Revisiting the 1976 Chowchilla School Bus KidnappingBreaking News
tags: California, 1970s, true crime
The aerial search is already underway.
There are about 400 reporters, one for every 10 people in the whole town. The Salvation Army has brought a food truck from San Francisco. Pac-Bell has brought 60 press phones and operators. Parents keep an all-night vigil at the police station.
It is the largest kidnapping ever in the United States.
In a rarity for summer in the Central Valley, a thunderstorm is rolling in, and lightning streaks are firing across the sky. It is July 1976.
In recent years, California has become the national shorthand for sensationalism. Two years ago in Berkeley, the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst. Whittier’s own President Richard Nixon has resigned and had to negotiate a pardon from his former vice president. Charles Manson has only been in prison for five years, and the Zodiac Killer is still at large. Fault lines are cracking all over the state, and Californians are bracing for “the big one.”
But all that is happening out in the cities, a million miles away from the inland farming town of Chowchilla, where our story takes place. The heartland, then as now, is almost a different state, with different fears.
Put 2 1/2 million dollars in each of the suitcases, total 5 million
Use old bills
Have ready at the Oakland Police station
Further instructions pending until 10:05 PM Sunday
We are Beelsabub [sic].
To hear the people of Chowchilla tell it, the reporters and newsmen who descended on their quiet town treated the kidnapping like a winning lottery ticket, and they’d have trampled over their own mothers for a piece of the horrific and eminently marketable tragedy: 26 children and one adult man, vanished into thin air.
If it bleeds, it leads. Months later, people could still remember the New York reporter who got off a plane in Los Angeles and took a cab to Chowchilla. It was a seven-hour drive that cost either $400 or $1,000, depending on who you heard it from.
The median annual family income there is just over $6,800.
What happened to Chowchilla is the story of a generation-defining crime that briefly shook the world, and the ripple effects it had on the state’s heartland. It’s about the huge differences between urban and rural California, the rich and the poor, how a town overcame being dragged to hell and back, and what we have to learn from the fading ghost stories of the 20th century.
It’s also about cars.
It’s 1976, 11 days after the bicentennial. The American Freedom Train, a government-sponsored restored steam locomotive, is rolling through the country hawking patriotic kitsch. In a few months, Jimmy Carter will surrender his peanut farm to become president of the United States and end the Nixon era. Evel Knievel is figuring out a really flashy way to try to go off and kill himself (a tank of live sharks). Elvis Presley is really sweaty and has a year to live. Alec Guinness is filming a shitty sci-fi movie called Star Wars and he hates it but doesn’t yet know what 2.25 percent of royalties in perpetuity is going to look like. Oh, and “Convoy,” a fake country song about truckers written by a New York ad guy, is popular. Really popular. You can’t avoid the damn thing. It’s turned CB radios into a huge fad for adults. (That’ll come up later.)
In Chowchilla, 150 miles southeast from San Francisco, it’s a normal July afternoon. Languid, hot, and unremarkable. A bus driver is picking up kids from summer school. His name is Ed Ray. A humble rancher with a humble day job, married to a humble bank teller named Odessa. Stocky, about 55 years old. Looks like a guy you don’t want to fight; a guy who works with his hands and knows his way around baling hay. He doesn’t talk much. He’s from down the road in Merced but went to high school here and doesn’t plan on going anywhere else.