“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. “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.”
On June 15, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced it was ordered by the court to release Richard Schoenfeld, 57, immediately from state prison. Schoenfeld was released from the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo Wednesday evening. Reportedly, this became necessary after the state Supreme Court decided not to intercede in a lower court’s judgment that required his prompt release.
“As such, CDCR does not have any legal option other than to release inmate Schoenfeld and will do so,” said CDCR spokesperson Luis Patino.
This past February, the state appeals court ruled that Schoenfeld was entitled to release. After denying parole to Richard 19 times, the Board of Parole Hearings in 2008 ruled that he posed no danger to society, based on his good behavior and acceptance of responsibility. But, last year the board recalculated his sentence, adding time for each of his kidnapping victims, and scheduled his release for 2021.
Richard’s older brother, James Schoenfeld, and friend Frederick Woods, both now 60, are also housed at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo. They have parole hearings later this year.
It was 36 years ago that their armed gang hijacked a loaded school bus east of San Francisco and forced the 26 students and their driver, Ray, into a van, driving them around for hours before having them climb into another van buried in a rock quarry. Ray and some of the children were able to stack the 14 mattresses that were in the van and dig their way out.
The three kidnappers, who were seeking a $5 million ransom, were apprehended and received life sentences for the mass kidnapping. They later said they hatched the elaborate kidnapping scheme to pay off debt arising from a failed real estate deal.
Supporters of releasing all three prisoners include the lead prosecutor and the lead sheriff's detective assigned to the kidnapping case, who are both retired. One argument for the trio’s release stems from the victims’ supposed lack of physical injury.
But Haupt, who is a family friend of the Rays as well as some of the victims, said the Chowchilla community still cannot understand why any of the kidnappers would receive parole.
“Psychologically, you’ve harmed them for a lifetime, and I know that for a fact because some of these victims won’t even speak of it,” she added.