Jodi Heffington was one of the 26 children who survived the infamous Chowchilla kidnapping in 1976, when three men hijacked a school bus and buried them alive in a quarry. She was only 10 years old at the time, and the traumatic experience left a lasting impact on her life. Sadly, Jodi passed away on January 30, 2021, at the age of 55. What was the cause of her death, and how did she cope with the aftermath of the kidnapping? Here is what we know.
The Chowchilla Kidnapping: A Nightmare for Jodi and Her Classmates
On July 15, 1976, Jodi Heffington was sitting on a school bus with 25 other children from Dairyland Elementary School in Merced, California. They were returning from a summer trip to the Fairgrounds swimming pool when a van blocked their way. A man with a stocking over his head and a gun in his hand ordered the bus driver, Frank Edward “Ed” Ray, to open the door. He then climbed on board and pointed the shotgun at Jodi’s stomach. She thought he was going to shoot her.
The man was Richard Schoenfeld, one of the three kidnappers who planned to hold the children and the driver for ransom. The other two were his brother James Schoenfeld and their friend Fred Woods. They forced the victims to transfer to two vans and drove them for 11 hours to a quarry in Livermore, where they had prepared a box truck buried underground. They made them climb down a ladder into the dark and stuffy trailer, where they had left some food, water, mattresses, and an air vent.
The kidnappers then sealed the hatch and left to make their ransom demand of $5 million. However, they failed to contact the authorities due to a busy phone line. Meanwhile, the children and Ray managed to escape by stacking mattresses and prying open the hatch with a metal rod. They had been trapped for nearly 16 hours before they emerged to freedom.
The Lifelong Trauma of Jodi Heffington
The Chowchilla kidnapping was one of the largest mass kidnappings in U.S. history, and it received nationwide attention. The victims were hailed as heroes for their courage and resilience, and they were treated to a trip to Disneyland as a reward. However, behind the smiles and cheers, they were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, nightmares, flashbacks, and other psychological issues.
Jodi Heffington was no exception. She told CBS’ “48 Hours” in 2023 that the kidnapping affected her every day in some way or another. She said it made her not a good daughter, sister, aunt, or mother. She felt like she had lost something that she could never get back. She also struggled with substance abuse and domestic violence in her adult life.
Jodi was one of the most vocal victims who fought against the release of the kidnappers, who were sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. She attended almost every parole hearing and testified about how they had ruined her life. She said it was excruciating and that the aftermath was never good.
She had to watch as Richard Schoenfeld was paroled in 2012, followed by James Schoenfeld in 2015. Fred Woods remains behind bars as of 2023. Jodi said she felt betrayed by the justice system and that she feared for her safety if they ever crossed paths again.
The Mysterious Death of Jodi Heffington
Jodi Heffington died on January 30, 2021, at her home in Merced. She was 55 years old. She left behind her son Matthew Medrano, her brother Billy Joe Heffington Jr., his wife Lisa Heffington, and many nephews and nieces. She also had many friends who loved her for her kindness, generosity, humor, and spirit.
The cause of her death remains unknown. According to Ready Steady Cut, it seems that her death was of natural causes. However, there is no official confirmation or obituary available online. Some speculate that she may have died from COVID-19 complications or from an overdose.
Whatever the case may be, Jodi Heffington’s death is a tragic loss for her family and friends, as well as for the other survivors of the Chowchilla kidnapping. She was one of them who never got over the horror they endured as children. She once said that she wished she could tear down the wall that separated her from happiness.
Jodi Heffington’s story is a reminder of how trauma can affect people for decades and how important it is to seek help and support when needed. She also showed courage and strength in speaking out against her abductors and in trying to live a normal life despite her pain. She will be missed by many who knew her and admired her.