The 67-year-old inmate sat in a small conference room in San Luis Obispo, California, this week, hopeful that a parole board would finally grant him a release date. Frederick Newhall Woods, now a bit frail, has been incarcerated 43 years for helping commit one of California's most shocking crimes.
It was back in July 1976, when three young men from wealthy families kidnapped a school bus full of children in the Central Valley town of Chowchilla. Twenty-six children ages 5 through 14 and their driver were taken at gunpoint, driven in two locked and darkened vans for over 100 miles before being buried alive in an underground prison. It remains what is reported as the largest kidnapping ever in the United States.
The children were buried under dirt and rocks in a quarry — inside an old moving van with makeshift ventilation, toilets, some food and water. The kidnappers left to call in their ransom demand — $5 million, which they expected the state would pay from a recently announced budget surplus.
But the phone lines to Chowchilla were jammed with anxious parents calling and press inquiries pouring in from around the world. The kidnappers could not get through. They took a break and they napped. Meantime the children brought the kidnapping to an end when they and the driver managed to dig their way out. Their ordeal had lasted 28 hours.
Although their physical injuries were limited to cuts and bruises, the children were deeply scarred by their experience, says Dr. Lenore Terr, a San Francisco psychiatrist who described their trauma in her book, "Too Scared to Cry.
For the kidnappers, money and political connections have eased their punishment.
New reporting shows the one kidnapper still in prison, Fred Woods, has been making money and running businesses while incarcerated. A prison investigation determined he even launched a lawsuit from behind bars — suing an employee for $1.5 million.
While California law does not prohibit an inmate from running a business from prison, it does require permission from the warden — permission Woods never bothered to obtain.
Woods is a descendant of two prominent California families — the Newhalls and the Woods —and the heir to a family fortune. He has a trust fund from his parents, which he shares only with a sister who is institutionalized with Down syndrome. In one court filing, the trust fund he inherited was described as "over $100 million," a number his lawyer Dominique Banos of Los Angeles dismissed as "nothing anywhere near that."
The fund does pay for a team of lawyers. Gary Dubcoff, a Woods lawyer in San Francisco, urged earlier this month that Woods be paroled. He wrote, in part, "It is unconscionable that Mr. Woods remains incarcerated some 43 years after his offense, period. Apart from the commitment offense, he has no history of violence, whether before prison or in it. He is an elderly inmate, fast approaching 70, and clearly presents no danger to anyone."
A youthful "stunt"
At the time of the kidnapping, Woods was 24. His accomplices lived near him in some of San Francisco's nicest suburbs: his friend James Schoenfeld, also 24, and James' younger brother Richard, 22, two sons of a prominent Bay Area foot doctor. So, the mystery was, what motivated three rich kids to carefully plan and execute this crime?
The motive: "Multiple victims to get multiple millions"
If Woods does get to another parole hearing, he might consider the path taken by the other two kidnappers who did win release. Richard Schoenfeld was paroled in 2012, and brother James in 2015. Both made the case to the parole board that they were no longer a threat to society and recognized the harm caused by their crime. In his successful parole hearing, James Schoenfeld became the first kidnapper to explain the motive for three rich kids to hijack a school bus.
He said, despite their parents' wealth, that both he and Fred Woods had run up serious debts. He explained, "We needed multiple victims to get multiple millions, and we picked children because children are precious. The state would be willing to pay ransom for them. And they don't fight back. They're vulnerable. They will mind."
Woods has been called the ringleader and a sociopath by his old nemesis, the sheriff of Madera County where the school bus was hijacked. Past parole hearings have found Woods to be evasive, unable or unwilling to follow prison rules and failing to acknowledge the severity of his crime. He has been cited for multiple disciplinary infractions including three for possession of pornography and two for possessing cell phones.
Perhaps it is the children — and their long struggles to lead normal lives — who provide a hopeful lesson from the Chowchilla kidnapping. Psychiatrist Dr. Terr calls the kids, "little heroes of medicine" who have shown through their stories the devastation caused by even brief moments of terror and short separations from parents. Today we know the importance of prompt treatment for psychological wounds. Whether caused by mass shootings or other traumas, intense therapy and early counseling provide the best chance for recovery from those wounds.