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Remembering the Chowchilla Abduction: A Survivor’s Story

In the summer of 1976, three young men from a wealthy family hijack a school bus full of children in a small town. Chowchilla, California. 26 children aged 5 to 14 and their bus driver were on their way home from summer school when they were held hostage at gunpoint. It is believed to be the largest kidnapping ever in the United States.

Jody Heffington is one of the kids on the bus. He was only 10 at that time. In a never-before-seen interview, Heffington spoke in detail about his memories from the horrific experience.

Chowchilla survives bus hijacking

Jody Heffington, 10, left with other survivors of the 1976 Chowchilla bus hijacking.

Alameda County DA’s Office

“And this guy came up with a gun and stockings on his head and said ‘Open the door’… I’ve never been around guns. You only see bad guys in movies wearing stockings, so I knew it wasn’t good… He was mine. Got a shotgun in the stomach … I thought he was going to shoot me,” Heffington told “48 Hours” in this week’s episode, “Remembering the Chowchilla Abduction,” airing Saturday, March 18 at 10/p.m. on CBS at 9c* and Paramount + streaming.

The kidnappers then herded the terrified children and their bus driver, Ed Ray, into two locked and dark vans for more than 100 miles.

Heffington recalled the moment. “They’d take the next kid out. And they’d close the door. But when they opened the door, you couldn’t see them. I thought they were basically killing us one by one,” she said.

Chowchilla Bus Kidnapping: Rare Photos of the Biggest Kidnapping in US History

Chowchilla Bus Kidnapping: Rare Photos of the Biggest Kidnapping in US History

39 pictures

The kidnappers buried them alive in an underground truck trailer in a stone quarry. Remarkably, after enduring horrific conditions in what seemed like an underground prison, the children and their bus drivers dug their way out and escaped. They were underground for about 16 hours.

But instead of taking the survivors to a hospital or hotel, the police decided to put them all back on a bus and take them to the nearest place that could hold them – the Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center – a local jail. They were interrogated for four hours and finally taken home. Heffington painfully recalled reuniting with his family, “Nothing was ever the same. Nothing was the same after that…”

Although most of the children were not physically injured as a result of the abduction, they all went through an unimaginable emotional ordeal. At the time, sending them to the “happiest place on earth”—Disneyland—was a way that many felt could help the children forget the trauma they had endured. Larry Park, who was just 6 years old when he was kidnapped, told “48 Hours,” “Everyone thought it was great because the good memories of Disneyland would overshadow the bad memories of the kidnapping.”

Chowchilla Children at Disneyland

Five weeks after being buried alive, Chowchilla’s brave children and their bus driver Ed Ray were hailed as heroes. There was even a trip to Disneyland.

Jennifer Brown Hyde

But it wasn’t that easy. Many children struggle to move on and suffer lifelong emotional scars. Unfortunately, in 1976, little was known about how to treat childhood trauma. In many cases, parents don’t know much about or encourage therapy.

Heffington told “48 Hours” that he has struggled throughout his life to find peace of mind. “How that day affected me affects me every day in some way,” he said. “I think it made me not a good daughter, not a good sister, not a good aunt and especially not a good mother … I try to be those things. But it seems, it has taken something from me that I will never have again. Can’t come back. And I can’t tear… No matter how hard I try and what I do.”

The kidnappers, Fred Woods and brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld, were eventually sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. This means, they will get a parole hearing every one or two years. Jill Klinge was an assistant district attorney in Alameda County. He told “48 Hours” that the parole hearing was extremely painful for the survivors. “Every time one of the kidnappers comes up for parole, it causes them fear and trauma,” he said.

Jody Heffington at parole hearing

Jody Heffington, right, attends a 2018 parole hearing for Fred Woods, the three convicted kidnappers who have attended almost all parole hearings.

George Osterkamp

For the three kidnappers, a total of more than 60 parole hearings have been held so far. Jodi Heffington visited almost all of them and even gave some testimonies. “It’s exciting, and the consequences are never good,” he told “48 Hours.” But he said he went because he wanted to make sure the kidnappers stayed behind bars.

Heffington and other survivors watched helplessly as Richard Schoenfeld was granted parole in 2012, followed by James Schoenfeld in 2015.

Jodie Heffington

Jodie Heffington

CBS News

Heffington died in January 2021. He was 55 years old. Fourteen months later, Fred Woods, the last of the three kidnappers, went before the parole board for the 18th time. He was released on parole.

Heffington is survived by a son, Matthew Medrano, who wants his mother’s voice to be heard. In a letter to “48 Hours,” she wrote, “I’m asking for all the little girls who have been forced to feel scared, suffocated or unprepared, to please tell Jodi and her truth.”

Program Notes*: Due to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on CBS, “48 Hours” may be delayed in the Eastern and Central Time Zones.

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