AJacksonville man who was the school principal for most of the 26 children kidnapped in Chowchilla, Calif., in 1976 agrees the three men responsible should be considered for parole — if they have demonstrated they have mended their ways.

AJacksonville man who was the school principal for most of the 26 children kidnapped in Chowchilla, Calif., in 1976 agrees the three men responsible should be considered for parole — if they have demonstrated they have mended their ways.

"They have been in prison for 35 years, but my judgment concerning their parole would depend on how they improved themselves during the time they were in the slammer," said Paul Yates, 81, who was the principal of the two Chowchilla elementary schools attended by most of the victims that school year.

"I would put a lot of weight on the progress they made in prison, on how they redeemed themselves," the retired educator said.

While he noted that he doesn't believe the kidnappers should spend the rest of their lives behind bars, he was quick to add the crime, which included partially burying the victims in a large moving van, was horrific.

"The kids suffered terribly," he said.

Yates was reacting to a call on Wednesday by judges, prosecutors and investigators who sent the men to prison that the three be paroled.

"They were just dumb, rich kids and they paid a hell of a price for what they did," Dale Fore, who served as lead investigator on the case for the Madera County Sheriff's Department, told The Associated Press during a news conference in San Francisco.

Retired Court of Appeal Justice William Newsom, who overturned the three men's original sentence of life in prison without parole, noted that nobody was physically injured in the kidnapping.

"That's a major factor," he told the AP. "I think it's a gross injustice."

Brothers Richard and Jim Schoenfeld and Fred Woods, all in their mid-20s at the time, stunned the nation on July 15, 1976 when they commandeered at gunpoint a Chowchilla school bus returning that afternoon from a summer-school program.

The Yates' daughter, Anne, then a student at Chico State University, had been on the bus before it was hijacked. She had a summer job working in the school district that July.

"She got off the bus about 10 minutes before they were kidnapped," her father recalled.

Many of the victims —ages 5 to 14 — were the children of local farmers, most of them not well off, he said. The kidnappers were from well-to-do families in Livermore, Calif., he noted.

The kidnappers ditched the bus, herded the children and the bus driver into two vans, drove them about 100 miles to Livermore and entombed them in the moving van partially buried in a rock quarry owned by Woods' father. They were seeking a $5 million ransom.

But bus driver Ed Ray and the two oldest children stacked mattresses high enough to escape by removing a heavy metal plate placed over an opening cut in the roof of the van. They dug their way through dirt and debris to freedom on the night of July 16, some 16 hours after being kidnapped.

Escorted by police officers, the victims arrived back in Chowchilla by bus in the early hours of July 17. Yates and his wife, Joan, who were friends of the bus driver as well as the students, were there along with parents to meet them after their ordeal.

One kidnapper turned himself in a week later. The two others were quickly caught and sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to 27 counts of kidnapping.

The incident was the focus of the 1993 movie titled "They've Taken Our Children: The Chowchilla Kidnapping." The late actor Karl Malden starred as the heroic bus driver.

Richard Schoenfeld formally petitioned the California Supreme Court to grant him parole on Wednesday. Others have asked for the release of his two accomplices. The three men have repeatedly been denied parole since they were imprisoned.

A Navy veteran who had gone to college on the GI BIll, Yates said the kidnapping ordeal was difficult on the victims as well as their families.

"But if they (kidnappers) did some kind of redeeming acts, like helping other inmates or somehow working to contribute, I would look favorably on paroling them now," he said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.