By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - One of three men who kidnapped a busload of school children in California more than three decades ago and buried them alive in a moving van has been released on parole, state prison officials said on Thursday.
Richard Schoenfeld, 57, was freed on Wednesday after serving more than 34 years in prison for his role in the 1976 abduction of 26 children and their bus driver in the town of Chowchilla in central California.
The crime made national headlines and was dramatized in a 1993 made-for-television movie, "They've Taken Our Children," starring actor Karl Malden as the bus driver.
Schoenfeld, who was convicted on 27 counts of kidnapping, will be monitored around the clock with a satellite tracking device, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement.
Schoenfeld's older brother, James, and a second accomplice, Frederick Woods, both 60, remain behind bars. James Schoenfeld was last denied parole in March 2010. Woods is eligible again in December of this year.
All three men, who were in their 20s at the time of the abduction, came from affluent families and hatched the scheme to get $5 million in ransom to help recoup losses from a failed real estate deal.
The bus driver, Frank Edward Ray, hailed as a hero for helping all the children escape safely, died last month at age 91. He also had a role in the capture of the kidnappers, recalling the license plate number of one of their vehicles under hypnosis.
ORDEAL IN ROCK QUARRY
The bizarre crime unfolded on a July day in 1976 when the children - 19 girls and seven boys aged 5 to 14 - were abducted on a country road in the late afternoon on their way back from a swimming trip.
They and their driver were herded off the school bus at gunpoint into two vans and driven around for 11 hours to a rock quarry 100 miles away in Livermore, California.
There they were entombed inside a moving van that had been sunken into the ground, sealed with a metal plate and topped with two heavy tractor batteries and dirt.
The bus was later found hidden in a drainage ditch outside of Chowchilla, covered with brush and bamboo.
After 16 hours in captivity, Ray and some of the older children managed to dislodge the roof of their underground prison and dig their way to freedom.
It turned out that the quarry was owned by Woods' father. The Schoenfeld brothers were the sons of a wealthy podiatrist. Richard surrendered to authorities in Oakland. His brother was arrested in Menlo Park and Woods was captured in Canada.
The three pleaded guilty in 1977 to 27 counts of kidnapping for ransom.
Chowchilla Mayor Janan Herbert issued a statement ahead of the release saying her town was unhappy with the decision.
The kidnapping victims may not have suffered physical harm, but they were "psychologically harmed," the mayor said, adding, "we are acutely aware of the enduring pain Mr. Schoenfeld has caused them by his actions."
A state parole board last year found Schoenfeld suitable for parole and set his release date for 2021, a move his lawyers challenged as an improper extension of his incarceration.
A California appeals court sided with Schoenfeld, and the state Supreme Court declined to review the case, leading the appellate court to order Schoenfeld freed immediately.
(Reporting by and writing by Steve Gorman; Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Xavier Briand)