FIRST ON FOX: Transcripts from the first and final times Chowchilla school bus kidnapping's so-called ringleader Frederick "Fred" Woods testified before parole boards offer a glimpse into the mind of one of the men behind the "heinous and cruel" 1976 scheme to bury dozens of children alive for a ransom.
Woods, 70, was recommended for parole on March 25, 2022 – over 40 years after he was convicted of hijacking a summer school bus for a $5 million ransom in July 1976. His road to the freedom was a long one, fraught with over a dozen previous board of parole rejections.
"This crime has hurtme (sic) more than, I feel, any of the victims."
Woods was 24 when he and two brothers, Richard and James Schoenfeld, kidnapped 26 children, ranging in age from 4 to 14, and their bus driver, Ed Ray, according to officials and records. Transcripts from the first and the last parole hearings – of which there were 17 – paint a picture of Woods’ demeanor and mindset at the beginning and the end of his prison stint.
"The prisoner is found unsuitable for release and would represent an undue risk to others," stated Presiding Officer Wayne Estelle during Woods’ first hearing before California’s Board of Prison Terms on July 15, 1982.
Chowchilla is located about 115 miles southeast of San Jose.
"[T]he offense, one of the more infamous in California history, was pernicious and mean in every sense," Estelle concluded, around 1:10 p.m. and nearly four hours into the hearing. "It was carried out in a heinous and cruel way that left an emotional malignancy, not just with the victims, but with the entire community where it originated."
Estelle took further issue with the motive behind the heavily planned scheme – money, records show.
Woods told the parole board he had incurred a $50,000 debt stemming from a loan he received from his aunt, and he and the Schoenfelds also had a "housing project" business venture that they were trying to get off the ground. However, there were other ways he could have obtained the money, Estelle argued.
"Considering the myriad [of] other evidence available to obtain funds, the motive shrivels compared to the human agony imposed on the victims."
Woods and the Schoenfelds "ambushed" a Dairyland Union School bus around 4 p.m. July 15, 1976, on the outskirts of California’s Chowchilla. Wearing nylon stockings over their heads and with one of them armed with a gun, they blocked the road and commandeered the school bus after ordering Ray to open the door, records allege.
They abducted the children, herded them into vans and transported them to a quarry site in Livermore, which was associated with Woods’ family. Hours after arriving, they allegedly carried the children one-by-one into a "previously buried furniture van."
"We were told to just shut up, shut up in there," one of the victims, Lynda Carrejo Labendeira, testified to the board. Labendeira was a 10-year-old summer student at Dairyland Elementary School at the time of the hijacking. She recalled how she and the other victims feared, "We’re going to die in here. We’re suffocating."
After burying the group and covering the opening with plywood, Woods said he "went home" for "several hours," the transcript states. They planned to check in on their victims "at least once a day."
Two of the older children and Ray were able to escape after digging themselves out with only their hands, cutting themselves along the way, a victim later testified to the parole board, describing the efforts as "trying to survive, digging for our lives."
The kids successfully escaped around 8 p.m. on July 16, 1976.
Woods then fled and ended up in Canada where he was ultimately arrested. He told the parole board he left California because he was "scared."
"[T]his whole thing fell apart in one night," he said. "We didn’t know what to do."
"And another thing that really scared me the most, people were running around with guns saying that these people are armed," he went on. "They’re all dangerous. I had in my mind – somebody says something about a person, and they go running out and shoot them."
Woods later acknowledged that guns were used during the kidnapping, but said he did not personally use one," transcripts show.
"And I’d hate to be standing somewhere and having some guy in a pickup trick come up and say there he is, and who knows," he added.
Woods remained behind bars for 46 years.
During his first-ever parole hearing, Woods at times dodged questions and initially indicated, through his attorney, that he would not be as open with the board in the presence of the media.
At one point, even as his attorney tried to get Woods to speak more about a possible motive for the "mass kidnapping" other than money, Woods denied it.
Woods was shockingly quoted in a probation officer’s report as stating: "This crime has hurtme (sic) more than, I feel, any of the victims," according to parole hearing transcript.
When asked about the statement during the hearing, he responded: "Emotionally and everlasting. Like, I’m suffering everyday being in prison to a certain degree, you know, of the crime itself."
Upon further questioning, he said his feelings had since changed.
"[W]e put the children through a terrible experience at the time, it’s a very terrible experience for two or three days or whatever time period it was," he said. "I’m sure they had feelings, emotional feelings, since then about the case. And I’ve had a lot of emotional feelings about the case myself."
Woods’ attorney later argued that his client made the statement after a traumatic trial in which victims’ relatives were allegedly "being caught trying to bring guns into the trial." The statement, he said, was made during a meeting in which prosecutors were "taking advantage of a Constitutional right … to remain silent."
Woods returned for hearings before the parole board over the course of decades before his successful hearing in March. At the time, he told the parole board he had always described how he "needed the money."
"I didn’t need the money," he said, according to the transcripts. "I wanted the money. I’ve learned that in the last few years. That was a mistake on my part. [M]y belief at the time was … I feel I needed money to have … acceptance from my, uh, parents."
His attorney argued that despite having a trust fund and appearing to live an "abundant" lifestyle, he "wanted for a lot."
"He wanted acceptance. He wanted attention. He wanted love and foolishly thought he needed to orchestrate grand projects or schemes for money to obtain them," the attorney, Dominique Banos, told the board.
Woods also described how after the kidnapping, he "had anger, fear, guilty, shame, and pain," but had learned that, "what I was denying for so long, I had to take ownership of it."
He admitted that he "probably didn’t" think about the victims possibly dying at the time of the hijacking. He said he had since written letters to each of the victims and had met one of them by that time.
Woods also told the board he had been "feeling their pain too," referring to his victims, transcripts show. He acknowledged that he knows "their pain is way greater than I can even imagine."
When asked about this, he explained, "I’ve tried to put myself in their shoes and understand the empathy for them."
Woods was also questioned about potential "high-risk situations" he could encounter outside of prison, to which he responded that people have asked him in prison for advice on how to kidnap someone, records show.
In disputing Woods’ release, Deputy District Attorney Jill Klinge told the board Woods "does what he wants, despite the rules."
"[O]ne would hope after 46 years in prison, that you might finally take the time to think and address your issues. But with this inmate, I still find it hard to believe that he’s credible," Klinge went on. "[H]e’s still motivated by money. He still uses it [as] a way to control and work people. And, he still minimizes his behavior."
Woods was allegedly caught using cell phones in 2013, 2014 and 2016, and accused of using the phones to give advice regarding business on the outside while in prison.
"We know that the best indicator of good behavior on the outside is if you can obey the rules of the institution," Klinge said. "And, we know he has consistently violated the rules in prison."
Klinge added: "Now, today, he says, he’s finally telling the whole truth and everything, but the truth. I don’t think he is. I think he’s still, maybe he’s making progress, but he’s not there yet."
In his closing statement to the board, Woods said he first wanted "to make apology to all who are harmed in this heinous act." He then listed out each victim by name, the transcript shows.
"I see how I harmed every one of you. I fully understand the terror and trauma I’ve caused," he went on. "I’m totally sorry. Um, I take full responsibility for planning and execution of this heinous act."
He promised, regardless of whether he was recommended for parole, to "not be the monster I was in (sic) July 15, 1976."
Woods was found "suitable" for parole at 1:10 p.m. on March 25, 2022, more than four hours after the hearing began.
"There has to come a time when you have to look at the entire picture and say, has justice been served in this instance? Some of the people that were impacted by this crime were going to conclude, no, it hasn’t," said Board of Parole Deputy Commissioner Keith Stanton. "But I think after this much time, Mr. Woods has served enough to pay for the crime itself."
Presiding Commissioner Patricia Cassady added: "[A]t this point we find that he is suitable … I do want to wish you luck, Mr. Woods."
Richard and James Schoenfeld were released in 2012 and 2015, respectively. The California parole board officially granted Woods parole months after his hearing, in August, despite an objection from Gov. Gavin Newsom.