean they would need to be kept alive.
While Ed suspected the men wanted them alive, the rations they left for the 26 kids and Ed certainly weren't enough. Just a few hours had passed before the water and food were gone - in addition to the bunker's ventilation system breaking down. The children couldn't contain their fear anymore.
It was now a hot summer morning in California, and the victims felt like they were getting cooked alive. Tired, thirsty, and hungry, the kids' health deteriorated before Ed's very eyes. And to make matters worse, the make-shift potties were overflowing, and the bunker was filled with a foul odor.
On the Hunt
A dozen hours away in the children's hometown of Chowchilla, a different kind of hysteria had set in. The parents were horrified when the bus never returned from the pool, and news began to spread. It didn't take long for this Californian town to be in full-blown crisis mode as the hunt for the kids began.
Just hours earlier, local police had been alerted by a pilot flying in the area of a bus mysteriously parked in the woods. They arrived at the scene to assess the situation and quickly determined that another two vehicles had also been at the scene and had driven away. The minds of the officers began piecing together hypotheses.
Out of Their Depth
With the town of Chowchilla frantically searching for the kids and the identified school bus, the police speculated that the victims of the kidnapping were alive and the families would be soon contacted for a ransom payment. The officers hadn't seen anything like it before...
When it came down to the final word of the local chief of police, he wasn't about to take any chances when it came to the safety of the kids. He reached out to the head of state for assistance. And just one day later, the town of Chowchilla was flooded with 30 agents from the FBI. The hunt was on...
From the surprise ambush on the side of the road to the 11-hour drive to the quarry, the masked men had clearly thought their plan through. And now, having left the children and Ed underground, they were ready for the next phase: demanding $5 million from Chowchilla and California authorities.
Unfortunately for them, technology failed them. They weren't able to get through to the police due to heavy phone traffic from the worried Chowchilla residents. The kidnappers decided to hold off until the morning, hoping they would be able to reach them by then. After all, it's not like their victims were going anywhere...
A Bleak Reality
Back underground, the situation was looking worse and worse for Ed and the 26 kids. Not only was oxygen running low, but panic was at an all-time high. And the worried bus driver was completely out of his depth when it came to trying to manage the fear and distress of over two dozen kids.
To make matters worse, Ed and the eldest of the kids, 14-year-old Mike Marshall, began to notice dirt crumbling from above. The weight of the 12 feet of soil was clearly too much for the bunker's ceiling, and the structure began to buckle from the pressure. It was disaster atop of disaster...
Desperate to Flee
Ed found himself feeling more futile by the minute. While Mike suggested that they work together to escape from their underground bunker, Ed whole-heartedly believed that even if they were to succeed, their captors would be waiting for them - and armed.
However, Mike had a different perspective. He saw escape as the only option because every minute spent underground was bringing them closer and closer to their ultimate demise. Even if they were to get caught, it was better than not trying at all. He couldn't stand by and do nothing...
Giving It a Shot
Convinced by the 14-year-old's logic, Ed got on board with Mike, and they hatched their plan. They determined that their best bet was via the ceiling entrance they initially came down through. But due to the height, they needed to find a way to reach it. Ed got thinking...
The captors had left mattresses for their hostages, so Ed and Mike began stacking them atop one another. Soon, Mike was able to get close enough to the hatch. However, even with a piece of a wooden bed frame, he wasn't able to make any progress. Hours passed, and nothing had happened...
However, unaware of the odds stacked against him (200 pounds, to be exact), Mike stayed on course and kept at it. And to his surprise, his hours upon hours of bashing a wooden beam against the opening paid off. He saw a small crack appear before his very eyes.
Fueled by his results, Mike kept going and, eventually, was able to free the blockage in its entirety. However, that wasn't the only obstacle in his way. He was then met by another crate with even more dirt piled upon it. It took time, but Mike was able to bust through it - and what he saw left him speechless.
Freedom at Last
Mike had achieved the impossible. And while he waited for his eyes to re-accustom to the light of day, he worried that he would soon be greeted by the faces of the men holding him hostage. However, to his ultimate surprise, there was not a soul around in the quarry.
He and Ed quickly got into action as they corralled the exhausted children and helped them out of the underground fortress. After a whopping 16 hours, they were all finally able to breathe freely and not be constricted by the tight space. Plus, they managed to get out without any broken bones or major cuts.
"This World's Been Looking for You"
Their daring escape had just begun. Weary of the kidnappers' imminent return, Ed shuffled the dehydrated children along out of the quarry in an attempt to get some help. Energy was at an all-time low, but Ed had no choice but to get the children away from the bunker as soon as possible.
Before long, Ed and the 26 youth stumbled upon a building site and laid eyes on some labor workers. The bus driver was about to identify himself, but he was interrupted before he could begin - the workers knew who he was. "This world's been looking for you," the workers said in shock and relief.
In a flash, the construction site was filled with emergency response vehicles, and the children were finally on the way home to their worried families. This was just the beginning for the authorities, however, as now the manhunt began for the three masked men. And they needed all the help they could get.
Desperate for clues, they probed Ed for information while he was under hypnosis. That way, they were able to access information that the bus driver had subconsciously retained. And it worked: Ed knew the plate number for one of the vans used to drive them to the quarry. It was vital information.
Connecting the Dots
Armed with an identifying license plate number, authorities checked their database to see if anything would come up. They learned that vans were linked to an industrial building out in San Jose and had been out on loan to a man by the name of Frederick Woods. But it didn't stop there...
Mr. Woods also had a quarry in his possession nearby, leading police to consider him a lead worth following up with. They jetted off to his property, where they were confronted by a piece of evidence that blew the whole case wide open. It solidified their suspicions for sure…
Upon arrival at Woods' property, the Chowchilla police entered his home and found some incriminating evidence: a hand-written ransom letter strewn on the floor. The police speculated who the note's author was, but were interrupted by some more key information about their manhunt.
Frederick had a son, who went by the name of Fred Woods IV. And this man had reportedly fled the area, and not a soul knew his whereabouts. Authorities reached out to two known friends, Richard and James Schoenfeld, to see if they knew anything - only to learn that they too had left. The clues began to line up…
In no time at all, a nation-scale manhunt had begun, and authorities were certain that the three kidnappers would be located. After 7 days of the country searching endlessly, Richard couldn't take the heat of being on the run, and he eventually turned himself in to the police.
But James and Fred were still wanted. A couple of days after Richard was detained, a resident in Menlo Park called in saying they had seen James. Thankfully police arrived just in time to arrest him. Fred was later found in British Columbia, where he too was taken into custody.
The nation was stunned that these three men could come up with such a horrific plan for ransom money - especially since they all had been raised in upper-class wealthy families. The parents of their victims were concerned that the kidnapper's connections could lead to them getting off easier...
But luckily, the judge on their case was not impacted by who the three men's parents knew. They were given life in jail with no option to get parole. Yet, the three continued to push back until they had another judge dismiss the order, giving them a possibility to be paroled.
The brothers, Richard and James, were going to take advantage of their parole option. So during their time in prison, they followed orders and stayed out of people's way. The good behavior permitted Richard to be released in 2013 at the age of 77 and James' in 2015 when he was 82. But their partner in crime was still behind bars.
Fred Woods has tried to be paroled 19 times, but every time he went, with the latest one being in October 2019, the board denied his request due to his phony declaration of regret. The next parole hearing is set to be in 2024 - but the victims and the parents continuously fight against his release.
An Unspoken Bond
The 26 kids who were kidnapped that day were recently interviewed by Inside Edition. Together the now-adult victims sat in the same bus that was hijacked 46 years prior. They all confessed that 'till today they deal with many PTSD symptoms like anxiety, claustrophobia, paranoia, and panic attacks.
Sadly, because two of the three kidnappers are roaming around freely, the victims feel it makes it harder to recover from the traumatic events. Every time a parole hearing occurred, they had to go through the pain all over again. Yet, luckily having had each other since that fateful day has bonded them forever.
A Never-Ending Nightmare
Years later, the ambush is known as 'the biggest mass abduction in U.S. history.' But if it weren't for the courageousness of Ed and Mike, then who knows how things would have ended that day in the bunker. Especially since the three kidnappers didn't have the chance to ask for a ransom.
There were many things that fortunately fell into place that led to the kids and Ed getting out safely and unharmed. And while things ended happily, that day will sadly forever haunt the victims… even when the media outlets stop covering the unbelievable story.