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California to free Chowchilla school bus kidnapper

California Department of Corrections

Richard Schoenfeld, the convicted kidnapper who took 26 schoolchildren and their bus driver in Chowchilla, Calif., 36 years ago, is expected to be released from prison within the next week.

Richard Schoenfeld, the convicted kidnapper who took 26 schoolchildren and their bus driver in Chowchilla, Calif., and buried them alive in a rock quarry 36 years ago, is expected to be released from prison within the next week, NBC Bay Area has learned. 

That is a big change from the 2021 parole date that Schoenfeld was last given.

But in a statement Friday to NBCBayArea.com, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Luis Patino said:  "Schoenfeld will be released to an undisclosed location during the second half of the month of June 2012. As this is a developing situation, no other details are available at this time.”

See the original story at NBCBayArea.com

Patino added that the prison body has "been informed that the California Supreme Court has declined to review an appellate court's earlier decision granting immediate parole to Richard Schoenfeld. As such CDCR does not have any legal option other than to release inmate Shoenfeld and will do so."

Schoenfeld, his brother, James Schoenfeld, and Frederick Woods kidnapped 26 children and their bus driver on July 15, 1976, buried them alive in a rock quarry in Livermore, Calif., and then planned to demand a $5 million ransom. The victims miraculously escaped.

Frank Edward Ray, the school bus driver hailed as a hero for helping lead the children to safety after 16 hours underground, died May 17 at the age of 91 in Chowchilla.

In March, the First District Court ruled that California's Board of Parolee Hearings improperly calculated Schoenfeld's release date after determining in 2008 that he could be safely paroled.

James Schoenfeld and Woods never have been found suitable for parole by the state board.

The trio, who were in their mid-20s at the time of the kidnapping, said they had fallen into debt because of a failed real estate deal and hatched the elaborate kidnapping as a way to rid themselves of financial worry, The Associated Press reported.

Laws in effect in 1977 when the three pleaded guilty made Richard Schoenfeld, and who hailed from a wealthy family in upscale Atherton, Calif., eligible for parole after only six months, but like the others, his parole was routinely denied, largely because of the seriousness of his crimes.

There have been a series of significant dates in Schoenfeld's legal case:

In 2008, the parole board ruled that Schoenfeld "would not pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society or a threat to public safety if released from prison."

But in August 2009, a second panel decided against granting parole to Schoenfeld, saying that a third panel should consider whether granting parole would be "improvident."

On April 5, 2011, the third panel held its hearing on the matter at the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, where all three kidnappers are being held, and it ruled that parole would be appropriate for Schoenfeld.

But the panel said that based on its calculations Schoenfeld should not be released until November 2021.

However, the First District Court of Appeal said the parole panel "erred" because it violated its own rules and lacked authority to increase Schoenfeld's sentence after finding him suitable for parole.

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