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The 1976 Chowchilla Kidnapping: Survivors Share Their Stories and the Lasting Impact of Childhood Trauma

In the summer of 1976, three masked men from wealthy families kidnapped a school bus full of 26 children, aged 5 to 14, and their bus driver, Frank Edward “Ed” Ray, on their way home from summer school in the small town of Chowchilla, California.[0] The incident is remembered as one of the largest kidnappings in the history of the United States.[1]

Jodi Heffington, then 10, was one of the children on the bus.[2] In a never-before-seen interview, she spoke in detail about her memories from the horrific experience.[3] She recalled that the kidnapper held a shotgun to her stomach and she thought he was going to shoot her. Jennifer Brown Hyde, a former student on the bus, and Larry Park, who was just 6 years old at the time, also shared their memories of the ordeal in an interview.[3]

The kidnappers placed the children and the bus driver in a box truck trailer before attempting to bury them alive 12 feet below the surface.[4] After enduring horrific conditions in what felt like an underground prison, the children and their bus driver escaped by digging their way out, after being buried for nearly 16 hours.[0]

Instead of taking the survivors to a hospital or hotel, police decided to put them all back on a bus and transported them to the closest place that could hold them – the Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center — a local jail.[5] After being questioned for four hours, they were allowed to go home.[2]

Many people felt that sending the children to Disneyland – the “Happiest Place on Earth” – would help them to forget the trauma they had suffered at that time.[2]

Fred Woods and the Schoenfeld brothers, Richard and James, were eventually given life sentences, with the possibility of parole.[2] This meant they would have a parole hearing every one to two years.[2] Jill Klinge, an assistant district attorney for Alameda County, told “48 Hours” the parole hearings were extremely painful for the survivors.[2] Jodi Heffington went to nearly all of the parole hearings and even testified at some.[2]

Despite the fact that none of the children had any physical ailments resulting from the abduction, they all had endured an inconceivable emotional trauma.[2] In 1976, there was limited knowledge regarding the treatment of childhood trauma.[2] In many instances, parents did not have much knowledge of or were not supportive of therapy.[2]

0. “1976 Chowchilla kidnapping” Wikipedia, 20 May. 2012, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1976_Chowchilla_kidnapping

1. “48 HOURS to Explore The Chowchilla Kidnapping This Weekend” Broadway World, 16 Mar. 2023, https://www.broadwayworld.com/bwwtv/article/48-HOURS-to-Explore-The-Chowchilla-Kidnapping-This-Weekend-20230316

2. “Remembering the Chowchilla kidnapping: A survivor's story” Sand Hills Express, 17 Mar. 2023, https://sandhillsexpress.com/cbs_national/remembering-the-chowchilla-kidnapping-a-survivors-story-cbsid40935369

3. “What to Watch Saturday: 48 HOURS interviews survivor of Chowchilla Kidnapping case” Charlotte Observer, 18 Mar. 2023, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/entertainment/tv-movies/article273314340.html

4. “Chowchilla Kidnapping victims: List of people who survived” Sportskeeda, 18 Mar. 2023, https://www.sportskeeda.com/pop-culture/chowchilla-kidnapping-victims-list-people-survived

5. “Remembering the Chowchilla kidnapping: A never-before-seen interview with a survivor” CBS News, 17 Mar. 2023, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/chowchilla-bus-kidnapping-survivor-never-before-seen-interview/

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