A 70-year old California man who has spent four decades in prison for kidnapping a bus full of children and burying them alive could be freed if Gov. Gavin Newsom approves his parole.
A panel of two commissioners with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Friday recommended parole for Frederick Newhall Woods, one of three men who hijacked a school bus with 26 children aboard in Chowchilla, Calif. on July 15, 1976.
Friday’s hearing was Wood’s 18th attempt for parole.
Woods and two other gunmen, Richard and James Schoenfeld, stopped bus driver Ed Ray as he was transporting the children back home from Dairyland Elementary School, which is about 150 miles southeast of San Francisco.
The kidnappers forced the children and Ray into vans, according to court records. After about 12 hours on the road, the group was taken down into a ventilated bunker that contained mattresses and snacks on property owned by Woods’ father, prosecutors said.
While the frightened children and the bus driver were entombed for hours, the roof began to collapse from the weight of the dirt, according to court records.
Lynda Carrejo Labendeira, who was 10 years old at the time, told the Associated Press in 2015 that the battery-operated blowers that circulated the air in the bunker began to fail.
“We would not have lived much longer. We would have suffocated to death in there,” Labendeira said.
Prosecutors said Woods and his accomplices planned the kidnapping as if it was the “crime of the century,” and demanded $5 million in ransom from the state Board of Education.
Ray and the children, who were then ages 5 to 14, were eventually able to claw their way out of the trailer 28 hours later and ran to nearby workers, who called police.
The three suspects were arrested two weeks after the kidnapping and were initially sentenced to life in prison without parole. An appeals court, however, overturned the decision and the kidnappers were allowed the possibility of parole.
Woods appeared via video on Friday before the panel where his attorney, Dominique Banos, said his client has not faced any disciplinary actions since 2019.
During the hearing, Woods provided an apology to the victims.
“I’ve had empathy for the victims, which I didn’t have then.” Woods said. “I’ve had a character change since then. … I was 24 years old. Now I fully understand the terror and trauma I caused. I fully take responsibility for this heinous act.”
The panel’s decision will now be reviewed by the California Board of Parole Hearing’s legal division. If no action is taken, Woods’ parole would be granted within 120 days from Friday’s hearing.
Governor Gavin Newson then has 30 days to review the panel’s decision. The governor can only reverse parole if the inmate was convicted of murder, which Wood was not.
Two victims who participated during Friday’s hearing said they agreed that Woods should be paroled, according to NBC.
“I believe you have served enough time for the crime you committed,” said Larry Park.
Richard Schoenfeld was paroled in 2012, and James Schoenfeld was released in 2015.