by Todd McGovern

The Chowchilla kidnapping was one of those crimes that could have only happened in a certain place during a certain period:  California in the Seventies.

In fact, the name of the town became synonymous with the event: Chowchilla.  Surely I can’t be the only one who remembers the creepiness of the hijacking of a school bus full of children and that group being buried alive in a rock quarry?  It sounds like the “made for TV” movie it eventually became!

It was the summer of 1976 – the nation’s bicentennial.  A time of hot dogs and red, white and blue bunting.  Country Time LemonadeMark “The Bird” Fydrich.  In mid-July came news that a busload of children had gone missing after returning from a camp trip to a local community swimming pool.  Armed men had hijacked the bus, then abandoned it after transferring 26 hostages into two vans.  Possibly inspired by a story published in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Daring Detectives” book series,  the kidnappers – three local neer-do-wells – placed their victims in a moving truck, buried in a rock quarry owned by one of their fathers.  The truck, supplied with water and mattresses became a group coffin for the next 16 hours as the dim-witted kidnappers tried unsuccessfully to phone the media with their ransom demands.  Seems as though the small town phone lines were tied up by the media reporting on the unfolding story.

The kidnappers – Meanwhile after 16 hours spent underground, the bus driver, Frank Edward Ray managed to conduct a daring escape by stacking mattresses inside the vehicle in order to reach a small opening in the truck’s roof.  Pushing aside two 100 lbs batteries used to hold down the death chamber’s escape hatch, the group was able to scramble to safety and alert the authorities.  With the truck registered to the quarry owner’s son and the use of some good old fashioned police work, a main suspect was apprehended 1,000 miles away in Vancouver, BC.  Two additional men – suspecting the jig was up – turned themselves in to local authorities.  All three were tried and sentenced to life in prison.



Local News Coverage from July 1976:

One kidnapper paroled (video removed)

They’ve Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping (1993)IMDB


Todd McGovern is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.