SACRAMENTO (CBS SF/AP) — Frederick Woods, the last of the convicted 1976 Chowchilla kidnappers still incarcerated, may soon be released on parole.
On Friday, state parole commissioners found that Woods in no longer a danger to the public and recommended the 70-year-old be released from prison. Previous parole panels had denied Woods parole 17 times.
Now Woods fate in the hands of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has the option to reject the recommendation.
Woods' and his accomplices, brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld, were convicted of hijacking a school bus full of children and holding them for $5 million ransom in 1976.
The Schoenfelds were freed on parole from San Quentin State Prison years ago.
All three were from wealthy San Francisco Bay Area families when they kidnapped 26 children and their bus driver 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 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.
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 they rules.
But Woods and his attorney emphasized that he had a discipline-free record since his last parole hearing in October 2019.
They also previously questioned why some of the victims testified that Woods should be released, although others previously said he deserved to remain behind bars.
Two survivors, Larry Park and Rebecca Reynolds Dailey, spoke Friday in favor of Woods' parole.
But opposing Woods' release were survivors Jennifer Brown Hyde and Laura Yazzi Fanning; Matthew Medrano, son of survivor Jodi Heffington Medrano who has since died; and Carol Marshall, mother of survivor Michael Marshall, and Lynda Carrejo.
Woods' parole has also previously been backed by some prominent supporters, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto in 2015.
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