Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Locked Room Mysteries In Real Life: The Day The Children Vanished

This series of articles explores the bizarre occurrences in which real events bear close resemblance to fictional locked room mysteries or impossible crimes. In this example, a bus of children disappears in circumstances eerily similar to Hugh Pentecost's short story "The Day the Children Vanished".

Some of the children resting at the Santa Rita prison farm.
Source: Evening Independent.
(Spoilers below)

The Day the Children Vanished

Hugh Pentecost's short story, originally published in 1958, centres around a core mystery - a bus of schoolchildren is seen driving onto a waterside stretch of road flanked by a high wall, but fails to come out at the other end. The road is searched, but no sign of the bus remains. With no possible turns or exits, the disappearance is as puzzling as it is terrifying. Some of the children's clothes are discovered in a nearby quarry, but again the bus is nowhere to be found.

The solution - the bus was driven into a large lorry that carried it away from the scene - is an elegant ruse to lure the local townspeople away from a bank robbery. There's no way Pentecost could predict that his words could become an eery premonition of a real-life case 18 years later.

In 1976 a bus carrying 26 children disappeared from a small town in San Joaquin Valley. Known as the "Chowchilla Kidnapping",  the assailants hid the bus in a drainage slough and forced the driver and children into the back of a buried van. The van, though the victims didn't know at the time, was located in a quarry belonging to the father of one of the kidnappers.

With the assistance of the driver, some of the older children were able to escape their imprisonment and alert the authorities. All of the children were returned safely, and the kidnappers were identified and prosecuted.

Both fictional story and true crime resulted in the safe return of the children, though many of the real life victims were understandably traumatised by the ordeal. Though the outcomes may have been quite different, the circumstances of their disappearance remain one example of life imitating fiction.

You can purchase the short story "The Day the Children Vanished" on Amazon, or read as part of the locked room anthology "All But Impossible". Articles covering the 1976 kidnapping can be found here and here. There's also a Wikipedia article that covers the crime and its aftermath here.

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