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Parole granted to last Chowchilla school bus hijacker Frederick Woods

The Chowchilla Kidnapping
"48 Hours" Live to Tell: The Chowchilla Kidnapping 42:46

The last of three men convicted of hijacking a school bus full of California children for an attempted $5 million ransom in 1976 in what a prosecutor called "the largest mass kidnapping in U.S. history" is being released by the state's parole board.

Gov. Gavin Newsom asked the board to reconsider its decision to parole Frederick Woods, 70, on Tuesday after two commissioners recommended his release in March when previous panels had denied him parole 17 times. But the board affirmed that decision. The governor couldn't block Woods' release because he's not convicted of murder, and could only urge the parole board to take a closer look.

Woods and his two accomplices, brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld, 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.

Frederick Woods California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

The three buried the children, ages 5 to 14, along with their bus driver in an old moving van east of San Francisco with little ventilation, light, water, food or bathroom supplies. The victims were able to dig their way out more than a day later.

"As a young kid, you don't have a lot of sense of time. … There was no sunlight," survivor Jennifer Brown Hyde told "48 Hours" in 2019. "So, you couldn't tell if it was day or night. … We were out of food, we were out of water, the roof was caving in…. It just was a desperate situation."

Woods, who was 24 at the time, became a person of interest in the case after police connected him to the quarry where the van had been buried — his father owned the place.

Officials then searched Woods' father's estate and found a mountain of evidence, including a draft ransom note, "48 Hours" reported.

Arrest warrants were issued. Richard Schoenfeld turned himself in, but Woods and James Schoenfeld fled California. Once they were all arrested, they pleaded guilty to several charges, but refused to plead guilty to the eight counts of bodily harm, which would send them to prison for life, according to "48 Hours."

Tragic accident takes the life of a Chowchilla bus kidnapping survivor 00:51

They were all, however, found guilty on all charges and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In 1980, state Judge William Newsom, who was the current governor's father, was on an appellate panel that reduced the men's life sentences to give them a chance at parole. He pushed for their release in 2011, after he retired, noting that no one was seriously physically injured during the kidnapping.

An appeals court ordered Richard released in 2012 and then-Gov. Jerry Brown paroled James in 2015.

However, Newsom said Woods "continued to engage in financial related-misconduct in prison," using a contraband cellphone to offer advice on running a Christmas tree farm, a gold mining business and a car dealership

Woods' behavior "continues to demonstrate that he is about the money," Madera County District Attorney Sally Moreno said in opposing his parole. And in 2019, Sheriff Ed Bates told "48 Hours" he thought Woods was "a sociopath."

From left, Fred Woods, James Schoenfeld, center, and his younger brother Richard Schoenfeld Alameda County Sheriff's Office

Moreno said after the decision that she was angry and frustrated "because justice has been mocked in Madera County" and she fears for the state of society "if you can kidnap a busload of school children, abandon them buried alive and still get out of prison after committing that crime and spending your time in prison flouting the law."

Woods wasn't eligible to attend in person on Tuesday, but said during his parole hearing in March that he felt he needed money to have acceptance from his parents and "was selfish and immature at that time," while his more recent violations were to benefit the trust fund left to him by his late parents.

"I didn't need the money. I wanted the money," Woods said of the ransom attempt.

His attorney, Dominique Banos, said Wednesday that the parole board recognized that Woods "has shown a change in character for the good" and "remains a low risk, and once released from prison he poses no danger or threat to the community."

Three former inmates who served time with Woods urged parole officials to free him, while four victims or their relatives said Woods' misbehavior in prison shows he still views himself as privileged. Several of Woods' victims have previously supported his release.

Lynda Carrejo Labendeira, who was 10 at the time, recalled how the children struggled to escape as a flashlight and candles flickered out while "the makeshift, dungeonous coffin was caving in."

"I don't get to choose the random flashbacks every time I see a van similar to the one that we were transported in," she told the board.

"Insomnia keeps me up all hours of the night," she said. "I don't sleep so that I don't have to have any nightmares at all."

Jennifer Brown Hyde, who was 9 at the time, recalled "the lifetime effects of being buried alive and being driven around in a van for 11 hours with no food, water or a bathroom in over 100-degree weather."

"His mind is still evil and he is out to get what he wants," she told the board. "I want him to serve life in prison, just as I served a lifetime of dealing with the PTSD due to his sense of entitlement."

She said Wednesday that her family is disappointed, but it is "time to close this chapter and continue living the blessed life I have been given." She praised her fellow hostages as "true survivors and not victims."

Man convicted in Chowchilla kidnapping of 26 children denied parole 05:29

Newsom acknowledged that Woods is eligible for consideration both because he was just 24 when he committed the crime and because he is elderly now. He said Woods, who once studied policing at a community college, has also taken steps to improve himself in prison.

In the 2019 "48 Hours" special, other survivors spoke about the psychological affects of the kidnapping.

Larry Park told CBS News' David Begnaud he became an angry child after the kidnapping. His parents, fearing he was capable of violence, placed him in a facility for youth offenders when he was 15. 

"By the time I was 21, I was using meth," he said. "I was smoking crack. I was doing acid.  … And I was just angry."

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