One of three men who kidnapped a busload of Chowchilla school children and their driver and buried them in a Livermore quarry more than 35 years ago has been released from prison.
Richard Schoenfeld was released on parole Wednesday to an undisclosed location, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Luis Patino said in an email.
The release upset many in the communities of Chowchilla and Livermore, where the kidnapped children and their driver were buried in a container at a quarry.
"The city of Chowchilla is not happy with this parole decision," Chowchilla Mayor Janan Hebert said in a statement Thursday. "The basis of Mr. Schoenfeld's release is that none of his victims were physically harmed. They may not have been physically harmed, but 27 kidnapping victims were psychologically harmed. We are acutely aware of the enduring pain Mr. Schoenfeld has caused them by his actions."
Schoenfeld, his brother James Schoenfeld and a friend, Frederick Woods, were convicted of the July 15, 1976, crime, in which they buried all 27 victims alive inside a van at a Livermore construction sight while planning to demand a $5 million ransom.
All 27 victims survived.
Richard Schoenfeld was scheduled to be paroled in November 2021, based on the open-ended nature of his life sentence. With no definitive end date, the parole board calculated the release date by taking into account all of Schoenfeld's victims, Patino said in an email last week.
But Schoenfeld argued for an immediate release, and in March the First District Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in his favor. The state Supreme Court declined earlier this month to review the case, clearing the way for Schoenfeld's release.
Scott Handleman, one of Schoenfeld's attorneys, said the release was long overdue. He said the judge who sentenced Schoenfeld began suggesting in 1985 that he believed Schoenfeld was ready for parole: That the crime was "a one-time thing," an out-of-character act that would not be repeated.
"Here we are a quarter century longer than even the judge thought was necessary," Handleman said. "He's been incarcerated far too long. Aside from being the right thing for humanitarianism and compassion, not to lock someone up for the rest of their life for something they did at 22 years old, this decision was mandated by law."
Now it's time for Schoenfeld to "adapt to his new life," Handleman said. He declined to comment on any of the details of Schoenfeld's release, and refused to say anything about Schoenfeld's future plans.
Gary Dubcoff, an attorney who represents the still-imprisoned Frederick Woods, said he is happy for the Schoenfeld family.
"They've been waiting for this day for the longest time, and it's bittersweet because they're still waiting for Jim to come home," Dubcoff said. The Schoenfelds' father has died, but their mother is alive and suffered a stroke last year, "so it's great that at least one of her sons got out in time for her to see him," he added.
As for whether parole is likely coming for the two men still imprisoned, Dubcoff said, "I cannot offer a prediction about that. It's my great hope that it will happen the next time around."
Both men are expected to have hearings within the next year, Dubcoff said, adding that both have good behavior records in prison.
As to those victims who oppose parole for any of the three men, Dubcoff said, "I totally understand how they feel. It was a bad crime. I never want to be seen as minimizing the suffering imposed by what they did.
"The fact remains," he continued, "that it's a crime where nobody was physically hurt. There are numerous cases when murderers, sometimes people who committed far more heinous crimes, are out in shorter periods of time."
Richard Schoenfeld had been in prison since Feb. 17, 1978. He'll be monitored 24 hours a day with a GPS monitoring device, Patino said.
A call to Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jill Klinge, who has attended past parole hearings for all three kidnappers, was not immediately returned.
The release did not sit well with some Livermore residents who remembered the incident well.
"When I read that article that he was being released, I got chills," said Barbara Hickman of Livermore, who had young children at the time of the kidnapping. " He needs to be punished, this many years in jail is not enough. Those kids and their parents have been punished all their lives. He should be punished all his life."
Barry Schrader, who was the Tri-Valley Herald editor at the time, was at the Livermore police station when the bus was discovered. He and photographer Mike Malone watched at the quarry as the children were loaded onto a sheriff's bus.
"I think it's a real miscarriage of justice that they let any of them out because they basically left those kids and (bus driver) Ed Ray there to die," Schrader said. "It was a heinous crime. I'm really sorry to hear that they let them out, even one of them."
Richard and James Schoenfield and Wood were in their early- to mid-20s when they took over the bus carrying kids from Dairyland Union School in Chowchilla, a small farm community about 35 miles northwest of Fresno in Madera County. They camouflaged the bus, left it in a creekbed, then drove the children and Ray to the California Rock and Gravel Quarry in Livermore, where they put them in a van buried in a cave.
Ray and the children escaped by piling mattresses on top of each other and escaping through an opening in the van roof.
Schoenfield and his two conspirators pleaded guilty in Alameda County Superior Court in 1977. James Schoenfeld and Woods haven't been found suitable for parole. They have parole hearings scheduled for later this year.