SACRAMENTO — California parole commissioners on Friday recommended parole for the last of three men convicted of hijacking a Chowchilla school bus full of children for $5 million ransom in 1976.
The two commissioners decided Frederick Woods, now age 70, is no longer a danger to the public after previous panels had denied him parole 17 times.
The parole recommendation could still be rejected by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Woods’ accomplices, brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld, were freed years ago. An appeals court ordered Richard Schoenfeld released in 2012, and former Gov. Jerry Brown paroled James Schoenfeld in 2015.
All three were from wealthy San Francisco Bay Area families when they kidnapped 26 children and the Dairyland Elementary School bus driven by Ed Ray near Chowchilla.
They buried the children, ages 5 to 14, along with their bus driver in a ventilated underground bunker east of San Francisco. The victims were able to dig their way out more than a day later.
Woods Reads an Apology at Hearing
Woods read an apology for his crime, according to a pool report from Friday’s hearing by CBS News producer George Osterkamp.
“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,” he added. “Now I fully understand the terror and trauma I caused. I fully take responsibility for this heinous act.”
California law now requires parole commissioners to give greater weight to freeing inmates who were youthful offenders when they committed their crime, and those who are now elderly and have served lengthy prison sentences.
All three were initially sentenced to prison for the rest of their lives. However, an appeals court later reduced their sentences to life with the possibility of parole.
Trio Planned Kidnapping for More Than a Year
The three planned for more than a year to ransom the children for $5 million from the state Board of Education.
James Schoenfeld once told parole officials that he envied friends who had “his-and-hers Ferraris.” Woods said during an earlier parole hearing that he just “got greedy.”
Madera County prosecutors in previous parole hearings said Woods’ disciplinary infractions showed he had not yet learned to follow the rules. They also questioned why some of the victims testified that Woods should be released, although others previously said he deserved to remain behind bars.
But Woods and his attorney emphasized that he had a discipline-free record since his last parole hearing in October 2019.
Woods’ parole has also previously been backed by some prominent supporters, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto in 2015.