On the sunny afternoon of July 15, 1976, the children of Dairyland Elementary School were happy and carefree.
It was the second-last day of summer school, and the children were being bussed home after a field trip to the local swimming pool. The 26 children on the bus, school kids ranging from 5 to 14 years old, had no idea the tragic twist of fate waiting in store for them.
When the bus turned onto a narrow street, driver Frank Edward “Ed” Ray noticed a van parked in the middle of the road. The vehicle’s hood was up, and it seemed like a man was trying to fix it.
One of the students on the bus, Lynda Carrejo Labendeira, describes Ray as “gentleman farmer,” who parked in the road to try and help the man.
“And as quick as his words were coming out, they jumped on the bus with their guns pointed at us,” she remembers. “And the rifle. And told Edward to go to the back of the bus.”
The masked gunmen drove the bus off the road, into a small, sheltered ravine where a pair of vans were waiting.
The children and Ray were packed inside the vans. The vehicles were dark inside, with no windows or air conditioning. The group was driven for 11 hours straight, without any water in the sweltering heat, or any idea where they were headed.
Later, police learned the kidnapped children had been taken on a roundabout route from Chowchilla, California to nearby Livermore. The slow trip was probably meant to kill time, so it would be dark when the vans reached their destination.
The group was finally let out of the van at a secluded gravel quarry. There, the kidnappers took each child’s name, home address, and telephone number, along with a piece of their clothing or a personal object.
Despite being peppered with questions by Ray and the children, the kidnappers never explained why the children had been taken.
“I only recall them ever telling us to shut up and be quiet,” Labendeira remembers.
Finally, the children were led across the quarry to a strange pile of dirt with a ladder descending down into darkness.
That’s when the group was ordered to crawl inside, and the real terror began.