As Chowchilla Bus Kidnapper Gets Parole, Victims Speak Out: 'I Only Felt Safe When They Were Behind Bars'

James Schoenfeld: Chowchilla Bus Kidnapper Paroled Almost 40 Years Later
James Schoenfeld in 1976
AP

08/04/2015 AT 10:20 AM EDT

"How long of a prison term is long enough for your child who was kidnapped and buried alive?"

That's the question asked by Lynda Carrejo-Labendeira, who was only 10 when she and 25 other children were taken and buried alive in an underground bunker almost 40 years ago in the infamous Chowchilla, California, bus kidnapping. Now, one of the men who orchestrated that abduction, the largest in U.S. history, will be freed.

Last week, James Schoenfeld, now 63, cleared the final hurdle for release after he was first recommended for parole back in March. California Gov. Jerry Brown had 120 days to decide whether to send the case back to the parole board, but that deadline passed at the end of July.

In March, many of Schoenfeld's victims testified against his release, urging officials to keep him locked up. But it was all for naught.

"We fought at every hearing and thought our voices would make a difference, that being there meant something to the parole board, but it didn't," Carrejo-Labendeira tells PEOPLE.

"Just two years ago at the last hearing, James, who designed the contraption where we were held, said he spent years designing a better one," she says. "Does that sound like someone who is remorseful?"

But Schoenfeld's attorney, Scott D. Handleman, says Schoenfeld has served his time for his crime. "It was long overdue, and I think there is solid evidence that he isn't dangerous and California has no interest in keeping him in prison," Handleman says.

He adds: "Of course, we all sympathize with the victims who suffered. It was an atrocious crime, but he's not dangerous now and so the law entitles him to his freedom."

Years of Nightmares

In 1976, Schoenfeld, his brother Richard, and their friend Frederick Woods kidnapped a bus full of children from Chowchilla, California, and buried them, as well as their driver, inside a moving van beneath a rock quarry near Livermore, California.

They planned to ransom the children, who were ages 5 to 14, for $5 million after suffering losses on a real estate project. But the victims managed to escape, clawing their way to freedom after 16 hours underground while the three took a nap. The three men were arrested a week later and have spent the past four decades in prison.

But now that two of the kidnappers are free (Richard was paroled in 2012), the victims wonder if they'll ever feel safe again.

Darla Neal, who was also 10 at the time, says she still has nightmares about having a gun pointed at her head. "This ordeal altered the course of our family's life and trickled down into my children's lives," she says. "I'm frantic at the thought of them being released. I only felt safe when they were behind bars."

Carrejo-Labendeira's sister, Irene Carrejo, who was 12 when she was kidnapped, says that it's "disheartening that you depend on the criminal justice system to protect you and they did not even serve one life sentence for the 27 lives they jeopardized."

"I saw a man in a waiting room who looked just like one of the kidnappers and I went into a panic attack," she says. "I'll never know if they will be around, or I will run into them. It will never be over for us, and it's important to remember what they did and how they impacted so many lives."

"We were lucky to get out, otherwise I think we would have died in there," says kidnap victim Jodi Heffington-Medrano, who was 10 at the time. "It took almost two years of planning and they had a lot of opportunities to back out. The brothers spent their prison time sharing a cell. Now they will be back living with their mom."

The kidnappers were originally sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, but that was later overturned. The final kidnapper, Woods, comes up for his parole hearing in November.

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