As a psychiatrist, I was disturbed to read that some of the officials who helped send the Chowchilla kidnappers to prison now support their parole (Tribune, Feb. 24).
The facts are as follows:
In July 1976, three men partially blocked a children’s school bus route, boarded a bus that stopped and held the driver and 26 children at gunpoint. They crammed them into two small vans for about 11 hours in total darkness without food or water before forcing them into a moving van buried several feet underground.
They sealed them in with a heavy metal plate, covered it with dirt and debris and left them. Escaping was extremely difficult and required shifting the metal plate and then digging barehanded through several feet of dirt. The hostages were buried for about 16 hours.
The lasting emotional damage to these children has been thoroughly documented by Lenore C. Terr, a renowned trauma researcher, who found that every one of them suffered severe post-traumatic symptoms.
They experienced not only terrible nightmares, exaggerated startle responses, flashbacks and hypervigilance, but also persistent fears of vans, school buses, stalled vehicles, darkness, strangers, people who resembled the kidnappers and unexpected sounds. As often happens with overwhelming trauma, the terror from the actual incident led to what Terr calls a “fear of the mundane.”
Several years after the incident, nearly all the children felt little hope for a happy future, a long life or a life without major trauma. Many experienced disturbed relationships with a severely impaired ability to assess trustworthiness in others and several became permanently enraged.
They also had to cope with unwanted fame about something they did not even want to think about and that some even felt ashamed about (not uncommon in victims of abuse).
These were ordinary kids before they were kidnapped, threatened with death and buried alive. This premeditated crime shattered their childhoods and left them with crippling fears and impaired ability to function normally in many respects.
In spite of this, the lead investigator now says that the kidnapers were “just dumb, rich kids” and the retired judge who had overturned their original sentence of life in prison without parole considers their ongoing imprisonment a “gross injustice.”
It is not for me to say how long a prison term is sufficient for any crime, but this horrific crime caused incalculable psychological injury to the children and any decision regarding parole must take that into account.
Patricia Lipscomb has been a psychiatrist for more than 30 years and worked a great deal with patients suffering from childhood trauma. She has lived in Nipomo since 2007.
Editor’s Note: Richard Schoenfeld has petitioned for parole and is scheduled for a hearing at the California Men’s Colony on April 5.