Buried Alive: The California School Bus Kidnappings of 1976

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It was late afternoon on July 15, 1976, when the man in the pantyhose mask climbed aboard the school bus.

Only moments before, the children of Dairyland Elementary in Chowchilla, California, had finished their second-to-last day of summer school. Few dreaded the obligation: Dairyland’s summer program was fun and full of activities like crafts and swimming at the community pool. Some of the kids were still wet from splashing around. Many wore their bathing suits. They had all boarded Dairyland Bus Number 1 and greeted the driver, Frank Edward Ray. Monica Ardery, 5, was the youngest. Mike Marshall, 14, was among the oldest. In between were kids from all different grades, 26 children in all.

As the man waved a gun and ushered Ray to the back of the bus, two other men in masks joined him. They said little other than to prompt the children to move from the front seats. As one man stood in the aisle, the legs of the pantyhose dangling from either side of his head, Ardery had no clue she and her schoolmates would be driven for 11 hours to a rock quarry, where they would be ordered to climb inside a moving van buried in the dirt. She couldn’t know what the men wanted, or how the older boy, Marshall, would act with a courage that belied his age to stifle what would soon be one of the largest mass kidnappings in the history of the United States.

All Ardery saw were those pantyhose legs, almost comical in their appearance. They reminded her of ears. Maybe, she thought, it was just the Easter Bunny.

 

Before their photos were plastered over newspapers around the country, brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld and their friend Fred Woods were no more or less than three men in their early-to-mid-20s who had come to a crossroads. They had become intertwined back in high school—James and Fred Woods had graduated within a year of one another. All came from wealthy families in the Bay Area. The Schoenfeld patriarch was a podiatrist. Fred Woods’s father owned real estate and various businesses, including California Rock and Gravel Quarry in Livermore, California.

Despite their familial wealth, none of the young men appeared comfortable with the trajectory of their lives. James Schoenfeld worked as a busboy to put himself through college. His father had given him money to buy a Jaguar, but he was unable to afford the insurance premiums for it and had to sell the car. The men tried to invest in real estate but wound up losing, by one estimate, $30,000. James owed Fred Woods money. Fred Woods owed a cousin money. Their attempts at autonomy—to financially support themselves—were failing. As James saw his neighbors accrue more possessions, he developed envy issues. He didn’t feel he could achieve financial prosperity without making an audacious move.

Earlier, the men had discussed getting into the film business. They had conceived of a screenplay about a “perfect” crime. At some point, they decided the idea would be more lucrative if they simply committed it for real.

Later, James recalled that he had read that the state of California was experiencing a billion-dollar surplus. He told himself that meant the state could spare $5 million if it guaranteed the safe return of several children. They plotted to intercept a school bus, using Woods’s father’s quarry as a place to contain their victims until the ransom was paid. Children were selected, James later recalled, because they would provide little resistance.

Frank Ray, who went by “Ed,” was a farmer who had been a part-time bus driver for 23 years. With his young passengers on board, he was driving down the narrow Avenue 21 in Chowchilla that afternoon of July 15, 1976, when his route was interrupted by a white van parked in the road with its hood up. At first, Ray thought he might be able to go around the van. Then he decided they might need help. Before he could make a decision, one of the men wearing a pantyhose mask and brandishing a gun demanded he open the bus doors. The gunmen then climbed on, ordering everyone to the back of the bus. They traveled for roughly 15 minutes before one of the men steered the bus into a thicket of tall bamboo, obscuring it. Ray and the kids were ordered off and marched to two vans nearby, the bus left behind.

A child looks out of a school bus window
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The windows inside the vans had been blacked out, making it impossible for the children to know where they were going. All they knew was that the drive seemed interminable. An hour passed, then two, and then four. By the time the vans came to a stop, they had been driving for a total of 11 hours without any water or opportunity to use a bathroom. Older kids tried to console the younger ones by singing songs. “If you’re happy and you know it,” they sang, “clap your hands …”

If the kidnappers’ intent was to remain tight-lipped in order to keep the kids relatively calm, it worked. But once the children were led out of the vans and saw what was happening, several of them began to scream. One by one, they were led to a hole in the ground and ordered to descend a ladder. Below ground in the quarry was a moving van with an open hatch on top. It was buried in the Woods quarry so that the captives would be unable to pierce the metal walls of the cargo area and to keep it hidden from view. To the kids, however, it was nothing more than an oversized tomb.

The men demanded the names of the kids, along with their addresses, phone numbers, and a small article of clothing, like a piece of a shirt or, in Mike Marshall’s case, a cap. Under protest, they went inside, where they were confronted with mattresses and a paltry amount of food and water. When all of them, along with Ray, were inside, the men pulled up the ladder and dragged a steel plate over the opening, weighing it down with heavy tractor batteries. This was covered with plywood and dirt, which only added to the anxiety of the occupants.

Satisfied, Woods and the Schoenfelds drove away. It was 3:30 in the morning. The bus, which had long been overdue to make its final stop, had been reported missing. And the small town of Chowchilla was already in a panic.

 

The police were at a loss. Terrorism was mentioned, but Chowchilla, with its population of just 5000, seemed an unlikely target. The press reminded authorities that years prior, the Zodiac Killer in San Francisco had once threatened to kill a busload of schoolchildren. Without encouraging hysteria, the police said they were taking every possible scenario under consideration.

The empty school bus had been found around 7:30 p.m. the night of July 15, just hours after the kidnappers had intercepted it—a pilot canvassing the area had spotted it in the bamboo. Inside, police found no blood or any signs of foul play. Pieces of clothing were scattered on nearby roads, an apparent attempt to confuse anyone on their trail. From Friday night through Saturday, parents waited at home in a collective state of shock.

All the calls to police and to each other had jammed the local phone system. That proved problematic for the kidnappers, who had planned on phoning authorities with their demand for $5 million in ransom. Time after time, they tried making calls without any success. Satisfied the children weren’t going anywhere and tired from driving the 100 miles to Livermore and back to their hideout, they made a decision that would imperil their plans: They decided to take a long nap.

In the moving van, things were deteriorating. The kidnappers had put in air vents and fans to keep air circulating, but almost all of them had stopped working, leading to stifling conditions. The van reeked of urine. There was only enough food for one meal.

The side of a school bus is pictured
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Ray did his best to maintain his position as an authority figure, consoling the kids and maintaining an upbeat attitude, but it was difficult. The dirt thrown on top of the moving van was heavy and the roof was beginning to sag. In the heat of a California summer, the inside of the van was easily 100 degrees or more. Ray had no way of knowing whether the kidnappers had designs on getting money and releasing them or letting them starve and develop heat exhaustion. As the hours passed, a positive resolution was looking less and less likely.

Like the others, Mike Marshall was tired, hungry, and scared. But he was also growing indifferent to the consequences of making an attempt to escape. Ray was initially hesitant. He feared one of the men had been left to stand guard and might become violent if confronted. But Marshall persisted, enlisting a friend—whose identity is unclear—to help stack mattresses near the hatch so they could climb up and reach it. Using a wooden slat from one of the box springs, Marshall started jamming it in the small space between the van and the steel plate covering the opening. When he had enough room for his fingers, he gripped the plate and kept shoving, dislodging the tractor batteries and the dirt as his friend and Ray helped. It took hours, but he was eventually able to dislodge the plate, the plywood, and the dirt, emerging out into the sunlight around 7:30 p.m. that Saturday. The children had been missing for 27 hours.

The kids climbed up the mattresses and began running with Ray toward an office in the quarry. Marshall ran into the woods, intentionally separating himself from the group in case they ran into the kidnappers and he needed to get help. Fortunately, the men had not bothered to leave anyone behind to guard the van. At the office, a man keeping abreast of the news knew who they were immediately.

“This world’s been looking for you,” he said.

Soon, parents went from the darkest day of their lives to the brightest. All 26 children and Ray were alive and largely uninjured. Their fear disappeared, replaced with a throbbing anger. They wanted the perpetrators.

 

Ray gave the police a terrific break. Under hypnosis, he was able to recall one of the license plates on the vans used to shuttle the victims to the quarry. He even remembered most of the plate number on the other van. Authorities matched the numbers to vans found in a San Jose warehouse that had been leased by Woods, whose father owned the quarry. A search of the Woods estate revealed a draft of a ransom note.

But the kidnappers were nowhere to be found: They had learned their plot was foiled when they woke up from their nap and heard radio reports about the escape. They took off. Soon, a national manhunt was on for Woods and the Schoenfelds, who were considered armed and dangerous.

Alarmed by the all-points bulletin announcing the search, Richard Schoenfeld decided to turn himself in after roughly a week. Days later, James Schoenfeld was arrested in Menlo Park after someone recognized him driving a van. Frank Woods was located in Vancouver, British Columbia. The ensuing coverage of their respective family wealth confounded parents and media.

All three men pled guilty to kidnapping for ransom as part of a deal to drop 18 counts of robbery. They maintained a plea of not guilty to charges of kidnapping with bodily harm and passed on a jury trial. Prosecutor David Minier convinced Superior Court Judge Leo Deegan that the crime carried with it bodily harm, since three of the children reported some combination of nausea, nosebleeds, and fainting. That charge carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. All three were found guilty. Each man received 27 such sentences, one for each of the kidnap victims.

For Ray and the parents of the victims, it appeared justice had been served. Their ordeal, after all, had not ended with the safe recovery of their children. For years—and in many cases, decades—afterward, the kids of Chowchilla experienced tremendous anxiety, including nightmares. They had been locked in a dark, urine-soaked metal box for 16 hours. While the town was jubilant, throwing a parade for Ray and accepting invitations for the children to head to Disneyland, it was obvious the incident would leave permanent marks. Life without parole was not a fate anyone in Chowchilla had a second thought about.

The interior of a school bus is pictured
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Then a curious thing happened. In 1980, an appeals court determined that the judge had been wrong to declare that the crime had included bodily harm. The nosebleed, fainting spell, and nausea didn't count. The kidnappers were still imprisoned for life, but the distinction meant they were eligible for parole. Each kidnapper was denied a release dozens of times. Then, in 2012, Richard Schoenfeld was released. His brother, James, followed in 2015. Both had unblemished behavior records while incarcerated. Only Frank Woods, who had gotten into some disciplinary trouble, remained inside.

“My client was 22 at the time, and the plan was never to hurt anyone,” Scott Handleman, Richard Schoenfeld’s attorney, told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “No one is condoning the crime, but to have taxpayers keep them in prison at this time is ludicrous. Vengeance is a luxury California can no longer afford.” Even former prosecutor Minier agreed, writing a letter encouraging the parole board to consider the release of Richard Schoenfeld in 2006. One of the lead detectives on the case, Dale Fore, dubbed them “dumb rich kids” who had “paid a hell of a price for what they did.” Fore, acting as a private detective for the Woods family, tried to get victims to write letters endorsing parole.

None agreed. In fact, they did just the opposite. In 2016, many of them signed up for a lawsuit accusing the two free men with false imprisonment and intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress, a civil action allowed by California law for 10 years following a release on parole. (In 2017, the lawsuit entered mediation: No public announcement of any resolution has appeared.) Richard and James Schoenfeld moved in with their 93-year-old mother, with Richard serving as her caregiver and James performing architectural drafting work, a skill he acquired in prison. Woods is due for another parole hearing on October 8, 2019.

In a sense, the Schoenfelds may have endured the consequences of their actions for less time than some of the children. Now adults, some have reported continued therapy, claustrophobia, sleeping with nightlights, or refusing to let their own children board school buses, remnants of a trauma they experienced more than 40 years ago.

 

Ray went back to work for the Dairyland Union School District just two months after the incident, driving Dairyland Bus Number 1, the same one that had been hijacked. Along with Marshall, he was the one primarily responsible for keeping the kids calm. Though he did not consider his actions heroic, he was celebrated by then-president Gerald Ford, who wrote a letter congratulating him on his courage. Ray passed away in 2012 at the age of 91. He had bought the bus from Chowchilla because he didn't want to see it sent to a junkyard. He later gave it to a neighbor, who keeps it indoors on his property, an enduring testament to 27 brave individuals as well as one of the most bizarre crimes ever recorded.

Marshall, interviewed intermittently over the years for various anniversaries, also never considered himself a hero. He was not, in fact, even supposed to be on the bus that day. His mother normally picked him up but forced him to take alternative transportation because she had caught him sneaking beers with a friend. The teenager who had helped avoid a tragedy picked Dairyland Bus Number 1 more or less at random.

Letting Your Car Warm Up in New Jersey Could Get You a $1000 Fine

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Artfoliophoto/iStock via Getty Images

New Jersey residents who like to let their cars idle for an extended period of time before hitting the road might want to brush up on state law. If a police officer has the inclination, he or she could write a ticket for up to $1000. The crime? Excessively warming up a motor vehicle's engine.

According to News 12, the law stipulates that automobile owners are permitted to let their cars warm up for 15 minutes, but only if the vehicle has been parked for more than three hours and the temperature is less than 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Cars that were running less than three hours prior only get three minutes. A first offense can result in a $250 fine; a second, $500; and a third, $1000. The law even applies if the car is parked in a private driveway.

And yes, the state is serious. But why be so harsh on idlers? It's actually for a good reason. According to a state fact sheet [PDF] on the practice, excessive idling of a gas or diesel engine releases contaminants into the air, with fine particle pollution responsible for health issues. Since the offense is difficult for law enforcement to actually witness first-hand, the state encourages citizens to report violations. The state makes exceptions for refrigerated trucks, emergency vehicles, and vehicles stopped in traffic.

The state has also debunked a commonly-held myth that cars need to be “warmed up” in order to avoid engine damage. Electronically-controlled vehicles need just 30 seconds or so, with drivers cautioned to avoid rapid acceleration or high speeds for the first four miles during cold weather. The practice of warming up was more applicable to older model cars that used carburetors that needed to get air and fuel into the engine. Today’s cars use sensors to monitor temperature and make the correct adjustments. Idling is now just a waste of fuel, though the practice persists—people like warm cars.

While the attempt to freshen the air may be admirable, New Jersey residents are probably correct in thinking the law may be rarely enforced. From 2011 to 2016, only a few hundred summonses for violating the idling law have been written annually. In 2015, 276 were issued, with 148 of them dismissed.

[h/t News 12]

Cold Case: Revisiting Houston's Infamous Ice Box Murders

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lisa_I/iStock via Getty Images

The first thing Houston police captain Charles Bullock noticed as he entered 1815 Driscoll Street on the evening of June 23, 1965, was that someone didn’t want him using the back door. Flower pots had been stacked against the entrance, forcing Bullock and his partner, L.M. Barta, to push their way inside. While Barta moved through the rest of the home, Bullock headed for the kitchen.

The two were there to perform a welfare check on the house's occupants, an elderly couple named Fred and Edwina Rogers. Their nephew, Marvin Martin, had grown concerned when he failed to reach them by telephone, and became further alarmed after knocking on their door with no answer. So he had called the police.

As he walked into the kitchen, something nagged at Bullock. He would later recall that the scene “just didn’t feel right.” There are contradictory accounts of what happened next. Some say he saw food stacked on top of—rather than inside—the refrigerator, prompting his curiosity. Others say he was thirsty for a beer on a hot summer evening and wanted to see if there was anything to drink. Bullock himself would say he peered inside the fridge for no particular reason. “I don’t know why I looked in the refrigerator,” he said. “For some reason I just opened it.”

He took a quick inventory of its contents, which appeared to be nothing but shelf after shelf of hog meat. He concluded the Rogers family must have been to the butcher recently. But with the house empty, it looked like it would spoil.

This is a shame, Bullock thought. Someone is letting a whole bunch of good meat go to waste.

He started to close the door when something caught his attention. Inside the vegetable drawer was what appeared to be a woman’s head, her eyes fixed in Bullock’s direction. Bullock froze, then slammed the door shut. When he opened it, the head was still there.

The hog meat would turn out to be flesh of a different sort—the dismembered remains of Fred and Edwina Rogers, drained of blood and missing their entrails. Fred’s head was in the other crisper. His eyes had been gouged out.

The gruesomeness of the crime scene would have been disturbing no matter what. Making it slightly worse was the fact that the autopsies showed the murders had been committed on Father’s Day, and the person most likely to know something about the horrific act was the elderly couple's son, Charles.

Charles, unfortunately, was nowhere to be found.

 

Fred Rogers, 81, was a retired real estate salesman. His wife, Edwina, 79, was a sales representative. Their Houston home and their activities appeared unremarkable to neighbors. But there was an element to their lives that came as something of a surprise to local residents who would later be questioned by police. The surprise was that Charles lived with them. In fact, he owned the house.

A vintage refrigerator is pictured
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Charles was 43 and a veteran of World War II. After getting a bachelor’s degree in nuclear physics from the University of Houston, he had enlisted in the Navy and learned to fly planes. He became a seismologist and later spent nine years working for the Shell Oil Company. At the time of his parents’ death, it was not clear whether he was employed.

What was clear was that Charles was a peculiar individual. He would rise before dawn, leaving the house to tend to unknown business before his parents woke up, and then come back after dark, after they went to bed. His travels were so subtle that the next door neighbor was not even aware he lived there.

When he was home, he went out of his way to avoid his parents, purportedly slipping notes under doors when he needed to communicate with them. The family maid would later state that it was possible Edwina had not even seen Charles face-to-face for roughly five years prior to her death.

No one was sure what led to this unusually frigid living arrangement. It’s possible Charles wanted to provide for his elderly parents in spite of either not getting along with them or wishing not to be disturbed by the outside world. Either way, it was now imperative that he answer questions about their gruesome fates.

When Bullock discovered the corpses, he and his partner Barta practically sprinted out of the house, calling investigators to the scene. They found the house had mostly been scrubbed clean, save for some blood in the bathroom—where they believed the bodies had been cut up—and Charles’s attic bedroom, where there were trace amounts of blood as well as a hand saw they believed had been used to perform the dismemberment. The heads, torsos, and limbs were in the refrigerator; the entrails were found in the sewer system, apparently having been flushed down the toilet. Other body parts were missing and never found.

Owing to the labor involved in draining the bodies, carving up the corpses, and cleaning the home, police believed the killer had taken his or her time and had a working knowledge of human anatomy. Autopsies revealed that Edwina had died as a result of a single gunshot to the head, though that weapon was never found. Fred had gotten the worst of it. He had been beaten to death with a claw hammer, his eyes plucked out and his genitals severed from his torso in what was seemingly a vindictive mutilation. The claw hammer was found on the premises, though police would not confirm whether any fingerprints were retrieved.

If there was evidence, authorities wanted to discuss it with Charles. They issued an all-points bulletin and launched a nationwide search. As the only presumably-living member of the household, his insight—if not his confession—would prove invaluable. Because he knew how to fly, authorities checked nearby airfields to see if anyone matching his description had left the area by plane. Nothing turned up. In being so reclusive, Charles left virtually no trail for them to follow.

A man in silhouette is pictured
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“The habits and manners of the missing son are major mysteries,” Captain L.D. Morrison, head of the local homicide bureau, told reporters a few days after the bodies had been found.

It was an understatement. Police never located Charles—not in the weeks, months, or years that followed. In 1975, in an effort to probate the Rogers estate, he was declared legally dead.

 

One of Houston’s goriest murders would become one of its most notorious unsolved cases. But that hasn’t stopped others from stepping forward and offering their theories about what may have transpired.

Some are outlandish, using the blank canvas of the crime scene to try and attach deeper meaning to Charles’s life. The 1992 book The Man on the Grassy Knoll, by authors John R. Craig and Philip A. Rogers, offered that Charles was actually a CIA operative involved in the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. When his parents discovered incriminating diary entries, Charles killed them.

The Ice Box Murders, a 2003 book written by forensic accountants and amateur sleuths Hugh and Martha Gardenier, made an attempt to present a more plausible theory. They agreed Charles was indeed the killer, but his motive was not the result of any CIA involvement. Instead, the Gardeniers argued that Fred and Edwina were abusive and manipulative parents, doing everything from taking loans out against their son’s home to forging his signature on deeds to other property he owned. After years of being browbeaten and financially ripped off, Charles lashed out in an orgy of violence, smashing his father’s head in. (That his mother got a comparatively compassionate execution-style killing may point to most of the abuse coming from Fred.)

The Gardeniers asserted that a few days after the murders, someone matching Charles’s physical description was overheard asking about a job overseas, using an alias. They claimed that Charles utilized his contacts in the oil and mining industries to land in Mexico. The book also asserts that Charles met a violent end of his own, when a wage dispute involving some miners in Honduras ended with a pickaxe lodged in his head.

The Houston Press labeled the Gardeniers’ book a work of “fact-based fiction and supposition,” leaving its conclusions up in the air. No concrete evidence appears to point to Charles winding up in Central America, though he did at one point own his own plane. Fleeing Houston via aircraft seems plausible, and with the Shell Oil job taking him to Canada and Alaska, it’s also possible he had contacts in another country that could have made setting up a new life easier.

Decades later, it's unlikely the case will ever find resolution. If Charles Rogers did not commit the crime, his disappearance is inexplicable. No one else appeared to have motive to kill his parents. If he was killed by an unknown third party, the perpetrator did an excellent job removing all trace of him. Whether he ended up in Central America or somewhere else, the most likely explanation is that he spent the rest of his days doing what he'd so often practiced at 1815 Driscoll—disappearing into the shadows, unnoticed by the rest of the world.

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