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The last of three men convicted of hijacking a school bus full of children and holding them and their driver for $5 million ransom in 1976 was recommended for parole on Friday with the support of two of the victims.
Parole commissioners decided Frederick Woods, 70, no longer is a danger to the public after previous panels had denied him parole 17 times.
The decision by Commissioner Patricia Cassady and Deputy Commissioner Keith Stanton will still be considered by Gov. Gavin Newsom, but he can't block it because it's not a murder conviction. He could only refer the decision to the full Board of Parole Hearings for a review.
The governor's late father, state Judge William Newsom, was on an appellate panel in 1980 that reduced the men's life sentences to give them a chance at parole. Once retired, he advocated for their release in 2011, noting that no one was seriously physically injured during the kidnapping.
Woods’ accomplices, brothers Richard and James Schoenfeld, already were freed. An appeals court ordered Richard released in 2012 and then-Gov. Jerry Brown paroled James in 2015.
All three were from wealthy San Francisco Bay Area families when they kidnapped 26 children and their bus driver near Chowchilla, about 125 miles (201 kilometers) southeast of San Francisco.
They buried the children, ages 5 to 14, along with their bus driver in a ventilated bunker east of San Francisco. The victims were able to dig their way out more than a day later.
Woods read an apology for his crime at Friday's parole hearing.
“I’ve had empathy for the victims which I didn’t have then,” Woods said. “I’ve had a character change since then.”
“I was 24 years old," he added. "Now I fully understand the terror and trauma I caused. I fully take responsibility for this heinous act.”
California law now requires parole commissioners to give greater weight to freeing inmates who were young when they committed their crime, and those who are now elderly and have served lengthy prison sentences.
Woods and the Schoenfelds planned their crime for more than a year. They wanted to get $5 million ransom from the state Board of Education.
James Schoenfeld once told parole officials that he envied friends who had “his-and-hers Ferraris.” Woods said during an earlier parole hearing that he just “got greedy.”
Madera County prosecutors in previous parole hearings said Woods' disciplinary infractions in prison showed he had not yet learned to follow the rules.
But Woods and his attorney, Dominique Banos, emphasized that he had a discipline-free record since his last parole hearing in October 2019.
Two survivors, Larry Park and Rebecca Reynolds Dailey, spoke Friday in favor of Woods' parole.
But opposing Woods' release were survivors Jennifer Brown Hyde and Laura Yazzi Fanning; Matthew Medrano, son of survivor Jodi Heffington Medrano who has since died; and Carol Marshall, mother of survivor Michael Marshall, and Lynda Carrejo.
Woods and his attorney were at the California Men's Colony prison in San Luis Obispo, while other participants were in remote locations because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Woods' parole had previously been backed by some prominent supporters, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto in 2015.
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