Forgiveness is a powerful thing — no matter how long it takes.
In July 1976, Larry Park was one of 26 children who boarded an afternoon bus home from summer school in Chowchilla, California. It was the second-to-last day of the summer session and a warm afternoon in the central California town.
Driving the vehicle was Ed Ray, a farmer who knew every passenger on the small-town school bus by name.
— Andrea Dalton (@AndreaDaNM96) October 8, 2019
For the children, it was just another day. Until it wasn’t.
Park remembers Ray slowing the bus as it approached a white van stopped in the middle of the road. The bus driver later said he had wondered if the van had broken down — if the driver needed help. But there wasn’t much time to wonder.
Three men hopped out and boarded the bus, all armed with guns.
“The first man came on the bus … and he had a gun,” Park told CBS News. “Ed Ray said, ‘What’s going on?’ And he said, ‘Shut up and move to the back.'”
That was just the beginning of the nightmare for the 27 victims of the infamous Chowchilla kidnapping.
Though each and every one of the kids — along with Ray, who many credited as a hero during the ordeal — ended up escaping their kidnappers, the psychological scars from the trauma they experienced left severe damage in its wake.
“By the time I was 21, I was using meth. I was smoking crack,” Park said.
Another victim, Jennifer Brown Hyde, told CBS News, “When you’ve gone through something that’s so traumatic, it’s hard to go back and be a normal kid again.”
Even though it has been over four decades since their bus was commandeered, both remember the events of the kidnapping like it was yesterday.
“I was wondering how it was going to feel to die. I was too scared to move,” Park told “48 Hours.”
After taking control, the three young kidnappers, Frederick Woods and brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld, drove their captives to a dried-out canal, where a getaway van was waiting for them. From there, they traveled to a rock quarry owned by Woods’ father.
— CBS News (@CBSNews) October 8, 2019
The trip took 11 hours with no bathroom stops, and many of the younger children ended up with motion sickness, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The youngest was only 5 years old, while the oldest, other than Ray, was 14. Together, they tried to keep one another’s spirits up, singing songs and comforting one another as the van rolled along.
When they reached the quarry, the three men forced the children into a hole in the ground, where they discovered that a moving van had been buried, nearly 12 feet down. Piping oxygen into the van, two small tubs ran up to the surface. Inside, old mattresses lined the walls and floors and bottles of water were scattered about.
“I remember children just screaming and crying,” Park said. “The sides of the van were bowing in. … I knew that I was going to die. I knew it.”
After taking an article of clothing from each child and recording his or her name, the kidnappers left. The horrifying sound of dirt and rocks falling on the roof started up as the trio filled in the entrance hole. The roof of the van began to cave in. Buried alive, the children panicked, with most crying and some even fainting.
One boy, however, was determined to break free. Mike Marshall, 14, declared that he wasn’t going to die without attempting an escape, according to the Times. Together, he, Ray and several of the other older boys began stacking mattresses. They used what they could find and eventually managed to pry loose one of the steel plates that had been used to cover the entrance hole.
From there, they dug.
Eventually, all 27 climbed out and made it to safety.
The three kidnappers, who had planned to extort $5 million in ransom money, were all caught within three weeks and ultimately sentenced to life in prison.
In the years that followed, each of the captives tried to move forward with his or her life, but as Hyde said, it was hard to overcome the memories that haunted them. Park turned to drugs to cope with his fears, suffering years of addiction and listlessness. He was angry, and the anger was eating him up inside.
“My resentment for them was killing me,” Park told CBS News.
He knew he couldn’t go on living his life under the weight of such bitterness, and eventually he prayed, turning to faith in the hope that he would finally be able to extend grace to the three men who had corrupted his childhood.
“One night I was laying in bed and I said, ‘God help me to forgive them,'” Park said.
His prayer was answered.
Not long ago, Park was able to meet with Richard Schoenfeld, who had been paroled in 2012; his brother James was released in 2015. Frederick Woods, who was reported to be the mastermind behind the strange kidnapping, remains in prison and was denied parole on Tuesday morning for the 17th time, according to CBS News.
The encounter with Schoenfeld left Park finally free. Now nine years sober, the kidnapping victim said that he has found peace at last through the power of grace.
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