A special parole board in San Luis Obispo, California granted a prison release last week to 63-year-old James Schoenfeld, one of three perpetrators in the infamous 1976 school bus kidnapping in Chowchilla, California.
Bill Sessa, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told STN that this was Schoenfeld’s 20th parole hearing. He said that while Schoenfeld has been granted parole, it's not a foregone conclusion he will actually be released. He added it would take approximately five to six months before a final decision is made.
“The process for granting parole to an inmate serving a life sentence includes some checks and balances, reflecting the gravity of that decision,” he said.
In 1976, Schoenfeld, his younger brother Richard and their friend Frederick Woods hijacked a school bus with 26 children and driver Ed Ray on board. They forced the students and driver onto two separate vans and drove them around for approximately 11 hours before moving them into another van that was buried in a rock quarry.
The perpetrators had placed 14 mattresses inside this van, and eventually the driver and some of the children were able to use the mattresses in order to climb and then dig their way out. All 26 children and the driver managed to escape after 16 hours of captivity.
Schoenfeld and the others decided to carry out the elaborate scheme after losing money in a real estate venture and sought $5 million in ransom. The three had been originally sentenced to life without possibility of parole, but an appeals court later reversed the decision, maintaining the life sentence but opening the possibility for parole.
This parole process involves a review by legal staff of the Board of Parole Hearings, which will ensure that the decision is supported by evidence on the record of the parole hearing. After this, the decision will be forwarded to Gov. Jerry Brown, who then has the following options:
- Allow the decision to stand by default by taking no action within 30 days
- Express approval regarding the decision
- Make modifications to the decision, such as extending the release date or imposing additional conditions for parole.
- Refer the decision to the entire Board of Parole Hearings for re-consideration, whereby 12 commissioners would make the decision to either support or overturn the decision to grant parole.
Schoenfeld’s brother Richard was released on parole in 2012. Woods remains incarcerated.
“It’s kind of opening a wound back up whenever there’s an anniversary or one of the men is up for parole,” said Peggy Haupt, a spokesperson for the City of Chowchilla, when Richard Schoenfeld was released. “I don’t feel they should ever be released. It was a horrendous crime — they kidnapped 27 people and put their lives in jeopardy. The community is outraged.”