Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Chowchilla Kidnapping

From Sun To Darkness

Chowchilla, CA
Chowchilla, CA

It had to be some kind of joke.

Ed Ray had stopped the school bus to see if the apparently broken-down white van needed help, and although it was a typically sultry Central California afternoon in the small town of Chowchilla, the peculiar man at the bus door was not an optical illusion caused by heat.

Two things about the stranger caught Ed's attention: the guns he was holding and the nylon stocking stretched over his head.

Being solely responsible for the 26 children still on board, Ed opened the door, hoping to avoid the use of the firearms on either himself or one of his charges.

Ed Ray driving bus
Ed Ray driving bus

The strange man quickly mounted the steps inside the bus and ordered Ed to get up and move to the back of the bus. The children, ranging in age from 5 to 14, had various reactions to the appearance of the newcomer. Some thought it was a prank and giggled, while others became frightened immediately. Before they could react, and before Ed had moved down the aisle and reached the back seat, two more masked men appeared from around the back of the "stalled" van and jumped into the bus.

Soon one of the men took the wheel and continued driving down lonely Avenue 21 while another stayed near the front, watching the kids and Ed. The third followed in the white van. After a few minutes the driver pulled the bus into a drainage slough and cut the motor. In an almost business-like fashion, the white van backed up to the front door of the bus and the men ordered half of the occupants into the back. All of the windows in the back of the van had been covered over, allowing in no light. The back door of the white van was then locked from the outside and the van was driven away. That van was quickly replaced by a similar vehicle, into which those remaining on the school bus were efficiently herded.

As Ed moved from the bus into one of the vans, his confused mind tried to capture any details of the men, the vans, the location — anything to retain some thread of sanity or illusion of control.

Once the second of the vans had been securely locked, the 27 hostages had gone from the bright environs of a sunny summer afternoon to the dark and claustrophobic cave of a small van. It all happened in just minutes.

It was 4:15 on the afternoon of Thursday, July 15, 1976, and the world seemed to have suddenly spun madly off its axis.

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