School Bus Full of Students Vanishes Into Thin Air, Until Parents Make Startling Discovery


| LAST UPDATE 10/03/2022

By Lily Tipton

It's every parent's worst nightmare. Back in 1976, after the students at an elementary school embarked on a summer trip, their school bus disappeared. With no idea of their whereabouts, the story shocked the world.

Summer of '76

It was the summer of 1976, July 15th. The kids of Dairyland Elementary in Chowchilla, California, were buzzing about their summer outing to the local swimming pool. Little did they know, things were about to take a turn.

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After a great but tiring day out with their friends, they all climbed back onto the bus which would take them home to be reunited with their parents. With one day left until they were officially on vacation, they could never have imagined what would get in their way.

Meet Ed

The guy behind the wheel was Frank Ray, who the kids casually referred to as Ed. He was an experienced driver, having driven kids around the area for many years. On this day, he had a bus filled with twenty-six children, ranging in age from five to fourteen.

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In a rush to get the kids back to their parents at the time pre-arranged, the decision was made not to allow the children to change back into their dry clothes and have them ride on the bus home with their wet swimsuits still on them. They would change once they got home. Or so they thought.

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Heading Home

With Ed's extensive experience driving school buses, he had perfected the art of focusing on the road regardless of any distractions from inside or outside the vehicle. Over his twenty-three years behind the wheel, he had encountered every type of distracting child, so there was nothing that could phase him at this point.

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Driving down the quiet backroads, the ride back from the swimming pool was so far, peaceful and calm. There was little traffic, so they were on track to being home on time. That was until he noticed a white van pulled up ahead on the side of the road...

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Although he wanted to help the strangers with their apparent car trouble, he knew this could seriously delay his journey - and with the uncomfortable kids in the back, it wasn't worth it. First deciding he would try to drive by it without interacting, he eventually decided to roll down his window to see if they needed help.

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But, before he had a chance to do so, the car drove out and completely blocked the road ahead. Beeping his horn in panic, he watched in horror as three men with pantyhose over their faces exited the white van and walked towards the bus. After looking back to check on the children, he returned his attention to the men...

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Fight or Flight

In the few seconds he had looked behind him, the men had come to the bus door and were threateningly holding up their weapons at him through the glass. They made it clear that he was not to reverse or move the bus away from them; otherwise, he would be in great danger.

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They signaled for him to open the bus door. Ed was unsure what the correct move was. Of course, he understood that if he opened the door for them, then there was a chance they would harm the children, but at the same time, he knew that they could forcibly enter the bus anyways...

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Split Decision

Within a few seconds, he concluded that it would probably be best to comply with their instructions. He thought it wouldn't be a good idea to anger them at this point. So, he opened the door for them, and they came on board, terrifying the children with the weapons in their hands.

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They shuffled all the screaming children towards the back of the bus and then waved their weapons at the driver to join them there. They threatened to hurt the kids if they made any noise and told them to keep their heads low. "No Hero Stuff," the kidnapper told Ed. "Just sit there quietly, and everything will be fine."

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Taking a Detour

While one of the masked men watched over the children, a second jumped into the front seat behind the wheel. The third got back into the white van and moved it aside. After a fifteen-minute bus ride, they exited off the main road and arrived at the location the criminals had settled on before they set out to commit this crime.

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In an attempt to keep out of sight and avoid being seen by any locals or police, they parked the car on a disused road within a field of overgrown trees, making the yellow school bus almost invisible. Ed and the children were then told to exit the bus and split into two groups.

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Mysterious Destination

With the bus now abandoned in the bushes, the two groups were each loaded into a van with boarded-up windows. It was dark and scary, and without being able to see the roads, they had no idea where they were being taken to. Hunger and dehydration kicked in, and many of the children began to cry.

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The older kids on the bus immediately jumped into savior mode and attempted to calm the younger children's nerves. They encouraged them to sing songs such as If You're Happy and You Know It, which they believed would distract them from the uncomfortably long journey.

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11 Hours Later

After an eleven-hour drive, the vans stopped, and the children and Ed anxiously awaited what would be next. The masked men chaotically opened the doors of the vans and pulled the children out one by one, closing the van door behind them between each kid. Where were they being taken?

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Taken out first, Ed looked around and realized they were in a large rocky quarry. Each person in the group was led at gunpoint to a ladder sticking out of a hole in the ground and instructed to climb down it into the mysterious underground location. The screams of fear could be heard for miles.

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Going Underground

Once he reached the bottom of the ladder, he noticed a tiny flicker of light and readjusted his eyes to evaluate the situation. He recognized that they were inside a truck trailer which had been buried twelve feet into the ground to ensure no one could escape.

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Even if they had somehow broken through the container's metal walls, they would still be buried in soil with no way out. As the kids hesitantly climbed down the ladder in a single file to join him, he panicked about how he would be able to keep them calm and well.

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What Now?

Once all the children were underground inside the makeshift prison, the kidnappers began the next stage of their carefully crafted plan. They demanded each of the captives write down their name, address, and phone number and hand over one piece of clothing.

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Then, they climbed back up the ladder and removed it. Next, they closed the hole up with a large, heavy metal plate and put two even heavier car batteries on top to keep it in place. The kidnappers quickly drove off as Ed and the children sat in the dirty and dark hole.

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Not Looking Promising

As positive and determined as Ed was, the situation began to feel hopeless. As he heard the vans drive off, he realized that even if they were to scream, they were so far below the ground that no one would be able to hear them. Moreover, unless they were explicitly tipped off, the police wouldn't be able to find them there.

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Despite this, he tried to keep a calm face throughout, reassuring the children that they would be alright. His only saving grace was that the gunmen had not yet decided to harm them, so perhaps they would be making ransom demands which could result in their survival.

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The Panicking Begins

Although the kidnappers had provided a small food and drink supply, the twenty-six children and Ed had finished it all off within a few hours. There were also two fans in place, which helped to ensure there was some sort of ventilation system, but when they both broke, panic set in.

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By this point, it was the morning, and the California heat was in full mode. The kids were slowly sweating and dehydrated, getting weaker by the minute. The holes that had been dug for toilets were beginning to fill up, causing a foul smell to spread around the truck trailer. Ed understood their hours were limited.

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Breaking the News

On the flip side, the children's parents began to panic when they saw that the bus had still not returned from the trip. Once word spread about the missing children, the entire town of Chowchilla jumped into action, frantically searching for the children.

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A few hours prior, at around 7:30 pm, the police had been notified of an abandoned school bus spotted by a plane above. They went to the location in question to search the bus for clues and found tire tracks that suggested two other vehicles had exited the site. They began to theorize what this could mean...

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Calling for Back Up

While they didn't know anything for sure, they believed it suggested there was a chance they were still alive. They informed the worried parents that there was a high chance this was a kidnapping case, and it was likely they would soon be receiving the ransom requests in exchange for the children returning home safely.

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Overwhelmed by the dangers he was facing and the suspected impending ransom negotiations, the chief of the Chowchilla police force called the governor to request backup. Within hours, thirty FBI agents arrived in Chowchilla, and the official search began...

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Ransom Request

There was one final stage of the kidnapping plan. After driving away from the site of the hole, the three men were comfortably sitting in their hideout, preparing for their next move. It was time for them to call the Chowchilla police and state their ransom demand of $5 million.

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However, after three failed attempts at reaching the police, where each time they were met with a busy line, the men reckoned they would try again tomorrow. They understood the phones were likely jammed by the concerned parents, and they were confident that the children were tightly locked away. So, they slept on it.

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A Race Against Time

While the kidnappers got a good night's sleep, Ed was left to care for the children, who were now desperately looking at him for help. He anxiously tried to stop them from panicking, mostly because he knew that their crying fits would be sucking up the precious oxygen in the container.

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Ed and the eldest child, fourteen-year-old Mike Marshall, realized that if the conditions within the trailer wouldn't fatally harm them, something from above would. The roof of the trailer was buckling in from the weight of the soil above it. As the metal roof got weaker, more dust was pouring in... threatening to bury them alive.

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Their Escape Plan

Ed was convinced that even if they could somehow escape, the kidnappers would be waiting for them above the hole and wouldn't allow them to flee. Mike, on the other hand, believed otherwise. He reckoned that their need to escape was crucial at this point and was worth the risk.

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He convincingly told Ed that even if the men were waiting there above to harm them, they would not survive below due to the unlivable conditions. For this reason, they decided they would give escaping their best shot. They really had nothing to lose.

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Out of Reach

After a very brief plan-making session, Mike and Ed concluded that their only possible way out was through the ceiling hole. However, as it was beyond their reach, they would need to find a way to access it. That's when Ed had an idea involving the old dirty mattresses left for them.

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They began to pile the mattresses on top of each other, and Mike climbed on top of them to be within arm's reach of the hole. Next, Ed handed him a piece from a wooden bed frame which they predicted he would be able to prod open the hatch with. But after hours of trying, it wasn't budging.

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A Glimmer of Hope

Mike was determined. Perhaps if he had known that above the metal plate were two 100-pound batteries and an additional layer of dirt, he might have given up. But, he kept going, balancing at the top of the mattress tower and bashing at the ceiling with the wooden slat. And finally, a small opening appeared.

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After some more back-breaking work, Mike managed to push off the cover completely. But they still were not free. Above the hole entrance, the kidnappers had placed a wooden box and covered that over with more soil. He kicked at the wooden box walls and pushed through the soil. He was shocked at what he saw next.

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Making It Out

Mike was almost certain he would break out and be discovered by the men. But after his eyes adjusted to the sunlight, he saw there was no one around. He was baffled. Things were finally looking up. Next, he needed to get Ed and the rest of the children out as well.

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Now that Mike had forged his way through the surface, the path was cleared for the rest. One by one, the children climbed up the mattress pile and crawled through the hole and box. They had all managed to get through the escape without any physical injuries. After sixteen hours underground, they were breathing fresh air.

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Searching For Help

Ed knew it was only a matter of time until the kidnappers returned and found them above ground. There was no time to waste; they needed to flee the scene fast. He gathered the now-exhausted children together and led them through the quarry to find assistance.

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They reached a group of construction workers. But before they even had a chance to explain to them who they were and what they needed, they realized the men knew exactly who they were. "This world's been looking for you," the emotional strangers told Ed and the children. 

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Questioning Ed

The police instantly arrived on site to rescue the victims. With the kids now safely at home with their parents, the hunt for the kidnappers was taken up a notch. The police needed answers - and they needed them now if they would have any chance of catching them.

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They decided to question Ed while he was hypnotized. This would help him access information in his brain that he may not have even realized he had. During the hypnosis, Ed was able to recall the license plate number of one of the white vans and remembered a few numbers on the other.

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Following a Lead

With this crucial information, the Chowchilla police searched the license plate numbers in their system. They discovered that the plates were registered to vehicles in a warehouse in San Jose. They then noticed that the vans had been leased recently to a man named Frederick Woods.

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Frederick Woods owned a rock quarry in the area, so they decided that would be the best place to start. Heading off hastily to the quarry, they could not believe what they found upon arrival. It was a clue that would prove to be a case-breaking discovery.

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Tracking the Criminals

Driving into the quarry, their first stop was the home of Frederick Woods. After conducting a search of the house, they found a draft of a ransom note left on the floor of the house. The next question they had was who had written it. Then they were informed of something suspicious.

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The homeowner's son, Fred Woods IV, had recently fled the town, and no one knew where he was. After attempting to contact his friends Richard and James Schoenfeld to enquire about his whereabouts, they were told they were missing too. The police now understood exactly who they needed to find.

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Under Arrest

A national-scale manhunt was underway, and with the whole country on the lookout, it was only a matter of time until the kidnappers were found. After just one week, Richard caved under the pressure of the search and turned himself in to the police. James and Fred were still missing.

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A few days after Richard was arrested, a tip was called in by a local resident who had spotted James in Menlo Park. Instantly, the police arrived and arrested him. Fred, meanwhile, was in British Columbia, trying desperately to remain out of sight. Eventually, he was discovered and booked there.

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Legal Loopholes

The three men all came from wealthy and well-known families, so it came as a surprise to many that they would feel the need to carry out such an awful act in the hopes of cashing in some cash. With their high-powered connections, it was suspected that they might get off easy for their crimes.

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Thankfully, the judge on the case was not easily influenced and sentenced all three kidnappers to life in jail without the possibility of parole. Not giving up, the men continued to work their contacts and eventually had another judge rule the sentences invalid, granting them all the possibility of parole.

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Shortened Sentences

Knowing they had a chance of going free, brothers Richard and James kept to themselves during their time in jail and made sure to obey orders. This good behavior led to Richard's release in 2013 at the age of 77 and James' in 2015 at age 82. Fred Woods hasn't been as successful in going free.

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In October 2019, Fred made his nineteenth attempt to be granted parole. However, he has been continuously rejected due to his insincere expressions of regret. His next parole hearing is set for 2024. For the traumatized victims of the crime, the men's freedom was heartbreaking - and they protested hard against it.

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Bonded For Life

In an Inside Edition interview, the now-adult victims shakily climbed back onto the exact same bus and revealed they are still suffering the long-term effects of the incident. Anxiety, claustrophobia, paranoia, and panic attacks are still a part of their day-to-day lives forty-six years later as they constantly relive the events.

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With two of the people responsible for these emotions walking free, it makes the recovery even harder as they are forced to relive it with each parole announcement. As they recalled the day's events to Inside Edition, they explained that the experience had bonded them for life.

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A Close Call

The crime, now referred to as 'the biggest mass abduction in US history,' could have ended very differently if it weren't for the brave acts of certain individuals and the lucky timing of specific events. Looking back, we can only imagine what would have been if the kidnappers had successfully called in their ransom.

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Moreover, what if Mike Marshall had given up after tirelessly pounding at the ceiling for hours? This remarkable story may have technically had a happy ending, but for the victims, it's a story that will sadly never end - long after the news outlets stop covering it.

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