Elizabeth Diane Downs was
convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1984. This was her
punishment for the shootings and attempted murders of her three
children. One of them died as a result of her actions. At the time
of the incident, Downs told authorities that there was an
attempted carjack. Of course, this later proved to be a lie. In
1987, Downs escaped prison and was on the run for a short period
of time before being recaptured.
In the spring of 1983, Diane Downs shot her
three children, with all intentions of killing them. To make the
story of the attempted carjacking more realistic, she went so far
as to shoot herself in the arm. However, witnesses saw Downs car
as she drove the children to hospital in an attempt to save them.
She was so desperate for help that she drove a mere 5 miles per
hour. Her calm demeanor at the hospital raised red flags. And it
all came to a head when one of her surviving children, unable to
speak after suffering a stroke, expressed fear and an increased
heart rate when Downs came to visit her. Forensic evidence didnt
support Dianes story either. She was arrested 9 months after the
Elizabeth Diane Frederickson Downs (born
August 7, 1955) is an American convicted murderer. She shot her
three children, killing one, and then told police a stranger had
attempted to carjack her and had shot the children. She was
convicted in 1984 and sentenced to life in prison.
Downs briefly escaped in 1987 and was
recaptured. She is the subject of a book by Ann Rule and a
made-for-TV movie based upon it, both called Small Sacrifices.
She was denied parole in December 2008 and again in December 2010.
Elizabeth Diane Frederickson was born in
Phoenix, Arizona to Wes and Willadene Frederickson on August 7,
1955. She alleges that her father molested her when she was a
child. She graduated from Moon Valley High School in Phoenix where
she met her future husband, Steve Downs. After high school, she
enrolled at Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College in Orange,
California, but after a year was expelled for promiscuity and
returned to her parents home. On November 13, 1973, she married
Steve Downs. They were divorced in 1980, about a year after the
birth of Stephen "Danny" Downs.
Downs was employed by the United States Postal
Service assigned to the mail routes in the city of Cottage Grove,
Oregon before her 1983 arrest and trial.
By accounts of friends, acquaintances,
neighbors, and eventually by the surviving daughter Christie,
Diane Downs was an unfit parent who put everything before her
children and was especially cruel to Cheryl, who told a neighbor
of her grandparents shortly before her death that she was afraid
of her mother.
On May 19, 1983, Downs shot her three children,
Stephen Daniel (born 1979); Cheryl Lynn (born 1976); and Christie
Ann (born 1974). Downs drove the children in a blood-spattered car
to McKenzie-Willamette Hospital. There was blood spatter all over
the inside of the car but none on Diane. On arrival at the
hospital, Cheryl was already dead. Downs herself had been shot in
the left forearm. Downs claimed she was carjacked on a rural road
near Springfield, Oregon by a strange man who shot her and her
three children. Investigators became suspicious because they
decided her manner was too calm for a person who had experienced
such a traumatic event.
Their suspicions heightened when Downs went for
the first time to see Christie, who was unable to speak after
suffering a stroke. Christie's eyes glazed over with apparent fear
and her heart rate jumped dramatically. They also discovered that
immediately upon arriving at the hospital, Downs had called Robert
Knickerbocker, a married man and former colleague in Arizona with
whom she had been having an affair.
The forensic evidence did not match Downs'
story; there was no blood on the driver's side of the car, nor was
there any gunpowder residue on the driver's panel. Knickerbocker
also reported to police that Downs had stalked him and seemed
willing to kill his wife if it meant that she could have him to
herself; Knickerbocker stated that he was relieved that Downs had
left for Oregon and he was able to reconcile with his wife. Downs
did not tell police she owned a .22 caliber handgun, but both
Steve Downs (her ex-husband) and Knickerbocker (her ex-lover) said
she did own one.
Investigators later discovered she bought the
handgun in Arizona, and although they were unable to find the
actual weapon, they found unfired casings in her home with
extractor markings from the same gun that shot the children. Most
damaging, witnesses saw Downs's car being driven very slowly
toward the hospital at an estimated speed of five to seven mph,
contradicting Downs' claim that she drove to the hospital at a
high speed after the shooting. Based on this and additional
evidence, Downs was arrested nine months after the event, on
February 28, 1984, and charged with murder and two counts each of
attempted murder and criminal assault.
Prosecutors argued that Downs shot her children
to be free of them so she could continue her affair with
Knickerbocker, who let it be known that he did not want children
in his life. Much of the case against Downs rested on the
testimony of surviving daughter Christie, who, once she recovered
her ability to speak, described how her mother shot all three
children while parked at the side of the road and then shot
herself in the arm. Christie was eight years old at the time of
the murder and nine years old at the time of the trial.
Downs was found guilty on all charges on June
17, 1984, and sentenced to life in prison plus fifty years.
Psychiatrists diagnosed Downs with narcissistic, histrionic and
antisocial personality disorders. Most of her sentence is to be
served consecutively. The judge made it clear that he did not wish
Downs to ever regain her freedom.
The surviving children eventually went to live
with one of the prosecutors of the case, Fred Hugi. He and his
wife Joanne adopted them in 1984.
Prior to her arrest and trial, Downs became
pregnant with a fourth child and gave birth a month after her 1984
trial to a girl she named Amy. Ten days before her sentencing, the
baby was seized by the State of Oregon and adopted soon after. She
was renamed Rebecca "Becky" Babcock.
Downs escaped from the Oregon Women's
Correctional Center of the Oregon Department of Corrections on
July 11, 1987, and was recaptured in Salem, Oregon on July 21. She
received a five-year sentence for the escape.
After her escape, she was housed in the New
Jersey Department of Corrections Clinton Correctional Institution.
In 1994, after serving ten years, Downs was transferred to the
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. While in
prison, Downs has earned an associate's college degree in general
studies. As of 2010, she is located in the Valley State Prison for
Author Ann Rule wrote the book Small
Sacrifices in 1987, detailing the life of Downs. A made-for-TV
movie called Small Sacrifices, starring Farrah Fawcett as
Downs, was released in 1989.
Diane Downs's last child, born shortly after
her trial concluded, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show on
October 22, 2010 and '20/20 July 1, 2011.
Downs's sentence makes her eligible for parole
consideration after serving 25 years. Under Oregon law, as a
dangerous offender she will be eligible for a parole consideration
hearing every two years until she is released or dies in prison.
In her first application for parole in 2008,
Downs reaffirmed her innocence. "Over the years," she said, "I
have told you and the rest of the world that a man shot me and my
children. I have never changed my story." Downs's first parole
hearing was on December 9, 2008. Lane County District Attorney
Douglas Harcleroad wrote to the parole board, "Downs continues to
fail to demonstrate any honest insight into her criminal
behavior...even after her convictions, she continues to fabricate
new versions of events under which the crimes occurred." She
alternately refers to her assailants as a "bushy-haired stranger",
two men wearing ski masks or drug dealers and corrupt law
Downs participated in the hearing from the
Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California. She was
not permitted a statement, but answered questions from the parole
board. After three hours of interviews and thirty minutes of
deliberation, Diane Downs was denied parole. Downs was eligible to
reapply for parole in 2010.
Downs faced her second parole hearing on
December 10, 2010. She was denied parole, and under a new law will
not be eligible for parole for another ten years. She will have to
wait to apply for parole until 2020, when she will be 65 years
She looks like a model out of the pages of
Cosmopolitan or Vogue, a woman with a Cover Girl complexion and a
But behind the attractive facade lies a cunning,
sinister killer who according to court testimony shot and killed
one of her daughters and seriously wounded her second daughter and
Oregon law enforcement authorities have never
encountered anyone quite like Elizabeth Diane Downs. From the
moment she was arrested on Feb. 28, 1984 to the moment she was
convicted on June 19, Downs maintained she was innocent of the
shooting, that a stranger or strangers trying to commandeer her
car, shot her and her three children on the night of May 19, 1983,
along a rural road near Springfield.
Yet, right from the start, Lane County authorities
considered Downs a prime suspect in the shootings. They seriously
doubted her story that a "shaggy- haired stranger" flagged her
down and then demanded her car keys. Downs claimed that when she
pretended to throw her keys into some bushes, the stranger became
unglued, pulled out a gun and shot her and her three sleeping
children in the car. The man fled on foot.
Downs suffered a bullet wound in her left arm,
although authorities contended it was self-inflicted to throw
suspicion off her. Her daughter Cheryl Lynn, 7, was fatally
wounded, and her other two children -- Christie Ann, 8, and
Stephen Daniel, 3, sustained near paralizing injuries from the
Lane County Sheriff's Deputies arrested Downs Feb.
28, 1984, as she entered the Cottage Grove post office where she
worked as a part-time letter carder. A Lane County Grand Jury
indicted Downs on one count of murder, two counts of attempted
murder and two counts of first-degree assault.
Downs' 31-day jury trial in Lane County Circuit
Court in Eugene was one of the most widely-covered murder trials
in Oregon history. Downs played to the cameras lined up outside
the Lane County courthouse when she arrived and departed each day,
forever smiling and waving to the assembled reporters,
photographers, television cameramen and spectators. She seemed to
bask in the spotlight outside the courtroom.
But inside the courtroom, Downs was taking a
beating from some unrelentless prosecutors who had obviously done
their homework and some key witnesses who shot holes through her
story. The most damaging testimony came from her own surviving
daughter, Christie Ann.
On the witness stand Christie Ann Downs testified
her mother stopped the car off a rural road, got out of the car
and went back to the trunk. The girl then testified her mother
opened the trunk, shut it and returned to the car with something
in her hand. Seconds later, she heard the first shot.
When asked by Frederick A. Hugi, Lane County Deputy
District Attorney, how she knew her mother fatally shot her
sister, Christie Ann replied in a quivering voice: "I watched her
.....My mom did it."
Then, under Hugi's questioning, Christie Ann
tearfully told the jury that her mother leaned over the back seat
of the car and shot her brother, Danny, and her.
Despite some pointed cross-examination by Downs'
attorney James C. Jagger, Christie Ann denied anyone coached her
or told her to lie about the shooting. Jagger had suggested in his
opening remarks that others had told the girl what happened the
night of the shooting and that she had been led to believe that
her mother committed the acts.
Testifying in her own defense, Downs later denied
she shot her children because they stood in the way of her and her
former lover. The prosecution contended Downs shot her three
children because her ex-boyfriend in Chandler, Ariz., didn't want
any part in a woman with three children.
She insisted she loved her three children, that she
never cared enough about any man to want to harm her children.
The jury of nine women and three men deliberated 36
hours before returning its unanimous verdict: Guilty of murder for
the shooting death of Cheryl Lynn Downs. Guilty of attempted
murder in the shootings of Christie Ann Downs and Stephen Daniel
Downs. Guilty of first-degree assault for the attack on her three
Downs, who was carrying her fourth child at the
time, showed little emotion as the verdict was read by Circuit
Judge Gregory G. Foote. She was later sentenced to life in prison
plus 50 years.
But authorities hadn't heard or seen the last of
Elizabeth Diane Downs. On July 11, 1987 -- three years after she
was sentenced -- Downs pulled off a daring escape from the Oregon
Women' s Correctional Center in Salem. Authorities said she scaled
two, 18-foot fences surrounding the prison, climbed under a
pick-up truck, and waited several minutes before calmly walking
away. Prison officials later said they believe Downs wore several
layers of clothing to avoid puncture wounds from the barbed wire
atop the fences. A tattered striped shirt was found under the
pick-up truck where Downs reportedly hid after scaling the prison
An alarm hooked to the outside fence rang briefly
at 8:40 a.m. that morning, but prison officials didn't think
anything of it, saying the sensitive alarm went off accidentally
at least once a day due to anything from a strong wind to a bird.
However, when a nurse arriving at the prison 15 minutes later
reported seeing a suspicious woman climb out from under a pickup
truck and walk away, saying she believed the woman was Diane
Downs, prison guards did a quick emergency roll call and
discovered Downs missing.
A massive search of the Salem area was launched.
Ironically, Downs, wearing civilian-type clothing, was picked up
hitchhiking, virtually right across the street from the women's
prison and adjacent to Division 2 headquarters of the Oregon State
Police. The unwitting couple that picked up Downs drove her to the
site of a restaurant at State and 24th streets, three blocks from
the prison, where Downs got out.
The couple would later tell authorities Downs said
she needed to get to a phone quickly because her boyfriend had
just been injured in an automobile accident.
Downs' escape triggered a multi-state search which
surprisingly ended 10 days later back in Salem -- less than a half
mile from the prison. Indentations on a piece of paper found in
Downs' cell were analyzed by the FBI. Using an electrostatic
process, the FBI was able to enhance the indentations on the
paper, which included an address of a house and a map showing its
Oregon State Police conducted a driveby
surveillance of the run-down house for two days. Then, state and
local police served a search warrant on the house and found Downs
and four men inside. The four men were charged with hindering
In November, 1987, Downs was transferred to the
Correctional Institution for Women, in Clinton, N.J., a maximum
security prison. In exchange, Oregon prison officials agreed to
take two New Jersey criminals.
Downs made news again in September, 1991, when
Marion County Circuit Judge Duane R. Erstgaard denied her request
for a new trial. Erstgaard wrote his decision in a letter to
Downs' attorneys, saying she was adequately represented by lawyers
in her trial and appeal. The Oregon Court of Appeals upheld her
convictions in February, 1987.
But Elizabeth Diane Downs, whose story was the
subject of at least two novels and a made-for-television movie,
continues to maintain her innocence in her never-ending efforts to
overturn her 1984 convictions from her new home -- the Washington
State Women's Correctional Institute in Gig Harbor, Wash.
Elizabeth Diane Downs
The crime Diane Downs was accused of
was committed on the evening of May 19, 1983. It occurred when
she was driving home with her three children. On their journey
they were stopped and attacked by a stranger in the Springfield
area of Lane County, Oregon.
The stranger approached Diane and
demanded her car. When she refused to hand over the keys he
leaned into the car and fired killing one of the children and
wounding the other two. He then turned back to the mother. They
struggled and she was shot, as the attacker fell back during the
struggle, Diane jumped back into the car and immediately drove to
the nearest hospital.
Some nine months later the
Lane County District Attorney's office rejected this account.
The mother was charged with the crime, tried, and subsequently
convicted. At her trial the
State claimed Diane fabricated a ' bushy-haired
stranger ' (a term in fact she never used) and that she shot her
own children to convince her lover (Robert Knickerbocker) to leave
This was a theory conceived
by the State and inaccurately attributed to Diane who finds the
theory repulsive. This relationship as far
as Diane was concerned, was over. She had moved to Oregon 1,200
miles away to make sure it was over and was in a new relationship
with someone else and heavily pregnant when arrested.
Prior to Diane's arrest the investigation was
experiencing major financial difficulties. As result of budget
cuts the investigation was reduced to a minimum and a number
of Investigators were withdrawn from the case. There had been no
arrests after almost a year. Media, as well as public pressure to
solve the crime was growing, giving added impetus and frustration
to the Investigators. There was an obvious need for expediency in
the D.A.'s office and it was at this point of 'melt down' that
Diane was arrested and charged with the crime.
Lane County District Attorney
Pat Horton assigned Deputy Prosecutor Fred Hugi to his
'first' homicide. Judge Gregory G. Foote would also preside at
his 'first' senior trial following his promotion from juvenile
judge to senior judge status. A somewhat odd promotion
considering there were other judges available and the fact that as
a juvenile judge, Foote had denied Diane access to her children.
This was the first of many anomalies regarding this case that have
never, to this day, been answered with total satisfaction.
Defense Attorney James C. Jagger had been recommended to Diane's
father as Defense Attorney for Diane. When Dianes father became
apprehensive about James Jaggers capability however. He
attempted to engage the more formidable Defense Attorney Melvin
Belli for the task. Belli accepted but Judge Foote would not
await the Attorneys return from abroad. Consequently an
outraged Belli was forced to withdraw.
So began I believe, what
would lead to the illegal and wrongful conviction of Elizabeth
Diane Downs. This grave injustice was the result of an
investigation that was not just flawed, but was grossly corrupt.
Supported by a conforming and naive judiciary of wrongdoing in a
trial where perjury was applied at will. Where the Judiciary and
the Prosecution engaged in duplicitous behavior in order to pursue
an individual rather than any sense of justice. The Defense was
left wonting also, to the point where Diane (later) filed for
'ineffective assistance of counsel'. Try as he may, James Jagger
nevertheless allowed glaring holes in the Prosecutions case to go
by without question or even protest (which he later admitted to).
Prosecutorial flaws and lies that no doubt influenced the outcome
of the trial. On the Homepage I suggested this was a case of
'designer justice'. It is my view that Diane Downs was found
guilty 'before' she entered court. And that those who were
charged with prosecuting this case thought fit to merely provide a
plausible account of 'guilt'. But even in this endeavor, as will
be shown, they failed miserably.
This crime was committed in frenzy. It was not the work of a cool
and callous calculating mother as suggested by the Prosecution.
If that were the case such a mind would not have chosen this kind
of scenario. Incredible that having committed such a crime they
would then rush their victims to hospital where they may recover.
There are far better alternatives that would provide a much
greater opportunity to distance yourself from such a crime. It
makes no sense. Besides, if the intention was to kill all the
children as the Prosecution suggested, then the approximate
distance of '9 inches' from which the gun was said to have been
fired, is hardly sniper range. In the trunk of Diane's car was a
.38 handgun, a far better choice of weapon (if one were to have a
cool head intent on murder) than the established .22
semi-automatic Ruger they say was used in the crime. And if we
are dealing with this kind of mentality, why would you mess up a
brand new car if an old one was available at home?, as was the
case with Diane.
Diane Downs: Her Children Got in the Way of Her Love
by Joseph Geringer
Even though the
sun had long set over the verdant hills of Springfield, Oregon,
Thursday, May 19, 1983, remained as warm at night as it had at
noon. There was a quiet to the evening, the kind of languishing
stillness that sometimes thresholds a storm. But, the night staff
at McKenzie-Willamette Hospital felt no oncoming torrent, and,
after so-many years fighting unpredictable emergencies they often
found themselves with an innate power to feel something sinister
in the air. And, the professionals they were, they were always
pre-armed them, however, for the drama that unfolded at their
literal doorstep at approximately 10:48 p.m. No warning had come
until the red late-model Nissan bearing Arizona license plates
careened into the emergency drop-off, bleating its horn to scare
the devils from hell. The skeleton night shift all heard it; their
faces told them immediately that what they had anticipated a
quiet night in ER was not to be. Dr. John Mackey, physician in
charge, and the two nurses Rose Martin and Shelby Day felt the
familiar adrenaline. Receptionist Judy Patterson rolled back her
typewriter ledge and quickly forgot about the routine insurance
forms she had been updating.
In the driveway,
just beyond the double automatic doors of ER, a blonde woman in
her twenties waved them on; she looked ashen in the fluorescent
tube lighting, and she wildly pointed to the interior of her car.
shot my kids!" was all she seemed to know how to say. Patterson,
hearing the mother's words, did what she always did in emergencies
involving violent crime: She dialed for the police
Nurses Martin and
Day teetered when they looked through the windows of the Nissan.
Side panels were soaked in blood and amidst the blood lay three
small children, one in the front passenger seat, two in the back.
First glance told the nurses the children had been shot at very
close range. A golden-haired child up front, a girl, couldn't have
been any more than seven or eight, the RNs apprised; of the two in
the rear, one was a girl, maybe a trifle older than the other, and
a boy, merely a toddler.
This call was
unexpected, and it was bad, very bad. Personnel from intensive
care were summoned to assist ER, and a swat-like team of
white-coat professionals including top surgeon Fred Wilhite --
volleyed to the scene as the trio of injured youngsters were
carried in by weeping nurses and pale interns. As reinforcement
came, Dr. Mackey explained the situation to them in two taut
words, "Chest wounds!"
Two of the
children still breathed, although strenuously; the boy gasped for
air. The child found slumped in the front seat appeared beyond
help; despite frantic efforts by the doctors at the operating
table, the damage had been lethal. She was pronounced dead moments
after being wheeled to Emergency.
Only later did the
medics learn the children's names and ages Christie Downs, 8;
Cheryl Ann Downs, 7; and Danny Downs, 3 but names and ages
didn't matter yet; in fact, they were the least important factor
of this hour, this night, this calamity. What mattered is that
someone without a heart had deliberately attempted to murder three
kids in cold blood, and, despite the odds, despite a fate that
looked gloomy, the caretakers hastened to keep that fate at bay
and beat it at its own game: with deliberate intention.
attended to the two operable victims. Feeling the children
succumbing to severe blood loss and lack of oxygen, they performed
tracheotomies on them to free the flowing blood and salvage
much-needed air. Machines began to pump the little hearts and
revitalized the other organs. Despite the children's fragile
condition, Mackey and his experts kept them alive. Miraculously.
Author Ann Rule,
who relates the tragedy in her excellent book, Small Sacrifices,
writes, "One child was dead (Cheryl). One child (Christie) had
defied the odds and lived through profound blood loss, heart
stoppage and delicate surgery. One child (Danny) seemed stable,
but was at risk of paralysis. Who in the name of God could have
aimed a pistol at three small children and pulled the trigger?"
The Bushy-Haired Stranger (BHS)
Diane, didn't supply an answer. She told hospital receptionist
Patterson that she and her family had been driving home from
visiting a friend in nearby Marcola when a man, a "bushy-haired
stranger" type had waved down their car on a lonely span of
highway. Thinking he needed help, Diane paused to inquire. And
that was when, said a tearful Diane, the man pointed his gun
through her car window and loosened its barrel on her three
and Lane County police responded. To them she exacted the tale of
the ambush and an odd description of the vagabond. Reacting to the
story, the departments issued an emergency watch on the city and
county roads, fearing that there might be a madman roaming the
outskirts of Springfield, its lanes and byways. Squads drew into
action and the area described by Diane as the point of attack in
the vicinity of Marcola and Old Mohawk Road, a desolate spot
became the center of a manhunt.
Since the crime
had been purported to have occurred in the county, members of the
Sheriff's Office for Lane County became principle investigators.
Sergeant Robin Rutherford was the county's first man to approach
the children's mother at the hospital. When he arrived, the nurses
were tending to her arm, which bore a series of small, superficial
wounds marked between the elbow and the wrist from where she
had tried to ward off the gunman's blows. Seeing that Mrs. Downs'
injuries were minor and that she seemed to be in an unusual state
of calmness in fact, she seemed in full control of her senses --
he asked that she come with him to point out the exact spot, the
best she could in the dark, of the crime.
The site she
located by memory, near where two rural roads converged, was,
according to Ann Rule, a "most desolated spot (where) the river
pushed by in the dark on one side; on the other, a field of wild
phlox trembled in the wind..." It was not a spot a young woman
with three children should have stopped her car to speak to a
returned to the hospital, she was given the terrible news about
her middle child, Cheryl, as well as the status of her other two
children. She took the news with grace, but her attitude stunned
the hospital personnel who had expected her to turn hysterical;
she seemed too accepting. When told that Danny had a chance
of surviving, she replied in an almost-perplexed manner, "Do you
mean the bullet missed his heart? Gee whiz!"
The Investigation Begins
spoke with her in a private room at McKenzie-Willamette were
equally surprised at her attitude. One investigator, a sharp,
keen-witted veteran of the county's homicide squad who was aptly
named Dick Tracy, found her unlike other women whom he had
encountered after similar crises. In fact, he later defined her as
"very rational, considering what she had undergone." Together with
his partner on the case, detective Doug Welch, who also found
Diane Downs too stoic for a mother whose entire brood was just
shot, Tracy conducted an interview to garner some personal
background on the mother and her children as well as to begin
building a chronology of events leading up to the shooting.
To that point,
they had determined that the bullets that had been fired at the
kids were .22 caliber, shot from either a handgun or rifle;
detectives suspected a handgun. Powder burns on the children's
skin indicated that the angry weapon had been fired at an
extremely close proximity, especially those on the deceased girl,
Cheryl, who had been in the front seat. Blood splayed across the
car's doors, seats, windows and elsewhere indicated that the
murderer had discharged the gun from the left, or drivers' side,
which agreed with Diane's story claiming the intruder had reached
in through her window.
About the mother
herself, the detectives learned that she was 27 years old, was a
mail woman for the U.S. Postal Service and worked the Cottage
Grove division. Having previously been a letter carrier in
Chandler, Arizona, she recently divorced there (from a man named
Steve Downs) and, after obtaining a work transfer, relocated to
Oregon to be near her parents, Willa and Wes Frederickson. The
Fredericksons were former Arizonians who had moved to Oregon years
earlier. Wes Frederickson was also a post office employee.
Diane sketched for
her interviewers a quick history of that evening: According to
Diane, she and her children had eaten a fast dinner at home, then
left their small duplex home at 1352 Q Street in Springfield,
bound for a co-worker's home on rustic Sunderman Road. The friend,
Heather Plourd, had told Diane a few days earlier at the workplace
that she was thinking about buying a horse, and Diane had found an
ad in the newspaper about horse rentals that she figured Heather
might appreciate seeing. Not knowing Heather's phone number they
weren't intimate friends Diane decided to bring the
advertisement herself. The drive, she explained, offered a good
opportunity to get the kids out of the stale house for a couple of
On the way home
after a brief chat with Heather and her husband, Diane thought
that she would cut through Old Mohawk Road to the main highway.
She thought it might be fun to go sightseeing; the kids enjoyed
watching the moon from the unlit countryside. It was then, after
she turned onto Old Mohawk, that she spotted the man. He was
standing in the center of the gravel road, signaling, as if for
help. She described the man as "white...in his late
twenties...about five feet, nine, 150 to 170...dark hair, a
shag-wavy cut and a stubble of a beard." He wore "a Levi jacket
(and) an off-colored T-shirt."
She braked and got
out of her car. It was then that the stranger produced a pistol
from under his jacket and demanded that she turn over the keys to
her automobile. She refused, but in retaliation, said Diane, he
reached past her in through the driver's window and opened fire on
her family. When he then tried to reach for the car keys, she
fought back, outstepping him. But, as she slipped back into her
car, he fired one more time, at her now, striking her arm.
Slamming the gas pedal, her Nissan sped off and away. Her children
were hurt, she could see that, and thought only one thing: to get
them to the hospital as quickly as possible.
Tracy's mind had
wandered a moment while Diane spoke. He had read the doctor's
report on his treatment of Diane's arm injury: "A single bullet
entered her left forearm...it split in two as it shattered the
radius, and then exited, leaving two smaller wounds." As she
related her getaway from the man on the road, how the bullet
struck her arm, he couldn't help thinking that the place where she
was wounded is the exact same place other killers have shot
themselves to make it appear that they were attacked by a phony
But, he was not
would not! pass judgment until the evidence was in. And that
would not be for some time.
interview ended, Diane agreed to sign a search warrant on her
home. She admitted she owned a .38 caliber pistol, which she kept
for protection on her delivery route, and a .22 caliber rifle for
home safety, but both were unused. One lay cold, hidden under rags
in her trunk, the other collected dust on a shelf in her home.
around the hospital were busy. In the driveway, they prepared the
red Nissan Pulsar with the Arizona license plates for transporting
to the crime lab; for further investigation. In the morgue,
Sergeant Jon Peckels photographed the wounds on the dead girl.
Behind ER, detective Ray Poole collected evidentiary bloody
clothing removed from all three children. All personnel assigned
to this particular homicide knew, without a doubt, the weekend
ahead would mean little leisure time and a lot of pounding on
doors, question-asking and rattling of brain cells to figure out
this confounding, irritating and heartbreaking mystery.
helpless children had their bodies savagely blown open by a
gunner, the policemen didn't mind the overtime one bit. They
wanted the killer now.
Several nurses and
an investigator were bedside when Diane Downs was finally allowed
into the intensive care unit to see Christie, one of her two
surviving children. The spectators noted that, as she squeezed her
daughter's hand, murmuring, "I love you," she did so as devoid of
warmth as an icicle; her words were passed through clenched teeth.
Paul Alton, the investigator, noticed something else: that the
child's eyes, peeking from above an oxygen mask, took on the glaze
of fear when spotting her mom approaching.
"I happened to
glance at the heart rate monitor the pulse when Diane came
in," said he. "The scope showed Christie's heart was beating 104
times a minute (but) when Diane took hold of her...that scope
jumped to 147!"
plainclothesmen checked with the Plourds to ensure Diane and her
kids had visited them the previous evening as Diane had asserted.
Mrs. Plourd confirmed the visitation, as well as the reason for
it: to give her an ad about horses.
supervision of Tracy and Kurt Welch, state troopers searched
Diane's Springfield residence, requisitioning several items,
including a diary that they found, the aforementioned rifle (a
Glenfield .22 caliber located where Diane had said) and a box of
standard .22 caliber shells, same as those taken from the
item, however, interested Dick Tracy: a photo of a young man in a
beard that shared space atop the television with other pictures of
Diane. Tracy was cognizant of the fact that Diane had made a phone
call to a man in Arizona, a former boyfriend supposedly, not long
after arriving at the hospital. Before she knew the state of her
children, before alerting her ex-husband and the father of the
children, she acted as if compelled to call this Arizona man.
the photo of the man, wondered if he was looking at the object of
Diane's urgent phone call.
Interesting Side Bars
Fred Hugi of the
District Attorney's staff sensed something foul almost immediately
after assigned by County DA Pat Horton to prosecute the case. In
preparation for what the DA knew would eventually lead to a murder
trial, it was Hugi's job to follow the revelations of the case as
they surfaced from the origin. As far as Hugi quickly ascertained,
the fetus of something evil had taken form in the embryonic
blackness of that rural roadway in Lane County. Whatever happened
Thursday night, the facts began to come to light in a most
suspicious manner and unlike those explained by the mother, Diane
new to the DA's investigative squad, nevertheless knew mischief
when he saw it. And he saw it first in the faces of two perplexed,
scared youngsters, strapped to tubes and cords for life in a lowly
lit hospital room. Never one for sentiment, even he was surprised
when he felt tears rolling down his cheeks as he gazed upon
Christie and Danny Downs. And when he heard from Paul Alton the
reaction of Christie when she had seen her mother for the first
time since the shooting, he knew it was not the normal reaction of
any child who, in pain and surrounded by foreign faces, would have
been overjoyed to see the one person in their life to rekindle
Hugi ordered a
round-the-clock guard on the children. He also commissioned a
child psychologist to remain at Christie's side during the day, to
build up a trust that the child may, when more hale, confide in
her the events on Mohawk Road.
Doubt in the
mother's story was building. Over the coming days, her version of
what happened that night changed slightly. Her placement of the
killer when he fired the gun altered in several re-tellings as did
her own actions in the face of the supposed gunman. When Doug
Welch interviewed Steve Downs, Diane's ex-husband in Arizona,
Welch learned that Diane owned three, not two, weapons
and one was a .22 caliber handgun, which Diane did not mention.
Welch found Steve
Downs an open, erstwhile talker who seemed glad to be rid of his
ex wife who, he said, liked to bed-hop. An electrical contractor
living in Chandler, Arizona, he carried no grudge and seemed to be
happy just to live his current bachelor life. He admitted that he
and Diane were "still friends," but that their occasional phone
conversations never extended beyond the kids' health and
scholastic welfare. He seemed genuinely upset with the bad news
and sincerely, fatherly hopeful that Christie and Danny would pull
through. He made immediate plans to fly to Oregon to see them.
Welch asked Steve
Downs if he knew who the Arizona man might be, and the former
spouse, not surprised by the question, replied that he must mean
the married guy with whom Diane had been having a torrid affair
for some time before leaving Arizona. He was a postal worker in
Chandler and, whatever happened in their love life, the tryst
finally severed. The man returned to his understanding wife, but
Diane still seemed to carry the torch, hot and heavy. Her
infatuation with this married man was maniacal, it seemed, but he
didn't seem the type to leave a doting wife for a woman with three
growing, hungry kids.
When Welch asked
about weapons the couple had owned, and which ones Diane had taken
with her to Oregon, Downs told him that Diane had "a .22 rifle, a
.38 revolver and a .22 Ruger Mark IV nine-shot semi-automatic
pistol." She used to practice her shooting at the local
Chandler-area range. Why she carried guns? She was a woman and
felt she needed protection on her route, Steve Downs suggested.
Welch felt he had to ask the obvious: "Steve, would your ex-wife
harm your kids in order to get [the married] back?"
"No way!" the
other shook his head. "She loves those kids."
afterwards, Diane denied she still owned the .22 caliber.
Evidence Begins to Tell the Tale
No one in the DA's
office, especially Fred Hugi, believed that there had been an
aggressor on Old Mohawk Road. Since the beginning of time,
wrongdoers have used mythical abductors and thugs as alibis to
cover their own or a close friend's crime. In law enforcement
jargon, these make-believe violators are niched under the
all-encompassing term bushy-haired stranger, "the guy who
isn't there," says author Ann Rule, "the man the defendant claims
is really responsible...Of course the BHS can never be
produced in court."
Rule points to a
satirical remark authored by Hugi in the midst of the Downs case.
Hugi had side mouthed, "We estimate that if the BHS is ever
caught, the prison doors will have to be opened to let out all the
wrongly convicted defendants."
Paul Alton, Hugi's
central fact-finder, summed up his and the investigators'
misgivings: "I don't buy it...She goes out to Sunderman to see
Heather Plourd, she decides to go sightseeing and heads toward
Marcola...Suddenly, she decides she'll veer off on the Old Mohawk
Road. Say we buy the story that she's sightseeing. Even if it's
almost pitch dark, she's sightseeing...How do we explain that the
shooter knew she was going to be there? If he's following her in
his own car...he could trail her onto Old Mohawk. But she tells us
that the stranger is [in front of her, standing in the road]
waving her down. How does he get there?"
To the trained
hawkshaw's eyes, the picture was incorrect incomplete even
retouched. If the killer wanted the car, wouldn't he have shot the
driver (Diane) first? She was the adult and would have been his
biggest obstacle, not the three tiny kids huddling in the car.
What would a "bushy-haired stranger" have to gain in shooting
Christie, Cheryl and Danny Downs?
Over the weekend,
forensic scientist James O. Pex from the Oregon State Police
Department had examined the interior of the Downs automobile to
produce some thoughtful findings. As reported to Hugi and his
squad, Pex had found a couple of .22 caliber U-shell copper
casings, ejected after firing. No bullet had penetrated the body
of the car, indicating that all bullets between the children
they suffered five bullet wounds -- had hit their live marks.
Blood smeared the side door of the front seat where Cheryl had
tumbled after being shot, and pools of blood stained the rear seat
where Danny and Christie had been hit. But, Pex apprised, "No
blood at all on the driver's side, no smears on the steering
If a bullet had
hit Diane as she was getting into her car, as she said, it would
have been reflex for her to grab that wound with her idle hand.
There would have been blood on that hand, then, as she tried to
steer the car from the scene, blood on the steering wheel.
Also: When a
bullet is fired, he explained, the barrel discharges a small
amount of smokeless gunpowder frontwards towards the target. Such
powder particles were detected in three angles of the car on the
right panel and in a sweep along the back seat. There were no
particles, however, on the driver's panel.
What did all this
mean? It could very well mean that whoever did the shooting had
been seated in the driver's seat.
And that Diane
Downs shot herself just before she reached the hospital.
A scouring of the
entire crime area had failed to produce the murder weapon, but
ejected casings from a spent .22 caliber (matching those in the
car) were discovered in the vicinity. Divers even plunged into the
Mohawk River that runs through the topography, but could not find
the gun. Unfortunately, the river churned here and ran a rapid
course that time of year, in the spring, and experts determined
that had the gun been tossed into the waters, it would have been
flushed away miles on the river's current. Hugi, who figured the
courts hadn't much of a case against Diane Downs without the
murder weapon, even went to look for the gun himself. He waded
along the river, turned over loose stones, kicked through the reed
grass, scuffed the toe of his shoe through the ditch alongside the
road to upturn loose soil but nothing.
To sink his
spirits further, he learned that Christie Downs had suffered a
stroke, a direct symptom of the gunshot wound. Her speech was
distorted and, the physicians told him, she may never speak again.
The left side of the brain, the side that controlled the ability
to speak, had been injured. But, there was hope, albeit slight.
Doctors prayed that, because she was so young, they could reverse
the deterioration with therapy and restore her slurring tongue.
There was no gun
to condemn Diane. And perhaps the only live witness to the murder,
the murderer's own daughter, would be unable to accuse her mother.
But, Hugi, more than ever believed that Diane was guilty when he
was shown the diary and the letters confiscated from her home.
They both reeked of a longing for the Arizona man, her lost love,
a man who, by the tone of the pages, had deserted her. The cause
of his desertion may have been and the diary hinted this that
his wife had simply stepped in to put the clamps down.
caught Hugi's attention. It was dated April 21, less than a month
before the crime on Mohawk Road. Like so many entries, it was
written in the form of a letter addressed to someone else, but
used as a meter to weigh her own thoughts on such a thing. This
passage, like most of the others, was addressed to her former
lover, and read:
I'm so confused. What could she have said or done to make you act
this way? I spoke to you this morning for the last time. It broke
my heart to hear you say 'don't call or write'. ...I still think
of you as my best friend and my only lover, and you keep telling
me to go away and find somebody else. You have got to be kidding..."
Hugi resolved to
get to the bottom of this business. He kept asking himself, who
is he, and is he involved in any way in the murder scheme? He
doubted it, but yet he could not get over the feeling that her
obsession with this ex-boyfriend had driven her to lift that gun
against her own children. They were obstacles in the path of
singly obtaining him and if he was correct in his guesswork,
would the man's wife be Diane's next victim?
were visions of fantasies; they spoke of masturbation engendered
by thoughts of her one true lover. In one letter, between
references to sexual self-pleasure, she rhymes:
"I love you
more/than could your wife/Yet it's brought sorrow/to my life/I
just keep hoping/and hanging on/How much longer/can I be strong?"
Perhaps she could
"be strong" no longer, Hugi wondered.
Before the weekend
ended, he dispatched two of his investigators to Chandler,
Arizona, to find out who this man of her wet dreams really was.
The week of May
23rd was a sad one, yet it brought optimism. Cheryl Downs' funeral
took place on the 25th to much bereavement from family, intimate
friends and the Springfield community. But, yet good news came
from McKenzie-Willamette Hospital: both Christie and Danny were
out of danger. One of Christie's arms was paralyzed and her speech
was garbled for now, albeit doctors believed capable of being
revitalized; Danny would probably be crippled for the rest of his
life, but his brain had not been affected and he would live.
Both kids had been
lucky, totally-against-the-odds lucky.
Diane in Wonderland
Doug Welch and
Paul Alton were dispatched to Arizona to use their professional
experience to dig up Diane Downs' past and anyone, including her
former lover, who came along with the shovel work. Their trip
during the last weeks of May proved fruitful. They learned just
what they wanted to know about their central suspect, Ms. Diane
One of the first
things they accomplished was proving that neither Steve Downs nor
the mysterious Arizona man were Diane's "bushy-haired stranger".
Witnesses verified seeing them or being in their company in
Arizona at the precise hour of the crime.
also spoke with several of Diane's former co-workers from the
Chandler branch post office. Their opinions of her varied. Some,
it was clear, didn't like her at all; no one praised her. "Some of
the informants describes a woman with a single-mindedness, a
channeling of ambition that they had rarely, if ever,
encountered," pens Ann Rule in Small Sacrifices. "Others
disagreed; Diane Downs had been flippy dippy, up and down, mad and
sad. A few a very few witnesses spoke on her behalf, and then
only with faint praise."
What emerged after
the postal interviews was a postcard picture that might have been
beautiful had its colors not run together. She appeared to be a
headstrong woman, but headstrong in a tilted way; her priorities
were overblown and, most of all, out of sync. She jumped in the
sack with men right and left, but refused to deliver copies of
Playboy to customers on her route.
lover worked at the Chandler station, too, but the investigators
interviewed him separately, at his home. To his credit, they liked
him; they liked his honesty and directness. He insisted that his
wife be there at his side while he candidly discussed even his
sexual experiences with his old flame. His wife, he said, knew the
history and had forgiven him. The couple had reconciled and he
wanted nothing more to do with Diane Downs.
While the memory
of his extramarital affair was undoubtedly painful to him, he
answered the detectives' questions cordially and succinctly. He
had met Diane at work in late 1981 after her divorce from Steve
Downs. The man was magnetized by the female's sexy gestures and
her revealing clothing. Loving his wife, he was nonetheless taken
with this new girl at the mail bin who blared easy virtue in loose
midriff and sans bra. Their friendship evolved overnight
into a string of sleazy hotel room encounters.
expected the affair to end swiftly as had all her relationships
none of them had lasted with other men he knew she had gone with.
But as the months rolled on, he found that she was not intending
to let go; in fact, she was pulling tight on his private time and
urging him to divorce his wife as soon as possible. Suddenly, it
dawned on him he was up and over in a relationship he never
intended to move from off the bedsprings.
He tried to break
their seeing each other, but each time Diane protested violently.
"The affair continued and continued," he said, "and I was with
Diane all day at work, and I'd be with her all night long and it
was every day for months. I basically didn't have time to think,
you know. I was with Diane all the time."
Welch and Alton
then noted something that Diane's ex-lover added that hit a
high-note because it complemented what their boss Fred Hugi had
been contemplating all along that the Downs children may have
gotten in the way of their mother's love life. Despite her pleas,
he refused to see when she was with Danny, Christie and Cheryl. "I
wouldn't be with her if the children were around," he explained.
"It was an affair it didn't seem right."
guilt for many months, the man decided to say adios to Diane. The
girlfriend's remonstrations had been incessant, and one night in
February, 1983, he severed them. "Diane asked me who I loved the
most her or my wife. I said I loved my wife. She blew up. She
ranted and raved and screamed at me. I'd never seen anyone
act that way before."
When he raced
home, Diane followed him, even up the steps of his own home with
his wife present.
"She pounded on
our door all night long," his wife recalled. "Then she called on
the phone." But, she reappeared the following day, confronting the
wife on the stoop. "She began to tell me what I should do about my
marriage, my relationship with my husband everything...I slammed
the door in her face."
It had been what
the husband called "the final straw" and he never saw her again.
Not long after
that chaotic night, Diane put in a transfer to Oregon. She
relocated to Springfield to be near her parents.
But, the letters
and the phone calls to her old boyfriend continued.
One thing more.
The lawmen asked if he had any knowledge about guns that Diane
might have owned. He did. One of them, he said, was a .22 caliber
continued to deny she owned it.
Elizabeth Diane Downs
Diane Downs was
born August 7, 1955, in Phoenix, Arizona. Her parents Willadene
and Wes Frederickson named her Elizabeth Diane. (As the years
passed she trimmed her name to simply Diane.) Having wed as teens
and still in their teens when Diane came along, the parents awed
at their having a human life to maintain; and while they loved
their baby, they fell short in their ability to emanate a warm
fondness a child inherently expects.
As a school
student, Diane was bright but not one of the in-crowd.
Disciplining, old-time-Baptist parents forbade trendy clothing and
fads, resulting in their daughter being considered a washout.
Wherever she went, she was the "square," the ugly duckling.
Rule's Small Sacrifices, Diane's father allegedly molested
her when she was 11 years old. Diane told authorities that the
occurrences never led to fornication, but she was fondled and
caressed. On weekends, Diane claimed that he took her on rides to
the desert; once away from civilization, he would make her remove
her blouse and bra as he watched.
Diane said that
these perversions ended as quietly as they had begun, and Wes
Frederickson became more of a typical father -- as if cessation
would eradicate all memories. He allowed her to enroll in a charm
school when she was fourteen. And that was the beginning of a new
Diane, one who with her hair cut stylishly and her garb up to
date the local boys began to notice. And Diane, hungry for love
by this time, responded by being the babe with the flashy
eyes, swaying hips and silly, come-hither giggle.
Steven Downs, one
of the boys at Moon Valley High, fell instantly in love with the
pretty and now suddenly shapely blonde, Diane. The pair became an
item and roved together, everywhere they went, arm linked in arm.
After graduation, they parted for a spell he to the Navy, she to
Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College. They corresponded regularly,
but if Diane had promised to "save it" for Steve, she had
weakened, for she was expelled from the religious school after a
year for promiscuity.
home and the couple wed on November 13, 1973.
From the starting
gun, the marriage was, at best, shaky. Steve worked half the time
and Diane found her high school sweetheart less a noble escape and
more of a repetition of her domineering papa. She had wanted love
and realized too late that Steve was not that love.
She found solace
when she became pregnant; carrying a baby made her feel for the
first time that she was actually in charge of a love that was
all-dependent on her. It was a feeling of power she'd never before
realized, and she relished in the delight that she was the
helmswoman of her own path to total love. But, after Christie was
born in October, 1974, it was back to serving Steve his meals
nevermind that she had a baby to care for and worked part-time at
a local thrift store, too. To keep from falling apart emotionally,
she needed to feel that emotion once again of the seed of love
stirring inside her. She again became pregnant. Cheryl Lynn
followed her older sister into this world on January, 1976.
and 1977, Diane took the kids and ran away from Steve several
times, but she always came back. Steve would hunt her down to one
of her many relative's homes. But, once reunited, it was
monkey-chasing-weasel time all over again. He was unhappy, she was
unhappy, but the marriage waned on.
for something to happen," writes Rule. "Hostile but
passive, she was both bored and angry. Life was passing quickly by
her; none of the things she promised herself had come true."
She decided again
to conceive but not Steve's baby. By that time, 1978, the family
had moved to Mesa where both Diane and Steve worked for the same
mobile home manufacturer. On the assembly line Diane found her
"stud," whom she passionately seduced. Her tummy swelled again and
she floated in wonderland, drugged on love. Danny was born four
days after Christmas, 1979.
Even though the
child was not his, Steve accepted the boy as his own. Still, the
marriage had reached its ebb and, within a year, the Downses
decided to divorce. Diane moved in with the father of Danny, and
it was during this time she began to change. Now out of the wifely
manacles imposed by society and the Baptists, she seemed to ignore
her duties as mother, also. The opiate of her children's love had
worn off. She preferred to work, to stay away from home, to throw
the youngsters on any babysitter she could find.
One sitter relates an incident that, even though she didn't know
it at the time, foreshadowed tragedy. "Diane put everything before
those kids. If Danny wanted attention, she would push him
away...but the worst thing was one time, I caught Cheryl jumping
on the bed, and I said that was not permitted. I made her sit in a
chair and think about it. Cheryl sat quietly for awhile, and then
she looked up. 'Do you have a gun here?' 'Of course not. Why?' 'I
want to shoot myself. My mom says I'm bad.'"
found a full-time position with the U.S. Post Office in 1981 and
was stationed in Chandler. It was there she met a married man and
fell in love. But, for once, it was the other party, not Diane, to
make the decision when and where the love affair would end.
As she had done
mentally to her own kids, her lover physically walked out of her
she ran home to Oregon, but not quite understanding, nor acceptant
of the fact, that this time she didn't have it her way.
In June, Assistant
DA Fred Hugi met with his investigative squad to review its
findings. Whether or not to arrest Diane Downs was the issue
unsettled. He wanted to see her taken in, but not at the expense
of the county office, which would take extreme heat were the case
thrown out in pre-trial. Nevertheless, Hugi and his men were
convinced she was guilty, but they feared that without the
presence of a murder weapon or a viable witness who literally saw
her do the shooting, much of what they had gathered to date would
be, in all fairness, considered circumstantial evidence and
unacceptable in an American courtroom.
Not enough to
The team examined
what they had collected so far, among the evidence a small number
of .22 caliber bullet casings found on Old Mohawk Road, a very
graphic display of carnage in Diane's red Nissan Pulsar, the
estimation of the bullets' paths from an accepted authority, a
diary that screamed Diane's obsession for ex-lover, her letters
colored with pornographic daydreams, and testimony from two men
(Steve Downs and former lover) who swore she indeed owned
something she continued to disclaim: a .22 caliber handgun.
expressive piece of evidence came from the pen of forensic expert
Jim Pex who wrote that it was his estimation that some of the
unfired 22 caliber shells found in Diane's home had once been
worked through the mechanism of the same gun that shot the
children. Impressive this, but until the very gun was retrieved,
Hugi knew, the court could refute it.
also been able to shed doubt on Diane's story that she
immediately raced for the hospital after the attack on her
kids. By testimony of hospital personnel, she arrived outside ER
that fateful night at roughly 10:48 p.m., screaming. "Somebody
just shot my kids!" Estimated time she had left the Plourds' home
was, according to Heather Plourd herself, 9:45 p.m. The detectives
knew that the shooting, then, must have occurred at approximately
10:15 in order to give Diane enough time to re-gather her senses,
survey the condition of her kids, then drive (as she had claimed)
immediately to McKenzie-Willamette Hospital to reach it by 10:48
p.m. But, in the meantime, a witness had come forward, explaining
that he had seen what he was sure was Diane's red Nissan, near
10:20 p.m., moving very slowly -- five to seven miles an hour
along Old Mohawk Road.
"The car," said
witness Joseph Inman, "wasn't being driven critically."
tale, but, so far...just a tale.
But, the legal
wheels behind Hugi believed also that Diane was guilty, and the DA
maneuvered the wheels to spin to show his support of the long
hours his assistant was dedicating to catch a child killer. In
Lane County, a grand jury assembled behind closed doors. The
panelists wanted to hear directly from those main players that
list of testifiers that Hugi had given the DA among them her
former lover, Mr. Inman, Heather Plourd, Jim Pex and others,
eventually Diane Downs herself.
things were happening. County Judge Gregory Foote placed the two
surviving Downs youngsters in the protective custody of the
state's child services bureau. This meant that, for the meantime,
Diane was not allowed to see her kids. That she felt she was being
treated like a criminal was, in reality, a nose-thumb by Hugi
after she violently threatened to remove the children from the
hospital and take them away if detectives wouldn't stop hounding
confined to his bed, was given full protection by the police
department until he would be medically released, at which time he
would follow his sibling into a suitable foster family. The home
where Christie was transported was kept a secret, her whereabouts
known by only a few authorities.
In the middle of
the grand jury's summons process and the ongoing search for more
evidence, in particularly the vanished gun, the sheriff's office
announced layoffs. State funds dropped and Paul Alton was laid
off. Doug Welch and another of Hugi's top men, Kurt West, were
given a month's notice. All of Hugi's investigators, in fact, were
let go or redeployed.
coming winter and into the spring of 1984, Diane was fast becoming
the media's favorite star. Newshounds had picked up on her plight.
Some medium distrusted her, but to most she was a bouncy maiden
maybe not in distress but picked on by mean old Uncle Sam who
couldn't find the bushy-haired beast of mythology. Because she
looked a little like Princess Diana, she became the darling
fashion plate of the American Pacific Coast.
papers called her "Princess Die."
But, Hugi saw her
as anything but a princess, a good or a bad one. She was more like
the wicked witch, creating havoc at every point in life. Her kids
had been swept from her custody, she was indignant, and sought
revenge. She balked to the press that she was misunderstood, was a
victim of prejudice and harassment. Ignoring her bravado, Hugi let
her talk, refusing to back down. For that matter, he endeavored to
bite her every footstep. And that is why he chose to let
investigators Welch and West turn up the heat before they
surrendered to the layoff. They dogged her.
Downs called for what she hoped would turn into a peace treaty, a
meeting with the two detectives to explain her side of the story
and pass on further information she had not divulged since the
night of the attack on Old Mohawk Road. At first, the detectives
bought it, hoping this new revelation might produce something
startlingly new. But, sensing they were being conned, the session
led to what would become known, according to Ann Rule, as "the
At the parley,
Diane explained that she believed the killer was someone she might
have known; he had called her by name. If true, this information
would have made a great impact on the entire case. But, to the two
men gathered in their office with her, it was a clear charade, an
attempt to delay the proceedings she felt moving against her and
possibly even throw the investigators off her trail altogether.
Insulted, her listeners turned the table and fell upon Diane
verbally with such an interrogation that she was left the deceived
instead of the deceiver.
Why was she
telling them this now? She didn't know. How did he know what road
she was going to take home from Heather's? She didn't know. Was he
a friend from Oregon or Arizona? She didn't know. What purpose
would he have to kill her kids? She didn't know. Did she really
rush to the hospital immediately after the kids were shot or did
she pause a while? She didn't know. Why didn't she try to stop the
gunman when he began blasting away at the kids in the Nissan? She
didn't know the answer to that either.
And when they
asked her point blank if she tried to kill her kids because they
ruined her chances with her lover...well, she had an answer to
that. She called them names and threatened them and told them they
were all "fed up". And stormed out.
Whether or not it
was a ploy for sympathy just in case she needed some in the
event of a jury trial or whether she merely needed to feel that
"love" once again within her she went out and got pregnant, once
again from one of her favorite studs. She made sure to explain the
symbolic meaning of her action to a TV reporter: "I got pregnant
because I miss Christie, and I miss Danny and I miss Cheryl so
much...You can't replace children but you can replace the
effect that they give you. And they give me love, they give me
satisfaction, they give me stability, they give me a reason to
live and a reason to be happy..."
And a reason to
perhaps escape death row,
Hugi sneered, watching her performance on the tube.
the counselor put in charge of mentally raising Christie from her
nightmares was making excellent progress in the meantime. The
child began to talk, to remember, to face reality. While Krogdahl
tiptoed through her treatment, avoiding the murder scenario for a
long time, she got Christie to speak about her family life, and
her mother. Christie admitted that Diane had hit her and her
brother and sister "lots". And when the day had come, the
therapist asked her to recall what happened the night of what
Christie called "that terrible thing":
"Was there anyone
there that night that you didn't know?" asked Krogdahl, referring
to the stranger on the dark road.
"No," the girl
"Were Danny and
"Why wasn't Cheryl
A pause, then,
"Do you know who
was shooting, Christie?"
"I think----" But
Christie could not muster the words. Krogdahl didn't push and let
it go, for now.
Hugi decided to
bite the bullet. Experts told him that he had enough evidence, and
they believed he had a strong case. But, he would need to have to
recreate that "terrible thing" in court, piece all the puzzle
fragments together in such a way so that the panel of jurors saw
what he saw and totally believe.
The grand jury was
wrapping up after nine months of interviews; they had spoken to,
quizzed, and deliberated on the words of many including Diane
Downs and balanced at the end of those nine months the tomes of
testimony they possessed. They handed down an indictment: one
charge of murder, two charges of attempted murder, and two charges
of criminal assault.
The state of
Oregon was going for the child killer's throat.
On February 28,
1984, police cuffed Diane as she was alighting from her car in the
parking lot of the post office.
Preparing for Battle
Pat Horton, along with Lane County Sheriff David Burks, hosted a
press conference following Diane's arrest. Horton told the press,
"The one thing that underscored this investigation is patience.
The real battle...is in the courtroom."
there by the droves, salivating over the battle indeed to come.
Their newspapers and their magazines already announced that Diane
Downs had been taken into custody and that, hell, the look-alike
Princess Di might very well be a murderess after all. Time
magazine was there, and the Washington Post was there, and
journalists from city papers as far away as New York City were
there. Most were professional in their reporting, while some,
tabloid-like, tumbled across both Springfield, Oregon, and
Chandler, Arizona, finding anyone who knew Diane Downs, or even
talked to her once.
When the Eugene
Register-Guard found Diane's father, Wes Frederickson, the
paper noted he was gallante to the end: "If my daughter did
it, then I believe, in fact, she should pay. But nothing can take
away the love a father has for his kids."
In the wake of the
impending trial, Diane sought as her counselor the brilliant and
highly esteemed attorney Melvin Belli; because of the high profile
the Downs case generated, Belli wanted to take it on. But, he had
personal plans, unbreakable, and would defend Diane only if the
trial could be postponed a couple of months after the
already-slated May, 1984 calendar. The courts refused to budge.
Hugi had waited long enough and delaying it might mean delaying it
again for the pregnant Diane to give birth. Too much work had been
expended, too many peoples' time to delay the inevitable.
"Fred Hugi had
twenty-four volumes of evidence, statements, follow-ups,
transcriptions of tapes a mountain of possibilities to be
winnowed down, and shaped, and molded for his case," asserts Ann
Rule in Small Sacrifices. "He would work eighteen- to
twenty-four hour days. And so would the rest of his team."
Diane was forced
to find another lawyer quickly. She chose criminal attorney Jim
Jagger, a man noted for his down-home but effective manner.
What was to be a
six-week trial opened May 10, 1984 in Eugene at the Lane County
Courthouse, courtroom Number 3, the largest of the rooms of
justice in the old building. The jury panel consisted of nine
women. Judge Foote, the man who had taken Christie and Danny Downs
from their suspect mother, presided. Young, intense, he was noted
for his fairness.
The citizenry of
the county turned out for the sensation; people across America
were still divided over the guilt/innocence of Diane Downs was
she a martyr or a devil? and those no-names who shared the
spectator's seats with the paparazzi, the witnesses and the
families felt honored.
In his opening
remarks, Fred Hugi presented a motive her fixation for a married
man who felt that her kids should not be part of their fantasy
life and a method the .22 caliber Ruger pistol that she bought
in Arizona and denied having owned in Oregon. He read passages
from her diary screaming her love for a man who didn't want her as
she wanted him; and, to some titillation of the court, he read
aloud Diane's masturbation poem. He promised to paint over the
next weeks a real picture of the cruelty that made Diane Downs
Counsel for the
defense Jagger conceded, in turn, that there had been an
obsession, but not so dark as to have led his client to destroy
the three people she loved most in the world even beyond lover
her own children. He pointed to her childhood, to her alleged
molestation as a child, even to her promiscuity that he saw as a
relevance to that dysfunctional experience. But, a murderess? No,
for he intended to show that Diane's story of a man on the Mohawk
Road with a gun was not a falsehood.
proceedings paused on May 14 so that the jurors could experience
for themselves the physical scene of the crime. Hugi transported
them via a chartered bus to Old Mohawk Road, parallel to the
river. Though daylight, the prosecutor accentuated the state of
the road at the time of the shootings, relating the ebony of that
night, the loneliness, the sparks of gunfire that shattered the
gloom, the high emotion. Before the day ended, jurors were then
led to the county auto pound to see the red Nissan death car; he
wanted them to gaze into its interior and to feel the kids'
Back in court
during the week, the first of the state's witnesses were brought
forth they comprised mostly personnel from McKenzie-Willamette
Hospital where Cheryl Downs died and where doctors struggled to
save the other two Downs children.
Nurse Rose Martin
recalled mother Diane's peculiar attitude toward what had just
happened. "She asked how the children were, and I told her the
doctors were in there working on them," Martin remembered. "And
then she the mother laughed, and she said, 'Only the best for
my kids!' and she laughed again and said, 'Well, I have
Dr. John Mackey,
who was in charge of ER the evening of the murder, described the
children's chest wounds and the medical team's first, spontaneous
efforts of life saving. He then recollected his observation of
Diane: "She was extremely composed. She was unbelievably
composed. I couldn't believe she was a family member. There were
no tears...no disbelief...no, 'Why did this happen to me?'"
Carleen Elbridge could not get over the fact that Diane, a mother
of three severely wounded youngsters, complained about having to
be seen in public without makeup.
trial, witnesses came and went, each making an impact, some more
than others. But, the highpoint the turning point, the
riveting point came when Christie Downs was brought to the
stand. Quivering, tear-streaked she was ushered to the stand by
Fred Hugi. It was clear that he detested the moment, to bring a
child face on against her mother, but the moment was needed if
American Justice was to be played out.
Hugi, pale, jaw
tight, but with a fatherly voice, led the examination of little
Christie Downs. From time to time, he handed her Kleenex while she
paused to wipe her cheeks; he waited until she regained herself
whenever she broke down; usually after her eyes and her mother's
momentarily met; he didn't rush her, and he remained gentle. When
she spoke, and her voice might be muffled under her sobs, he
clarified the question so that the jurors would completely
understand the tintinnabulation of that tiny voice.
He loved this
little child; it was obvious in the way he looked at her, spoke to
inhaled, and didnt seem to exhale until it was over. And then --
especially then -- breath came short.
Hugi began by
explaining to the girl the importance of telling the truth on the
stand; she understood. Giving her time to relax, and her voice to
become sufficiently audible to the courtroom, he then asked her
several routine questions about her family, her schooling,
herself. Feeling that she was ready for the heavy stuff, he
maneuvered into the day of the crime, her visit with her family to
Heather Plourd's home on Sunderman Road in order to give Mrs.
Plourd the clipping from the newspaper about horse rentals.
visibly shaken. Hugi patted her shoulder and gave her a reassuring
smile. He gave her a moment to recover before proceeding.
Reassuring that she was OK, he resumed his line of questioning
about what Diane did with her children.
"She leaned over
to the back seat and shot Danny," Christie said.
then? Hugi prompted her. "What happened after Danny got shot?"
The child caved in
under her tears, and Hugi hugged her. Knowing this must come and
wanting to get it over with, he gave her time to find her voice
once again. Then quietly, sympathetically he went on. He gingerly
rephrased his question, for by this time the court had already
gathered what Diane Downs did after she shot Danny.
" Do you remember
when you got shot?" Hugi asked her.
"Who shot you?"
"My mom," she said
Guilty As Sin
pathetic moment, the tone for the rest of the trial was set.
Everything else, all other words, were anticlimactic. Diane Downs
was as guilty as sin. Outside the walls of the courtroom, too,
Americans who had refused to believe that a mother could
consciously pull a trigger on three harmless children, her
children, surrendered. She had been villified, justly, and the
cross that they thought was being nailed together to crucify a
martyr became suddenly an instrument of deserved justice.
On June 14, 1984,
Judge Foote read aloud the jury's unanimous verdict. Guilty of
attempted murder in the first degree. Guilty of a second account
of attempted murder in the first degree. Guilty of first-degree
assault. Guilty of another count of first-degree assault. Guilty
Oregon at the time
did not impose the death sentence, but in the subsequent
sentencing, the judge sought to deprive Diane Downs from the
daylight of liberty forevermore. After decreeing a life term, plus
an additional fifty years for using a firearm, he expressed, "The
Court hopes the defendant will never again be free. I've come as
close to that as possible."
verdict and the sentencing, the court recessed while Diane gave
birth to a beautiful child, whom she named Amy. The father of the
baby denied her and, in time, a caring family adopted Amy.
In 1987, Diane
briefly escaped from the Oregon Women's Correctional Center, where
she had been incarcerated. After her recapture, she was
transported to the high-maximum Clinton Correctional Institution
in New Jersey, where she sits today.
lover and his wife remain happily married.
Steve Downs still
lives in Oregon.
Christie and Danny, survived the ordeal. Danny is confined to a
wheelchair, but is a happy boy. Christie has grown into a very
content teenager. Both consider the ending of their story to be
In 1986, they
moved into the home of their new loving adopted parents, Fred and
This story is
taken primarily from a book by Ann Rule entitled Small