Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Chowchilla Kidnapping

Vanished

Abandoned bus
Abandoned bus

As the afternoon of July 15th closed in towards dusk, parents of the some of the missing children began calling the school.  Presuming that the bus had broken down somewhere, school officials drove Ed's route and soon puzzled over the fact that the bus was not parked along the side of the road, had not been taken in for repairs at a local mechanic's shop, and was not parked in the garage of a good Samaritan living along Ed's route.

By 6:00 pm, the calls to the school had escalated into calls to the town's police and county sheriff's office.  The law officers quickly determined that Ed had successfully made his first three stops and then somewhere along the mile between the third and fourth stop on rural Avenue 21 the bus had vanished and left no trace.

Gradually other law enforcement agencies in the area were contacted, which led to planes taking to the air to scan the area before darkness fell.  By 7:30 an all-points bulletin had been broadcast and waves of parents, town residents, and law enforcement officers scoured the area.

Crime Scene Keep Out Sign
Crime Scene Keep Out Sign

A little after 8:00, a sheriff's officer radioed in that he had found the bus covered with bamboo and brush in a dusty slough nine miles west of town.  Any hopeful feeling his announcement generated was quickly crushed when he reported that the bus was empty and there were no signs of Ed or the children anywhere on the bus or in the general area.

Soon a local evidence specialist was called in and was puzzled by what he found: the empty bus, sets of tire tracks leading away from the area — but not a single footprint, no blood or other signs of violence, no other scrap of evidence that any of the 27 missing persons had been in the area.

Chowchilla City limits
Chowchilla City limits

Police continued to search the area after darkness set in, but had to call off the investigation as a freak storm hit — the rain and winds of which would almost completely erase the chances for finding any evidence after the storm abated.

Not long after the bus had been found, the first trickle of what would become a flood of reporters began to arrive in Chowchilla, eager for a story.

As the morning of July 16th dawned, word had spread far beyond the borders of Chowchilla and tips began coming in from across the state.

Book cover: Kidnapped! At Chowchilla
Book cover: Kidnapped! At
Chowchilla

The residents of Chowchilla all hoped for the best, and although their town was slow-paced and idyllic compared to most of California, the residents of the small town couldn't help but remember nearby events in the recent past, such as the Patty Hearst kidnapping and, perhaps, some even remembered the October 1969 Zodiac letter to The Chronicle where the serial killer had stated, "School children make nice targets, I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning."

According to Gail Miller and Sandra Tompkins's 1977 book "Kidnapped! At Chowchilla," many prayers were said that morning by anxious parents who had slept little, if at all, for more than 24 hours.

Baugh and Morgan's book recalled the candor of law enforcement as a spokesman of the sheriff's office told reporters, "The kids are gone, and that is our only fact. There's no blood, no evidence of foul play.  I absolutely can't figure it out."

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