The last inmate held for the notorious 1976 Chowchilla school bus kidnapping was granted parole Wednesday.
Parole commissioners decided 70-year-old Frederick Woods was no longer a danger to the public after previous panels had denied him parole 17 times.
Woods was admitted on Feb. 17, 1978, from Madera County to serve seven years to life for kidnapping and robbery for ransom for his role in the 1976 Chowchilla kidnapping in which a school bus driver and 26 children were abducted and buried in a quarry in Livermore, California.
Woods’ accomplices, brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld, were already freed. An appeals court ordered Richard’s release in 2012 and then-Gov. Jerry Brown paroled James in 2015.
All three were from wealthy San Francisco Bay Area families when they kidnapped 26 children and their bus driver near Chowchilla, about 125 miles southeast of San Francisco.
They buried the children, ages 5 to 14, along with their bus driver in a ventilated bunker east of San Francisco. The victims were able to dig their way out more than a day later.
Woods read an apology for his crime at Friday’s parole hearing.
"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 young when they committed their crime, and to those who are now elderly and have served lengthy prison sentences.
"This is an individual who’s demonstrated how dangerous he is. He’s ruined the lives of dozens of these kids — they still struggle, a lot of them, with the aftereffects of this," Madera County District Attorney Sally Moreno said after the decision.
Woods and the Schoenfelds planned their crime for more than a year. They wanted to get $5 million ransom 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."
Woods said in his 2012 parole hearing that he didn’t need the money, and both those backing and opposing his parole Friday referenced his relative wealth.
"I believe you have served enough time for the crime you committed," said survivor Larry Park, who supported Woods’ release along with Rebecca Reynolds Dailey. But Park added that "I’m concerned about the addiction you may have about money," urging Woods to consider getting treatment.
Jennifer Brown Hyde, one of those opposing Woods parole, said he has yet to fully make amends for his crime and "is still a millionaire."
"He could have done much more," she said. "Even the settlement paid to some of us survivors was not sufficient. It was enough to pay for some therapy but not enough to buy a house."
Matthew Medrano, son of Jodi Heffington Medrano, sobbed several times as he recounted watching his mother change from being a loving, outgoing survivor until she experienced darker, bitter thoughts and depression before her early death.
Others opposing Woods parole — survivors Lynda Carrejo, Laura Yazzi Fanning and Carol Marshall, mother of survivor Michael Marshall — also testified about the long-term harm done by the kidnapping. It affected entire families, said Marshall.
Madera County prosecutors said Woods’ disciplinary infractions in prison showed he had not yet learned to follow the rules.
But Woods and his attorney, Dominique Banos, emphasized that he had a discipline-free record since his last parole hearing in October 2019.
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