A chilling tale of greed and anguish, the Chowchilla kidnapping will live forever in infamy.
The ensuing 16-hour standoff made national headlines.
The kidnappers drove the terrified children – the youngest aged just five, the eldest, 14 – and their 55-year-old school bus driver Ed Ray in two locked vans for more than 100 miles then buried them alive in a makeshift bunker in a rock quarry.
Demanding $5million in ransom, the kidnappers’ scheme was foiled when the driver, who was eulogized as a hero at the time of his death in 2012, was able to escape with some of the kids and notify a quarry guard.
‘If we’re gonna die, we’re gonna die getting out of here,’ the now-61-year recalls in an excerpt of the upcoming film, set to to premiere December 3. ‘We were being buried alive.’
The never-before-heard snippet recounts how, with air running out and the roof caving in above them, he took charge of the situation. He told his fellow captives he wasn’t going to die without a fight – and executed a brave plan to get them out and shared it with his bus driver, Ed Ray.
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Now in his 60s, Mike Marshall describes the heart-pounding escape in a new documentary set to air on CNN, recalling how, as a 14-year-old, he told fellow captives he wasn’t going to die without a fight as the roof of the bunker began caving in around them. He then executed a daring plan to escape
26 children – aged five to 14 – were abducted along with their bus driver Ed Ray, then 55, (center, back) and buried in a crumbling trailer in a quarry. The scheme was foiled when Ray and 14-year-old Michael Marshall (at Ray’s right, above) led an escape
The captors forced Ed Ray and the children into a buried trailer stocked with mattresses, a small amount of food and water, and ventilation fans. Pictured above, the trailer with its caved in roof
Piled-up mattresses they used to escape from the make-shift tomb as the roof began caving in. The kidnappers had shoveled dirt over the roof as soon as the last of the children were shoved inside, then weighed down the hatch door with two 100-pound industrial batteries
Other interviews give more insight into the group’s agonizing plight – which worsened when the roof of the de facto tomb, actually a trailer, started caving in at one end, crushing one of the air vents.
An impatient victim had kicked one of the posts holding up the ceiling of the buried trailer, leaving dirt that had been buried on top of them to pour in.
Screams from the children, aged between five and 14, intensified, and even Ray had nearly given up hope, several of the survivors recall.
Among those to almost give up hope, as even Ray grew despondent, was Marshall – that is until he saw an opportunity as he looked up at the collapsing ceiling.
Telling Ray about his still-formulating plan, the pair went for it – stacking mattresses left behind by their captors to reach the ceiling, before eventually clawing their way out of their imprisonment as dirt funneled in.
To young Larry Park, who also appears in the CNN feature, ‘Mike was Hercules. Mike was Samson. Mike was the man that slayed the beast.’
One of the eldest children, Mike Marshall, then 14, told CNN how he announced to the group that he wasn’t going to die without putting up a fight (pictured above) – so he began hatching a plan and told bus driver Ed Ray. The pair teamed up to escape
Marshall and bus driver Ed Ray managed to free themselves and eventually the rest of the group with their quick-thinking. Marshall saw an opportunity for escape as the buried trailer’s ceiling began collapsing. He and the bus driver – Ed Ray – stacked mattresses left behind by their captors to reach the ceiling, before eventually clawing their way out as dirt funneled in
Now 61, Mike Marshall (pictured) is one of several survivors featured in the upcoming film, set to release on December 3. To young Larry Park, who was six at the time of the terrifying abduction – and who also appears in the CNN feature, ‘Mike was Hercules. Mike was Samson. Mike was the man that slayed the beast.’
After the fateful day, Ray received an award for outstanding community service. Before his death in 2012, he was visited by several of the kids he helped save, and to honor his birthday, every February 26 since the kidnapping has been declared Edward Ray Day in Chowchilla
Under hypnosis, Ray (seen here after the escape) was also able to remember one of the license plates of the vans that had taken them to the quarry, which was tied to the quarry owner’s son, Frederick Woods, and both of his accomplices
The group stacked the mattresses inside the truck on top of one another and used wooden slats to dislodge a steel plate on the roof of the van that was covering the hatch through which they’d entered
Fighting heat exhaustion, Ray, Marshall, and the other more able-bodied victims poured water over their heads and kept pushing until they knocked away the batteries that had been placed to weigh down the trailer’s hatch.
After having 16 hours underground, Ray and a few of the children finally found themselves back above ground, and were able to walk to a nearby quarry’s guard station where authorities cops were called.
The escape took place before the kidnappers had even been able to call in their ransom demands – because the Chowchilla Police Department telephone lines had been overloaded with calls from the media and family members looking for the children.
The Dairyland Elementary school bus – which had been returning from a nearby swimming pool, had been abandoned in a wooded area, sending the town of Chowchilla into a frenzy.
‘It was like someone just took them off the planet,’ a witness recalls in the upcoming film.
Larry Park, who was six at the time, also appears in the new CNN feature. He recently recalled of his fellow student: ‘Mike was Hercules. Mike was Sampson. Mike was the man that slayed the beast’
Victim Jennifer Brown Hyde, who was nine-years-old at the time, says in the film: ‘When I got home, I thought we were all going to be OK. [We] were not OK’
On July 15, 1976, the children attending summer classes at Dairyland Elementary School were returning from a trip when their bus was blocked on the road by three armed men and a white van at 4pm. The group was then held for ransom – paving the way for a 16-hour standoff
Soon after arriving at the quarry, cops found that the buried truck was registered to the quarry owner’s son, Frederick Woods, along with a cryptic ransom note that seemed to refer to Hugh Pentecost’s story ‘The Day the Children Vanished’.
The story had recently been published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Daring Detectives and was displayed in the Chowchilla public library.
Footage from the CNN documentary shows a cryptic journal belonging to one of the kidnappers also uncovered at the scene – filled with cyphers that mystified lawmen.
Under hypnosis, Ray was also able to remember one of the license plates of the vans that had taken them to the quarry, which was tied to Woods once more, and both of his accomplices.
Woods was arrested weeks later after fleeing to Vancouver, British Columbia. His accomplices, brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld, surrendered to authorities in California after several days in hiding.
Woods was arrested weeks later after fleeing to Vancouver, British Columbia. His accomplices, brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld, surrendered to authorities in California after several days in hiding (James Schoenfeld is shown left, Richard seen right)
A draft ransom note was found at the scene, with some of its phrasing seeming to make reference to Hugh Pentecost’s story, ‘The Day the Children Vanished’, which had been published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Daring Detectives and was displayed in the Chowchilla public library
A cryptic journal belonging to one of the kidnappers was found at the scene, seen here in the CNN film
All three men received life sentences after pleading guilty to kidnapping charges. Only Richard expressed remorse for the crime.
Woods meanwhile was already said to be concocting another scheme, desperately urging one of his friends to turn the Chowchilla kidnappings into a film.
In a newly discovered letter from 1976, shortly after his arrest, Woods – ironically alluding to future coverage like that of CNN’s – wrote: ‘I think it would make a damn good movie of the week, if not a feature.
Richard and James were paroled in 2012 and 2015 respectively, and Woods, now 71, was paroled last year.
It left the children forever traumatized, and especially unforgiving of their now free captors.
Victims like Park, who was only six at the time, said they spiraled into a world of addiction when they hit their teenage years, and are still haunted to this day by what happened.
Nearly a half-century later, the new film shows how Park and so many of the other 25 victims are only now piecing their lives back together.
‘I have nine years sober. My resentment for [Woods and the Schoenfeld brothers]… was killing me,’ Park recently admitted to CBS.
In the new CNN film, he adds: ‘God forgive them, because I won’t’.
Victim Jennifer Brown Hyde, who was nine years old at the time of the incident, similarly says: ‘When I got home, I thought we were all going to be OK. [We] were not OK’.
After an agonizing 16 hours of being buried alive, Ray and the children found themselves back above ground. They walked to the quarry’s guard station near the Shadow Cliffs East Bay National Park, and were all ‘in good condition’
The kidnappers loaded Ray and the children, all aged between five and 14, into two vans before abandoning the school bus
Large cases of water lined the tomb’s interior. The victims had no idea how long they’d be trapped for – or if any of them would ever make it out alive
At Woods’ parole hearing in 2012, victims of the kidnapping described the suffering they still felt 39-years-on in a heartfelt let to the board, expressing their desire to ensure Woods is never made a free man. He was freed anyway
At Woods’ parole hearing in 2012, victims of the kidnapping described the suffering they still felt 39 years on in a heartfelt plea to the board, expressing their desire to ensure Woods is never made a free man. He was freed anyway.
After the fateful day, Ray received a California School Employees Association citation for outstanding community service for his heroics.
Before his death in May 2012, he was visited by a number of the kids he helped save, and to commemorate his birthday, every February 26 since the kidnapping has been declared Edward Ray Day in Chowchilla.
The town today has a population of roughly 19,000, but has been forever impacted by the 16-hour crisis.
In addition to airing on CNN, Chowchilla is set to stream live for CNN.com, CNN OTT and mobile apps Sunday, December 3.
On December 4, the feature will be available to CNN subscribers via CNN.com and the CNN app.
The film is executive produced by Amy Entelis and Alexandra Hannibal for CNN Films.