Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Chowchilla Kidnapping

Men Behind The Masks

By and large, brothers Rick and Jim Schoenfeld and their friend Fred Woods were the epitome of post-high school young men from privileged backgrounds living in the wealthier towns along the San Francisco peninsula during the 1970s. Rick and Jim's father was a podiatrist and Fred's father owned and managed many businesses, including a rock quarry in Livermore. All three young men were in their early to mid 20s, living with their parents in spacious houses, made halfhearted attempts at various businesses, and dreamed big.

James Schoenfeld
James Schoenfeld

They worked on cars and talked about movies with a friend of theirs who wanted to strike it rich as a Hollywood screenwriter. Films featuring crime and action and car chases, such as "Dirty Harry" and "The French Connection" had been blockbusters in the recent past, and discussion of those movies led to musings on "perfect" crimes and whether or not one could be committed.

Richard "Rick" Schoenfeld

Exactly when these theoretical discussions crossed into the realm of actual planning is a gray area. Jim told the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper in July of 2001 that in their early 20s they believed their parents were disappointed in their sons and that the money they had was being spent quicker than it was coming in. Maybe they felt they would rather do anything other than ask their families for yet more financial support.

Initially the idea of holding hostages for ransom was a pipe dream of easy money — Jim thought for a long time it was all some kind of imaginary game. "We never went through with anything, so this wasn't going to be any different," he told The Chronicle. But time passed, the plans snowballed and became more elaborate and concrete, and there came a time when it "got to the point where we had to do it," Jim explained.

When the day arrived that he stood in the middle of the deserted Chowchilla road, Jim told The Chronicle, "I said to myself as soon as the bus stopped: 'What have I got myself into?' Then you rationalize. You see them and you rationalize all your...problems will be over in 24 hours."

Book Cover: Why Have They Taken Our Children
Book Cover: Why Have They
Taken Our Children

Jack W. Baugh (an investigator of the case) and Jefferson Morgan, whose 1978 book "Why Have They Taken Our Children - Chowchilla, July 15, 1976" was an examination of the crime and its aftermath, believe that for a long time Jim and Rick considered the planned crime "a mental exercise," but Fred wanted to see if it could actually be done.

The plan, developed over months, was simple: hijack a school bus, hide the children somewhere safe, demand a sizable ransom from the state, pick up the money, and then release the hostages unharmed — all within 24 hours.

As had countless others before them, the trio would discover that the unexpected will happen, regardless of the amount of planning.

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