“Dirty Harry” with Clint Eastwood was a controversial movie when it came out in 1971. A homicide detective takes the law into his own hands to stop a serial killer who got off on a legal technicality.
A different scene from that movie inspired a real life kidnapping five years later. The serial killer hijacks a school bus with the driver and children on board to get away from Dirty Harry. The school bus crashes inside the entrance to a rock quarry.
The Chowchilla kidnapping was—and still is—the largest kidnapping in U.S. history.
Why is that kidnapping still relevant today? The third and final kidnapper got paroled from prison and came out $100 million US richer than he went in.
Miranda Rights (1966)
“Dirty Harry” came out five years after the Supreme Court Miranda ruling in 1966. That ruling required police officers to read suspects their Miranda rights. In particular, the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. If the Miranda rights weren’t read, any statements and/or evidence could be inadmissible in court.
The counter argument has always been: what if the police needed information to save lives. If the suspect shuts up after being read their Miranda rights, victims could die. The reality is that most people get arrested for crimes that they have already committed.
The Movie (1971)
Detective “Dirty” Harry Callahan tracked down and wounded the serial killer. When the serial killer refused to talk, he steps on the gunshot wound to get the information that he needed. He finds the victim dead and the murder weapon inside the serial killer’s apartment.
The district attorney explains to Dirty Harry that he had no choice but to let the serial killer go. Miranda rights weren’t read and a search warrant wasn’t obtained. That didn’t sit well with Dirty Harry.
Dirty Harry kills the serial killer at the rock quarry and throws his badge into a pond. Until George Floyd in 2020, police brutality had never kept officers off the job for long. Dirty Harry came back for four more movies.
The Kidnapping (1976)
Three young men kidnapped a school bus driver and 26 children in Chowchilla, California. They drove the bus out to a rock quarry in Livermore and buried the victims alive inside a box truck. Parents and news media overwhelmed the Chowchilla police switchboard. The kidnappers weren’t able to call in their $5 million US ransom demand.
The victims dug themselves out 18 hours later.
It didn’t help that the quarry belonged to the father of one of the kidnappers. Or that two of them had a prior conviction for auto theft. All three got caught within eight days to two weeks of the kidnapping.
The kidnappers—two brothers and a friend—claimed in court that they were deep in debt and needed money. Never mind that they came from wealthy families. They pleaded guilty to kidnapping for ransom and robbery.
But they went to court on bodily harm charges that had a mandatory life without parole sentence. A state appellate court overturned the convictions and ordered a resentencing that allow parole.
- Richard Schoenfeld entered prison at age 22 and got paroled in 2012 at age 57.
- James Schoenfeld entered prison at age 24 and got paroled in 2015 at age 63.
- Frederick Newhall Woods IV entered prison at age 24 and got paroled this year at age 70.
While researching this story, it wasn’t clear to me how “Dirty Harry” got linked to the kidnapping.
Did the kidnappers claim that they watched the movie when it first came out in 1971? Did public officials cast blame on the movie as being too violent? Or was it a combination of the two?
Not that anyone could blame the kidnapping on video games in 1976.
The Parolee (2022)
The parole board recommended Frederick Woods for parole after rejecting him 19 times. Governor Gavin Newsom asked the parole board to reconsider their decision. The parole board usually grants what the governor wants but not this time.
On August 17, 2022, Woods got released from prison after 46 years. That Woods got paroled from prison at all was somewhat astounding.
- He never took full responsibility for his crimes.
- He got caught with contrabands like pornography and cellphones.
- He got married three times while in prison.
- He owned a mansion 30 minutes away from the prison.
The only reason prison officials discovered that he owned businesses was after an employee filed a labor complaint in 2016.
How was this all possible when Woods told the court that he was in debt?
Being heir to prominent California families, the Newhalls and the Woods, he inherited a $100 million US trust fund after the death of his parents. His attorney had denied that the trust fund was worth that much. The victims did get restitution from the trust fund to cover years of counseling but nothing beyond that.
Although he spent two-thirds of his life behind bars, he’s now a rich old man living in a mansion.