10:48 p.m., May 19, 1983: a red Nissan sports car pulled into the McKenzie-Willamette Hospital ER in Springfield, Oregon. A young woman rushed out of the driver side, shouting for help: “Someone killed my kids!”
Inside were three children, two girls and a boy, covered in blood.
They had been shot multiple times at close range; 7-year-old Cheryl was already dead. The two other children were barely clinging to life: 8-year-old Christie had suffered a stroke from immense blood loss, and 3-year-old Danny was paralyzed from a bullet wound to his spine. Their mother, 27-year-old postal worker Diane Downs, had a minor gunshot wound to her left forearm.
Det. Doug Welch of the Lane County Sheriff’s Department was called to come and question her about what happened. Downs said that she had been coming home from a friend’s house and had taken an unfamiliar back road to go “sightseeing.” After the children had fallen asleep, with Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” playing on the cassette player, she noticed a shaggy- or bushy-haired man on the side of the road, gesturing for her to pull over. She did, and then turned the car off, took the keys out of the ignition, and got out of the car to see what was wrong.
She said the man told her, “I want your car.”
She replied, “You gotta be kidding me!” She said the man then shoved her aside, pointed the gun into the car, and began shooting.
So she pretended to toss the keys away to distract him. When he looked away, she pushed him away from the car and got back inside, then drove “like a lunatic” straight to the hospital. It was during this scuffle, she claimed, when he shot her.
The police put out an APB for the “bushy-haired man” Downs described as her attacker.
But to Welch and other officers, her story just didn’t seem to hang together. Who goes “sightseeing” in the dark? Why would someone pull over and get out of the car for a creepy-looking dude on a deserted road?
Other red flags began popping up. Downs’ wound had been meticulously bandaged when she arrived at the hospital, but her right arm was remarkably clean, considering the amount of blood inside the car.
Welch was also struck by how “emotionally flat” she was. Hospital staff, including Dr. Steven Wilhite, the surgeon who treated the children, reported that Downs didn’t seem very upset about the fact that one of her children was dead and the other two were grievously injured. When she first arrived at the hospital, rather than focusing on the condition of her children, she was intent on getting in touch with her boyfriend. When the staff told her that Danny was paralyzed, she expressed surprise that the bullet had struck Danny’s spine instead of his heart. She also said things that made her seem completely detached from reality, like, “Boy, this has really spoiled my vacation,” and “That really ruined my new car. I got blood all over the back of it.”
So four days after her children were shot, police brought Downs in to have her reenact what happened that night. With cameras rolling, Downs first primped her hair and make-up in the car’s rear-view mirror before launching into her act. Smiling and laughing, she hammed it up for the camera. At one point, she bumped her cast, and between laughs, said it almost hurt more than “when it happened.”
Meanwhile, investigators digging into Downs’ background revealed some troubling patterns. She was born Elizabeth Diane Frederickson on Aug. 7, 1955, in Phoenix, Arizona. As a teenager, she rebelled against her parents’ conservative Baptist upbringing and began going by her middle name, Diane. At 14, against her parents’ wishes, she got into a relationship with 16-year-old Steven Downs, who lived across the street.
After high school, Steven joined the Navy and Diane attended Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College. After only one year, she was expelled for promiscuity and went back to live with her parents. Nonetheless, the two continued their long-distance relationship until November 1973, when Steven came home from the Navy. Diane ran away from home and the two were married.
The marriage was rocky from the start. They fought about money and Steven’s suspicions that Diane was cheating on him. Diane often left Steven and went back to her parents, but they would always reconcile.
In 1974, despite the problems in their marriage, they had their first child, Christie. Diane stated that she didn’t consult Steven about getting pregnant, she just did it. A year later, she gave birth to their second child, Cheryl. According to Steven, she was “the only woman I know who gets pregnant to cheer herself up.” But as much as she enjoyed pregnancy, she didn’t seem to enjoy actually raising children. “She treated the kids like crap,” he said.
At this point, Steven decided he didn’t want any more children, and, probably feeling he couldn’t trust Diane to continue using birth control, he had a vasectomy. Diane got pregnant again anyway, but terminated it.
In 1978 they moved to Mesa, Arizona. There, Diane engaged in multiple affairs with her coworkers and became pregnant yet again. This time she carried the child to term, and in December 1979, Stephen Daniel (“Danny”) was born. Steven accepted Danny, even though he knew he was not his father.
But less than a year later, Steven and Diane divorced.
Diane spent the next few years bouncing from man to man, moving in with one after another, and occasionally trying to reconcile with Steven.
In order to support herself, she tried to become a surrogate mother but failed two separate psychiatric exams — one of which indicated that she was psychotic. She found this extremely funny and would often brag to friends about it.
In 1981, she finally got a full-time job as a postal carrier in Arizona. While she was at work, she would usually send the children to stay with various family members. But the neighbors voiced their concerns about the kids’ well-being when they were with their mother. They said the children were often hungry and would beg for food; in cold weather, they wouldn’t have coats or appropriate shoes. They said if Diane couldn’t find a sitter, she would leave 6-year-old Christie alone in charge of the children. One neighbor said that Cheryl had told her that she was afraid of her mother.
Despite this, later that year, she was finally accepted into a surrogate program where she earned $10,000 for carrying a child and surrendering it to adoptive parents.
It was also during this time that Diane met and fell in love with her coworker Robert (“Nick”) Knickerbocker.
About a month after the shooting, Downs started granting interviews with the media. Impeccably coiffed and made up (and at one point, sporting a new haircut), she recounted the events of that dark May night. She kept repeating what a terrible ordeal she had been through and how hard it had been on her. She talked a lot, and the words she spoke most frequently were “I” and “me.” She smiled and laughed, but never once did she express concern or sadness about her children. Never once did she shed a tear. Most bizarrely, when one reporter asked if she considered herself lucky for only having gotten such a minor wound, she shot back that it was her children — one of whom was dead, the other two suffering horrible injuries — who were “the lucky ones” because she had not been able to tie her shoes for two months.
Meanwhile, police were also looking closer into her story. They found .22-caliber casings at the crime scene, but no weapon. While Downs had denied owning a gun, both Steven Downs and Knickerbocker said she owned a .22 Ruger pistol. Police confirmed this with records proving she had purchased a .22 Ruger in Arizona. Upon searching her house, police found .22-caliber bullets that matched those found at the crime scene.
In addition, neither blood-splatter patterns nor gunpowder residue matched with the story Downs had told. Further shredding Downs’ version of events, a witness came forward to testify that he had passed Downs’ car on the road that night — because she had been driving extremely slowly.
During their search of her home, police also uncovered another important piece of the puzzle. In Downs’ diaries, she had written extensively about her obsession with Knickerbocker. Downs had pressured him to leave his wife for her, but Knickerbocker had refused and ended the relationship. Knickerbocker later reported that Downs had stalked him and threatened to kill his wife so she could have him to herself.
Even after she had moved back to Oregon, she wouldn’t accept that the relationship was over. She continued to write to him every day, and, in April 1983, arranged to visit him. It was then that he unequivocally broke it off with her, telling her he had no interest in “being a daddy” to her children. Now police had a motive.
After Downs’ surreal media performances, and that tape of her laughing while she reenacted her children’s shooting, public sympathy for her turned to anger. The pressure was on to arrest her. But police and prosecutors knew their case was entirely circumstantial.
There was only one other living witness to the crime: Christie Downs (Danny had been asleep when he was shot). Without Christie’s testimony, they risked Downs walking free. But Christie had suffered a stroke and had great difficulty speaking — though she communicated in other ways. Nurses reported that when Downs would come into Christie’s room, the girl’s vital signs would spike as though she were afraid. At one point, Downs told Wilhite to “pull the plug,” since she knew Christie was brain dead. Wilhite pointed out that there was no evidence of that, and refused to take Christie off life support.
So they waited while Christie went through intensive mental and physical therapy, until she was finally able to say who shot her.
Police arrested Downs Feb. 28, 1984. She was charged with one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder. Her trial began in May.
Ever thirsty for attention, Downs arrived to court in a state that shocked the nation: she was pregnant again.
Downs confessed to a reporter that she had seduced a man on her postal route before getting arrested. She explained, “I got pregnant because I miss Christie and I miss Danny and I miss Cheryl so much.” She went on, “You can’t replace children, but you can replace the effect they give you… and children are so easy to conceive.”
During the trial, the prosecution laid out their evidence, but it was Downs’ own words and actions that showed her utter remorselessness. At one point, “Hungry Like the Wolf” was played in the courtroom — the very song Downs said had been playing when her children were shot. Downs’ reaction was to start tapping her toes and bobbing her head to the music.
But the most powerful evidence the prosecution had was the testimony of their star witness: Christie Downs. It had taken months of physical and mental therapy for her to be able to take the stand and give her testimony, which centered on a single question: who shot her?
Her response was simple, but devastating: “My mom.”
In June, Downs was found guilty of all three counts and sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years in the Oregon Women’s Correctional Center.
Between the verdict and sentencing, Downs gave birth to a girl she named Amy Elizabeth. The baby was taken by the state and delivered to adoptive parents. Her story is interesting in its own right.
While Downs was in prison, psychiatrists diagnosed her with narcissistic, histrionic and antisocial personality disorders. Her parental rights to Christie and Danny were terminated, and they were adopted by Lane County Deputy District Attorney Fred Hugi, who had prosecuted Downs.
But the story of Diane Downs did not end there. On July 11, 1987, just three years into her sentence, Downs scaled the 15-foot-high chain-link fence while the guards weren’t looking. She used clothing to protect herself from the barbed wire on top, then dropped to the ground on the other side. A motion sensor on the fence triggered an alarm, but by the time guards arrived, Downs had disappeared.
She made her way to a house only four blocks from the prison, where Wayne Seifer, a psychiatric aide and the estranged husband of one of Downs’ fellow inmates, lived. When she knocked on the door, she asked, “Could I stay?”
Seifer, hung over, said, “Why not?” and went back upstairs to sleep.
Seifer said that Downs introduced herself a couple of hours later not as Diane Downs, but as just “a girl with no clothes on.” They began having a sexual relationship while Downs hid out in his bedroom, only leaving to go to the toilet or take a shower.
“I spent 10 days with her,” Seifer told reporters. “I fell in love.”
Meanwhile, police were engaged in a search that spread across 14 states and fielded hundreds of tips and sightings from as far east as Wisconsin.
But it was in Downs’ cell where police found the crucial evidence: while looking through her belongings, they found a clipboard with stationary on it. Under oblique lighting, police could see the imprints of what had been written on the previous page. It was a map showing the prison, State Street, and Seifer’s address with the words “You are here” written at the top.
Ten days after her escape, police raided Seifer’s home and found Downs in his upstairs bedroom, wearing his T-shirt and boxer shorts.
Seifer said Downs was going to “grab a BB gun and just go suicide by cop,” but he talked her out of it. Downs surrendered peacefully.
Seifer pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution for harboring Downs and was sentenced to five years probation and six months in a restitution center in Salem. He said he’s asked himself a million times why he didn’t turn her in, and the only excuse he could give was that he was strung out on heroin at the time.
Downs received an additional five-year sentence for the escape and was transferred to the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey.
Downs remains in prison in California, and will be eligible for parole in 2020. She continues to proclaim her innocence.
Her story was the subject of Ann Rule’s book, Small Sacrifices, which was later made into a TV miniseries starring Farrah Fawcett.
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