Everyone in town was in absolute despair. Their normally peaceful, calm, and uneventful lives had quickly turned into a nightmare that didn’t seem to have an end. Overnight, the small rural town became filled with police officers, FBI agents, and journalists.
The town’s bus, along with 26 children and its driver, had vanished off the face of the Earth. No one had claimed authorship over the kidnapping, and no one had asked for a ransom. But when everyone was close to giving up all hope, the driver came back with a story to tell.
The Californian town of Chowchilla is a seven-hour long drive away from Los Angeles. Compared to the big cities of LA and the Bay Area, it looks like a completely different universe. There’s one bar, one taco shop, and one hotel.
Chowchilla is populated by about 20,000 people, most of which make a living off agriculture. Most of them moved from Oklahoma and Arkansas during the ’50s. Nobody knew that all of a sudden, the unperturbed town would soon be the scene of one of the biggest crimes in American history.
Ed Ray is one of Chowchilla’s locals. His family is from a different town down the road, but he went to school there, met his wife Odessa, and decided to stay.
He’s a strong, rugged man who weighs about 200 pounds. He can barely read or write, but he’s good with numbers. Like many others in town, he’s a farmer. He claims that hard, physically demanding work is his hobby. But he also has a day job: he’s Chowchilla’s school bus driver.
The day the bus vanishes doesn’t start any differently than any other. It happens in the afternoon when Ed is supposed to drop the kids by their houses.
But that day, he doesn’t. None of the families in town see the school bus driving down their streets. The worried parents call the school; all they’re told is that the bus parted from the school’s parking lot at the same time as every day. No one seems to know anything about what’s going on.
Meanwhile, the 26 kids are trapped in the bus in terrified silence, sweating under the hellish Californian July heat. The metal shells are burning, and the windows are closed. It’s almost like they want them to suffocate.
Ed Ray is sitting on one of the front seats, sweating and silent like everyone else. But he’s not driving now. There’s someone else on the bus wheel.
Now, a man dressed in all black, with pantyhose covering his face, is driving the bus. Next to him, an identical figure keeps an eye on the bus passengers. He’s armed.
Finally, the man parks the bus in the middle of the desert. The pair forces the passengers to get out of the vehicle and makes them walk for a few minutes. All the children are wondering where they are being taken.
Finally, they arrive at a hole excavated into a hill nearby. The pair makes the children and the bus driver enter the hole and then cover it with a metal plate held by two heavy truck batteries. Then, they leave.
The victims are left there, still in utter and complete silence, wondering what their luck will be or what plans the two men have for them. Inside the hole, the heat is almost unbearable.
In the meantime, the local sheriff has alerted the county police, which in turn has also called the FBI. The state of California has extended a blank check to all law enforcement units to find the missing bus.
Chowchilla has become infested with journalists willing to do whatever it takes to get an interview with any of the victim’s relatives. And right then, a rumor starts spreading.
Some people start hinting at the possibility that Ed Ray, the bus driver, might be the brain and author of the kidnapping. Everyone in Ed’s family is outraged by this insinuation.
However, some of the locals actually start to believe the rumors. After all, no organized group has claimed authorship over the disappearance. And what criminal would even venture into a rural town inhabited by humble, low-income people instead of trying one of the bigger, wealthier cities? But one night, all the police stations in the area are alerted with some news.
Ed Ray, the driver, has been found by the owner of one of the grain elevators around the area. He walked towards the elevator in the middle of the night; at first, the man thought he was a thief.
But then, he noticed he was surrounded by kids. “We’re the ones from Chowchilla,” Ed shouted. The man let all of them inside his house and then called the nearest sheriff’s office.
Soon enough, Ed Ray was called by the police to offer his version of the incident. According to him, the bus had been stopped by a black van in the middle of the road.
Three men had gotten out of the vehicle: one of them forced him to give up the wheel and got back in the car while the two other men took control of the bus. Then, they drove to the hole they had excavated to hold them hostage and left them to their luck.
However, Ed Ray, who was used to baling bundles of hay weighing up to 160 pounds, had managed to push the metal plate and the two truck batteries with the help of some of the older kids.
After that, they walked down the road in the middle of the night, looking for the nearest sign of civilization until they saw the grain elevator. But there was still one question in the air.
Where was the bus now? Where were the culprits of the kidnapping? After a few days, they were found: the three culprits were named Frederick Newhall Woods IV and James and Richard Schoenfeld.
They weren’t professional criminals: as a matter of fact, they were very wealthy trust-fund kids without any real talent or purpose that started fantasizing about a flashy, cinematic, spectacular, perfect crime to get fast cash and decided to actually do it. Their explanations for their reasons were almost too dumb to believe.
“I wanted to fit in with these new people that we moved next to,” one of them said. “My dad lent me some money. I bought a Jaguar. I found out that the insurance was more than I made in a whole year, so two months later I had to sell the Jaguar. I just figured I need money.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the brothers were duped,” said Ed Bates, Chowchilla’s sheriff. “They were just young, uneducated guys looking for a little excitement and got suckered in.” Apparently, Frederick Newhall was the brain of the whole operation.
James and Richard were sent to jail for a few years and then were released on parole. Frederick Newhall, on the other hand, has been incarcerated until recently. After more than 15 parole petitions over the course of more than 40 years, he has been released on parole, which many victims of the kidnapping find infuriating.
In order to protect the privacy of those depicted, some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed and are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblances to actual events or places or persons, living or dead are entirely coincidental.