It's a story that stunned the nation… 26 school children in a school bus, vanished in a small Valley town.
It happened in 1976, but the ripple effect is still being felt today and the crime put Chowchilla on the map for all the wrong reasons.
Many who live in the Valley remember the fear that spread across our area in the hours following the children's disappearance on July 15th, 1976.
Years later, one of those children, Larry Parks, now a grown man, is finally coming to terms to what happened on the school bus that day.
That small yellow school bus sits parked in a Merced museum, forgotten to most, but it's a grim reminder of a decades old crime that stole childhoods and changed lives.
CBS47’s Brittany Hopper talked to Parks, who was just 6-years-old at the time, and who says he's had 34 years of haunted memories. "Just remembering how small I was the last time I was on this bus and knowing that you know this, it was a ride that changed my life forever," said Parks.
It's been years since parks climbed aboard the bus. He agreed to sit down with CBS47 to relive the terror of that hot summer day back in 1976. "All I could pay attention to was these guns that they were holding," said Parks.
As the children and bus driver headed home, 3 masked gunman burst on board and hijacked the bus packed with kids. Parks was sitting in the seat behind the driver and he was told to move back by one of the gunmen. "This is where my sister was sitting and I chose to sit beside her, so we held hands. It was the last time in 34 years that we've ever held hands," said Parks.
Suddenly, Chowchilla was making headlines across the country. The bus was gone along with the children. It had disappeared without a trace.
Ed Bates was Sheriff at the time. It was his responsibility to head up the investigation. "We instituted the search and couldn't find the bus anywhere. Then obviously it was a severe situation," said Bates.
After hours of searching, the bus was located in a drainage ditch 9 miles west of Chowchilla, but no sign of the kids.
The kidnappers forced the children into vans and drove to Livermore where they were forced into a hot and almost airless underground chamber. “I was left in that pit and there was no one there to come back for me. So yeah, in my mind we were left there to die," said Parks.
The kidnappers were after money. A ransom note demanding $5 million was found but no one paid. The suspects had disappeared, leaving the children and bus driver buried underground. After it become certain the kidnappers were not returning, the bus driver and some of the older children made a break for it.
"If they hadn't escaped, they would have died,” said Ed Bates.
That time underground changed Larry Parks. Even though he made it out alive, he says part of him remains below ground. "I was never able to crawl out of that pit with my soul. My body got out but my soul was stuck," said Parks.
In the three decades since the kidnapping, Parks has spent time behind bars, going from job to job, trying to come to terms with what happened that day back in 1976.
34 years later, Parks looks at the plaque that sits in front of the Chowchilla Police Department, honoring him and the other victims and tells Brittany Hopper that revisiting this nightmare just may have set him free. "Maybe today will be an ending of 34 years of psychosis, like I'm facing it down, I'm on it and it's not going to happen again, and hopefully I can walk off of it feeling liberated," said Parks.
36 hours after being kidnapped, the children escaped and all survived.
About a month later, on August 22nd 1976, the there kidnappers were caught. Frederick Woods and Richard and James Schoenfeld were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. All three men have been denied parole over the years. Woods will be eligible again in 2012.