CHOWCHILLA (CBSLA.com) — Dozens of school kids were taken and buried alive in what became the biggest mass kidnapping in U.S. history.
“Inside Edition” spoke with the victims of the Chowchilla school bus kidnapping during an emotional reunion.
“I’m having a little bit of anxiety about it,” said survivor Jennifer Hodd.
“It’s just painful to be on the bus again and relive it,” said another woman, through tears.
Hodd and Darla Neal stepped back onto the bus they were riding 36 years ago, when they were taken by three men in a ransom attempt that arrested the nation’s attention.
On July 16, 1976, the perpetrators pretended they were having van trouble when bus driver Ed Ray pulled over to help. He parked his bus of 26 summer school students along Avenue 21 in Chowchilla, 40 miles northwest of Fresno.
The men boarded the bus, masked and wielding machine guns.
Hodd and Neal were nine years old at the time.
“I was sitting at the back. One of the guys came and had a gun pointed at my head,” said Hodd.
“I didn’t know if they were going to shoot us, if they were going to kill us,” said Neal.
The three young kidnappers, Richard Schoenfeld, his brother John Schoenfeld and their friend Fred Woods, all came from wealthy families in the Northern California area.
They spent 18 months working on the plan: they took the children to a rock quarry, locked them in a moving van and buried them.
The children spent 16 hours thinking they were going to die.
“The roof started to cave in and some of the older kids had decided we were going to die trying to get out,” said Hodd.
The incident was captured in a made-for-TV movie, “They’ve Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping,” which showed how the bus driver stacked mattresses to help the children climb out through the roof. All of the children, and the driver, managed to escape.
The three kidnappers were quickly captured and sentenced to life in prison.
Richard Schoenfeld was released this year by a parole board.
“Inside Edition” found Schoenfeld living in a San Francisco suburb with his mother.
“Is there anything you want to say to them,” a reporter asked the kidnapper.
“Yeah, I wish them well,” said Schoenfeld.
Woods is set to be freed at the end of November.
KCAL9 legal analyst Steve Meister said he doesn’t think any more of the kidnappers should be released.
“It was a scary case,” said Meister. “They may be eligible but not suitable, so it should not be granted.”
“If the parole board finds they’re all equally rehabilitated and equally not a threat to society, there’s no reason the other two wouldn’t get out along with the first,” said Meister.
Officials were never able to establish a motive for the kidnappings, except that the men were inspired by a movie.
Although defense attorneys argued there was no physical damage, Hodd and Neal said they still experience emotional anguish and anxiety.
“I have to turn the night light on when I go to bed,” said Neal.
Ray passed away in 2010. As a final farewell, one of the survivors wrote on the bus, “You will forever be my hero.”