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After Children on School Bus Were Kidnapped and Buried Underground, 14-Year-Old Miraculously Led Escape

“I thought to myself: If we’re going to die, we’re going to die getting the hell out of here,” Michael Marshall recalled in the documentary Chowchilla by CNN Films and Max

<p> Leo Cohen/MediaNews Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty</p> Michael Marshall

Leo Cohen/MediaNews Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty

Michael Marshall

​​On July 15, 1976, three men in their 20s hijacked a busload of 26 school children on their way back from a swim excursion in Chowchilla, Calif.

The men, who were asking for $5 million in ransom, drove them around for 11 hours before forcing the driver, Ed Ray, and the children, ages 5 to 14, to climb through a hole in the ground into a moving van buried in a rock quarry in Livermore.

After sealing the hole, the kidnappers fled, leaving their hostages buried alive in a 26.5-by-8.2-foot area for 16 harrowing hours.

However, the children and the driver made a miraculous escape, thanks to the heroism of one of the child hostages - 14-year-old Michael Marshall.

“I thought to myself: If we’re going to die, we’re going to die getting the hell out of here,” Marshall recalled in the documentary Chowchilla by CNN Films and Max, which was released Dec. 3. and will be available on demand beginning Monday, Dec. 4 to pay TV subscribers via CNN.com, CNN apps, and Cable Operator Platforms.

<p>CBS Mornings/YouTube</p> Michael Marshall

CBS Mornings/YouTube

Michael Marshall

Related: New Documentary Examines Kidnapping of School Bus Full of Children — and How They Miraculously Escaped

Undeterred by the danger of their situation, Marshall climbed to the roof of the van on stacked mattresses, and then attempted to unseal a manhole. Marshall and Ray were able to pry open the cover of the manhole but were prevented from climbing out by a large, reinforced plywood box.

However, Marshall kept digging and pounding on the box until, eventually, they were all able to escape.

Marshall told CNN that he was never able to tell reporters about the ordeal and his own role in the escape at the time because the school principal intervened.

“Then out of nowhere, Principal [LeRoy] Tatum stepped in and said, ‘Why don’t we just give them a break, boys. Let them go home, get some sleep,’” Marshall said. “And so we got in the car and left.”

<p>UPI/Bettmann/Getty</p> The Dairyland Union School bus

UPI/Bettmann/Getty

The Dairyland Union School bus

“It was my chance to tell the world what happened — getting out and everything,” he said. “And I didn’t do it; I let the grown-ups do it.”

The ordeal debilitated Marshall for years afterwards.

“Before the kidnapping, I could see so much light ahead of me — see my future,” he said. “But then after the kidnapping, I couldn’t see anything.”

Marshall recounted being “blackout drunk every single night” when he was around 19 or 20. “I just didn’t want to remember any more about the kidnapping,” he said. “I was drinking and using and all of that to the point where … I was living in insanity.”

Survivors Spoke Out to PEOPLE in 2015

Meanwhile, the identities of the three kidnappers — Frederick Newhall Woods IV, 24, and brothers James, 24, and 22-year-old Richard Schoenfeld — and their connection to the crime scene shocked the nation, and added a layer of malice to the infamous crime.

It was revealed that Woods was a descendant of a prominent California family and the Schoenfelds' father was a well-regarded Bay Area foot doctor. The reason behind the kidnapping: the men suffered losses on a real estate project. 

<p>Sacramento Bee File Photo</p> Relatives of kidnapped and missing children

Sacramento Bee File Photo

Relatives of kidnapped and missing children

The trio was sentenced to life in prison for the infamous kidnapping.

However, Richard Schoenfeld was released in 2012 and his brother James was released in 2015.

At the time, some of the victims spoke to PEOPLE about their efforts to keep the men behind bars.

Related: As Chowchilla Bus Kidnapper Gets Parole, Victims Speak Out: 'I Only Felt Safe When They Were Behind Bars'

“We fought at every hearing and thought our voices would make a difference, that being there meant something to the parole board, but it didn’t,” Lynda Carrejo-Labendeira, who was only 10 when she was kidnapped, told PEOPLE in 2015.

“Just two years ago at the last hearing, James, who designed the contraption where we were held, said he spent years designing a better one,” Carrejo-Labendeira said. “Does that sound like someone who is remorseful?”

<p>Sacramento Bee File Photo by Skip Shuman</p> Bill Parker welcomes home his daughter, Barbara Parker, 8, a Chowchilla kidnapping victim.

Sacramento Bee File Photo by Skip Shuman

Bill Parker welcomes home his daughter, Barbara Parker, 8, a Chowchilla kidnapping victim.

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Darla Neal, who was also 10 at the time, said she still had nightmares about having a gun pointed at her head. “This ordeal altered the course of our family’s life and trickled down into my children’s lives,” she said.

Carrejo-Labendeira’s sister, Irene Carrejo, who was 12 when she was kidnapped, said she was disheartened by the criminal justice system.

<p>California Department of Corrections via AP</p> James Schoenfeld

California Department of Corrections via AP

James Schoenfeld
<p>California Department of Corrections via AP</p> Fredrick Woods

California Department of Corrections via AP

Fredrick Woods
<p>California Department of Corrections via AP</p> Richard Schoenfeld

California Department of Corrections via AP

Richard Schoenfeld

“I saw a man in a waiting room who looked just like one of the kidnappers and I went into a panic attack,” she said. “I’ll never know if they will be around, or I will run into them. It will never be over for us, and it’s important to remember what they did and how they impacted so many lives.”

“We were lucky to get out, otherwise I think we would have died in there,” kidnap victim Jodi Heffington-Medrano, who was 10 at the time, told PEOPLE in 2015. “It took almost two years of planning and they had a lot of opportunities to back out. The brothers spent their prison time sharing a cell. Now they will be back living with their mom.”

Woods was granted parole in 2022, ABC30 reported.

Meanwhile, Marshall has more recently been given the credit for being a hero.

He met recently with Larry Park, one of his fellow survivors.

“I didn’t realize how much it would help me to understand and to actually hear one of the kids tell me that I saved their lives and that they were grateful,” Marshall said, per CNN. “Not very many people can relate.”

Park, who suffered for years with trauma and depression after the horrific incident, said he “never gave up – not completely,” he told CNN. “because I was taught, at 6 years old by a 14-year-old boy: You don’t give up. You keep digging.”

Chowchilla will be available on demand beginning Monday, Dec. 4 to pay TV subscribers via CNN.com, CNN apps, and Cable Operator Platforms.

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Read the original article on People.