Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Chowchilla Kidnapping


During the hours that their captives had been underground, the three kidnappers had not been inactive.  The next step of their plan was to demand a $5 million ransom, which they would quickly pick up and then return the captives within 24 hours of the abduction.

The Chronicle reported, however, that every time the trio tried to call in their ransom demand to the Chowchilla police department, they had been unable to get through — no doubt because of the flood of calls from reporters, law enforcement agencies, tipsters and cranks.

After hours of attempting to take the next step of their "perfect crime," the three split up and slept.  When they awoke on the 17th, and before they could meet up again, the media was reporting the news that the hostages had safely escaped.

In the months of preparation (the moving van had actually been buried in December of 1975), the trio had never considered that the captives would escape, and subsequently not much care had been taken to disassociate themselves from the Livermore quarry or the moving van, neither of which was ever supposed to be discovered.

In reality, as one of the defense lawyers later told The Chronicle, the trio's plan "would make a great...comedy because nothing went right."

In a panic, the three young men scrambled to come up with ways to avoid association with the crime but decided instead to make a run for it.  Fred and Jim loaded up a car and headed north.  Rick decided to return home and confess everything to his parents, who were shocked by their son's story and were at a loss as to what to do next.

When the key investigators of various law enforcement agencies met up for the first time, they tried to piece together the sometimes wildly varying testimony obtained from Ed and the children into a single story.  At the core, however, all of the statements told of their school bus being stopped by three men, being herded into two vans, driven around for indeterminate long time, unloaded one at a time, asked their name and age, and then put down into the shaft into the buried van.

Truck pulled out of ground
Truck pulled out of ground

The crime scene investigation centered, naturally, around the buried van and the quarry where it had been hidden.  The van was eventually brought up out of the ground and it was scoured for clues, although much of the evidence found related to the captives and not to the kidnappers.

Truck hole
Truck hole

The buried van and its location provided the first key clues.  Never believing it would be discovered, Fred had purchased the old moving van using his own name, and the fact that his father was the owner of the quarry pointed directly towards his involvement.

Outside of van
Outside of van

Suspicion against him magnified greatly when investigators contacted Fred's parents and discovered that Fred was missing from the family home.  Asking around at likely places where he could have gone, it was discovered that his friend Jim was also missing.

The investigation quickly uncovered more facts that pointed towards Fred and Jim's (and possibly Rick's) involvement: there had been at least one witness to the trio's burial of the moving van, while under hypnosis Ed was able to recall many more significant details of the episode, and a draft of the crime's plan was found on a handwritten note in Fred's home.

Law enforcement put a tight watch on Rick and puzzled over the big question: Where were Fred and Jim?

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