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Victim of the Chowchilla bus kidnapping: 46 years later, she fears that Fred Woods will be freed


Fast forward 46 years, and Woods is now on the verge of being granted parole.

Depending on who you ask, this epilogue to the greatest mass kidnapping in US history is either long overdue for a remorseful man or a source of renewed trauma for the victims who were buried alive.

It doesn’t take much to trigger panic attacks in Lynda Carrejo Labendeira: the sight of a white moving van; construction lamps; a small piece that reminds her of being trapped.

While in fourth grade at Dairyland Elementary School in Chowchilla, she, 25 other children and their driver were snatched from their school bus by three gunmen as part of a plot to collect a $5 million ransom of dollars.

The children, aged 5 to 14, and their bus driver were driven about 100 miles to a remote quarry near Livermore, California. With only a few construction lights illuminating the dark quarry, the kidnappers ordered their 27 victims into what looked like a massive grave – a white moving van buried 6 feet underground.

One by one, the children climbed down a ladder and climbed into the van, which was covered in several feet of dirt. After the last student entered, the kidnappers removed the ladder.

For 16 hours the children waited for rescue or death. The younger ones wept helplessly. The older ones tried to comfort them. All buried in a “coffin,” Labendeira said, with the stench of vomit and filth intensified by the scorching California heat.

Victim of the Chowchilla bus kidnapping: 46 years later, she fears that Fred Woods will be freed

Labendeira remembers every detail of the horror. For the next 46 years, she tried to avoid a normal night’s sleep.

“I wouldn’t allow myself to sleep any deeper because I didn’t want to have this dream,” said Labendeira, now in his 50s.

“A lot of my life people wonder how I sleep, if I ever sleep. Well, I’ve always tried not to get into deeper REM sleep. Of course, there are times when I ‘ai. And I always tried to wake up every time I had a bad dream.”

The real-life nightmare ended thanks to the ingenuity of bus driver Edward Ray and some of the students who planned a daring escape while the kidnappers were outside.

The hostages stacked the mattresses in the moving truck high enough to help them reach a metal plate in the roof. But the plate was covered with a huge truck battery and a pile of dirt.

Victim of the Chowchilla bus kidnapping: 46 years later, she fears that Fred Woods will be freed

Ray and several of the older boys struggled to open the roof.

“Edward digs in and out, Mike digs in, Jeff digs in, Robert digs in,” Labendeira recalled.

Eventually, they cleared enough space to escape. The children – some climbing on each other’s shoulders – fled while the kidnappers slept. The suspects were all taken into custody a few days after the kidnapping.

For the rest of his childhood, Labendeira took some solace in knowing that the three kidnappers – brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld and Fred Woods – would likely spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

Victim of the Chowchilla bus kidnapping: 46 years later, she fears that Fred Woods will be freed

Each was sentenced to 27 terms of seven years to life in prison, without the possibility of parole.

But in 1980, an appeal committee overturned the original sentences, saying the men caused no serious bodily harm and should therefore be given the option of parole.

Richard Schoenfeld was paroled in 2012. His brother James was released in 2015.

And on March 25, two parole board members recommended Woods’ parole. The committee’s decision is still subject to review by the Chief Counsel of the Parole Board, who may send the case back for review and a vote by the full board. A member of the hearing panel could also refer the matter to the full panel.

If neither occurs within four months, the decision becomes final and the governor has 30 days to review it. In murder cases, the governor can rescind or modify a parole. But in cases like the Chowchilla kidnappings, he could only refer a request for parole to the full board for consideration.

When Labendeira learned that Woods would soon be able to walk free, “I was in shock,” she said. “I did not expect that.”

Victim of the Chowchilla bus kidnapping: 46 years later, she fears that Fred Woods will be freed

Labendeira said she has attended all parole hearings since Richard Schoenfeld’s release, including hearings for James Schoenfeld and Fred Woods.

At Woods’ last hearing, the 70-year-old said he felt deep remorse for the terror and trauma he inflicted when he was 24.

But those words don’t absolve him of the horror victims still grapple with decades later, Labendeira said.

“It didn’t change the act. It didn’t change the outcome. It didn’t change the previous years,” she said. “It didn’t change all the memories of what happened. Memories never go away.”

“It’s not a monster”

Victim of the Chowchilla bus kidnapping: 46 years later, she fears that Fred Woods will be freed

Frederick Newhall Woods has been behind bars since the age of 24. Now 70, he has missed most of life’s opportunities and lost both parents while incarcerated.

No one denies that his crime was heinous. But “he’s not a monster,” Woods’ attorney Dominique Banos said.

“He’s not the same person anymore. He doesn’t think the way he did when he was 24,” she said.

Victim of the Chowchilla bus kidnapping: 46 years later, she fears that Fred Woods will be freed

For the past several decades, Woods has reflected on his crime, worked as a prisoner in pest control and taken courses, including courses in empathy and victim impact, his attorney said.

“He always felt remorse for what he did,” Banos said.

There are several possible reasons why Woods remained in prison years longer than his accomplices.

Woods was seen as the ringleader of the kidnapping plan, said Banos, who took his case in 2017. He also committed nonviolent offenses in prison, such as having unauthorized cellphones.

But Woods is no longer a threat to society, his lawyer said, and the kidnapping victims need not fear for their safety.

Victim of the Chowchilla bus kidnapping: 46 years later, she fears that Fred Woods will be freed

“Rick Schoenfeld was the first to be released (in 2012) and he led a very quiet life,” Banos said. “He didn’t hurt anyone. James Schoenfeld was released in 2015, and it’s the same thing.”

As for his own client, “there’s really not much else to show that he’s changed,” Banos said.

“He spent 46 years in prison…and didn’t hurt a fly,” she said. “It makes no sense for him to be in there any longer.”

Labendeira disagrees. She is serving a life sentence due to traumatic memories since she was 10 years old and believes the kidnappers should be serving life sentences.

“If your child was kidnapped and buried alive, how long is enough? ” she says. “How long is it enough for 26 kids on a school bus to be kidnapped and buried alive?”

CNN’s Stella Chan contributed to this report.

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