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MailTribune.com
  • Man relives grief, relief of Chowchilla kidnapping

  • This past Thursday passed quietly for most of us who never gave the date a second thought as we went about our day.
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  • This past Thursday passed quietly for most of us who never gave the date a second thought as we went about our day.
    But July 15 invariably causes Jacksonville resident Paul Yates to pause and reflect.
    "It always brings back memories," says the retired elementary school principal. "Most of the kids on that bus were mine. I knew just about all of them. ... I grieved for those children."
    That would be the 26 schoolchildren kidnapped in Chowchilla, Calif., on July 15, 1976, in one of the most notorious abduction cases in our nation's history.
    Three young men from well-to-do families in Livermore, Calif., kidnapped at gunpoint the largely farmers' children — ages 5 to 14 — and their bus driver when the students were returning late that afternoon from a summer-school program. The kidnappers ditched the bus, herded the children and the bus driver into two vans, drove them to Livermore and entombed them in a moving van partially buried in a rock quarry.
    You're right. There has to be a special place in hell for those who traumatize children.
    Obviously not a brain trust, the trio of kidnappers picked a poor location to commit their crime in hopes of receiving $5 million in ransom.
    "Most of these kids were poor, at best middle class,"Paul says. "It was a terrible thing to do to them."
    In the spirit of full dis-closure, it should be noted that he and his wife, Joan, are friends of my wife and I. In my book, they are the kind of people this planet sorely lacks — caring, smart and humorous. No doubt he was an excellent educator.
    Paul, 80, a Navy veteran who went to Fresno State University on the GI Bill, majoring in elementary education, had been the principal at both the Fuller and Stephens elementary schools in Chowchilla until the end of the 1976 school year.
    At that point, the administrators in the district, including Paul, submitted their resignations en masse to protest a new school superintendent they felt did not have education as his highest priority. Paul had been at the schools for 12 years.
    He subsequently became the elementary principal at Keyes just south of Modesto, Calif. All told, he would teach or serve as a school administrator for more than a quarter of a century.
    In Chowchilla, many of the kids at Fuller and Stephens schools had signed up for a popular summer-school program, he recalls.
    Ann Yates, one of Paul and Joan's children, then a student at Chico State University, had a summer job working in the district.
    "She had just gotten off the bus before they were kidnapped," he says.
    The Yates also were friends of Ed Ray, then 55, the bus driver who also was a local farmer. His wife worked at a local bank.
    "He was a good man — dedicated, competent," Paul says.
    In fact, the bus driver became the hero of the day. He and the older students eventually removed a heavy metal plate placed over an opening in the roof of the van and dug their way through dirt and debris to reach freedom.
    They escaped from their prison on the night of July 16, some 16 hours after being kidnapped. In the early hours of July 17, they arrived by bus back in Chowchilla, escorted by police cars.
    As for the three kidnappers, they were quickly caught and sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to 27 counts of kidnapping.
    "My wife and I and one other teacher were there to meet the bus bringing the kids when they came back after midnight following their ordeal," Paul says.
    He can tell you about the joyous reunions between the children and their parents, of endless hugs and tears of relief.
    He also remembers journalists from around the world descending upon the small farming community like a flock of squawking seagulls.
    "The London Times had someone there — so did The New York Times and NBC and all the rest," he says. "Some of the parents became instant celebrities."
    The parents who reveled in the spotlight didn't do their children any favors, he notes.
    "Some of the parents wanted to keep it going and met weekly to rehash it," he says."They were screwing up their kids, of course."
    Other parents avoided the media circus.
    "There was this one Hispanic family with a son in the seminary," he says. "When that mom's children came off the bus, she was there to grab them. She took them home and locked the door. Her kids were fine. She had good sense."
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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