Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Chowchilla Kidnapping

Trapped In Darkness

It was difficult for Ed and the children to tell, from the inside, the true nature of the cramped box that held them captive.  In actuality, they were sealed in a moving van that had been buried several feet below the ground's surface.  They had entered the moving van through an opening in a corner of the ceiling, which sagged ominously and was covered by some wire mesh.

Inside of truck
Inside of truck

The furnishings were sparse: there were mattresses and box springs spread haphazardly throughout the van and limited food and water supplies placed near holes that were meant to act as primitive toilets.  Small air vents did little to lessen the claustrophobic feeling of suffocation that pressed in from every side.

Time passed differently for each of the hostages.  For some the minutes all ran together in a jumble and for others each minute stretched on for what seemed like forever.

Some of the older girls tried to calm and care for the younger children, even suggesting sing-alongs in an effort to quell the mounting fear they all felt.

After about 12 hours, and with no idea of when or if they would be freed, the captives began to look for any possible way to escape.

By piling mattresses on top of each other, Ed and some of the older boys were able to climb high enough to reach the place in the roof where they had entered the moving van hours earlier.  The metal lid seemed heavy and immovable, but they discovered that they could move the lid by wedging a wooden beam into a small gap where the lid did not completely meet the ceiling.

Inside of truck, escape hole
Inside of truck, escape hole

After struggling for what seemed like hours, they were able to move the lid enough that Ed could reach up and pull down something that was weighting the lid down, which turned out to be one of two enormous industrial batteries. Later, after the other battery had been brought down into the darkness of the van, Ed and the boys pulled down the rest of the dirt and debris that blocked them from the ground's surface.

Hole where children escaped
Hole where children escaped

After what seemed like hours, an opening large enough for one of the smallest boys was cleared.  Not knowing what or who was at the top of the hole, the boy ascended nervously but then reported that nobody was in sight. After expanding the width of the opening, Ed made sure all of the children climbed up and out of the buried van and, after 16 hours underground, the hostages began walking towards a light in the distance, moving as quickly as their exhausted bodies could carry them.

Fred Woods
Fred Woods

The moving van had been buried in a Livermore rock quarry owned by Fred Woods' father.  Two of the quarry workers, who had no knowledge of the crime or of the fact that the hostages they had heard so much of on the radio news that day had been buried within shouting distance of where they'd worked all day, looked up from their work to find the disheveled group of people coming slowly towards them.

The workers quickly called the police, gave the dazed hostages some water, and found Ed a spare pair of coveralls, as he was still without his pants and boots.

After the authorities arrived, the hostages were taken to the nearby Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center (ironically by bus), where health care workers examined and fed them. FBI, and local law enforcement officers questioned Ed and the children to find out as much as possible about the kidnapping, the perpetrators, the vehicles involved, and the underground prison.

Finally, at about 4:00 on the morning of July 17th, and approximately 36 hours after Ed had stopped his bus to see if he could help the driver of an apparently stalled van, the hostages arrived back in Chowchilla.  Ed was reunited with his wife and the children ran quickly into the open arms of their parents.

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