James Schoenfeld, 63, applied for parole 20 times before he finally received initial approval on Wednesday

By Tara Fowler
Updated April 02, 2015 11:00 AM
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One of three men who kidnapped 26 schoolchildren and their bus driver, then buried them alive in an underground bunker, was granted parole after nearly 40 years in prison.

James Schoenfeld, 63, applied for parole 20 times before he finally received initial approval on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reports.

In 1976, Schoenfeld, his brother Richard and their friend Frederick Woods kidnapped a bus full of children from Chowchilla, California, and buried them, as well as their driver, inside a moving van beneath a rock quarry near Livermore, California.

They planned to ransom the children, who were ages 5 to 14, for $5 million after suffering losses on a real estate project, according to the Times.

But the victims managed to escape, clawing their way to freedom after 16 hours underground while the three took a nap, the Associated Press reports.

The men were arrested a week later and were convicted in the kidnapping. They were originally given life sentences with no chance of parole, but an appeal three years later overturned that ruling, allowing them to be eligible for parole, according to KFSN.

Schoenfeld is the second of the three men to be granted parole. His brother Richard was released in 2012. Woods, however, remains in jail.

The decision is just the first step in the process for release, the Times reports. The board’s legal staff must review the decision and then the governor must make his own ruling before Schoenfeld can be released.

His victims hope it doesn’t go that far.

Jennifer Brown Hyde, who was 9 years old at the time of the kidnapping, wrote a “brutal” letter to the board, urging them to keep Schoenfeld in prison.

“I wrote that they buried me alive, they stole my childhood and caused me immense emotional pain over the years. It affected my life, my parents’ lives and my children’s lives,” she told the Fresno Bee.

“Until recently I slept with a night-light,” she added. “I have anxiety attacks when I’m in a confined space … They took away my ability to be free.”

Madera County District Attorney David Linn opposes Schoenfeld’s release as well, though he says he’s not surprised by the decision, particularly in light of California’s movement toward reducing prison overcrowding.

“I did everything I could to resist it,” he told the Bee. “What I want to do now is reach out to the victims, let them know we’re here for them.”

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