I became aware of this case when I was very young. It has the honor of being my first True Crime case that I ever learned of. Farrah Fawcett, portrayed Diane Downs in the TV movie, Small Sacrifices, which was based on the book of the same name, by Ann Rule. Here is the story of a mother, who sacrificed the most precious thing in this world for the love of a married man.
Born Elizabeth Diane Frederickson in 1955, Diane was raised in Phoenix, AZ. She claimed that she was sexually abused by her father when she was 12 years old. She seemed to be rather promiscuous throughout her life, but she married Steve Downs in 1973.
They would have a volatile relationship, and would eventually divorce in 1980 after the birth of their third child, a boy named Stephen Daniel called Danny. Steve believed Danny to be the result of an extramarital affair. Their other two children, Christie and Cheryl were born in 1974 and 1976 respectively.
In April 1983, Diane had moved to Oregon with her children, and was working with the United States Post Office. She had transferred from Arizona where she had been having an affair with a man named Robert Knickerbocker. Robert had reported that Diane had been stalking him, and seemed willing to kill his wife for the two of them to be together. Robert had made it clear that they could not have more than an affair as he didn’t want to have children in his life. He stated he had been relieved when she had moved to Oregon, allowing him to reconcile with his wife.
May 19, 1983. Diane had taken her children out for the day, on their way home, they were driving on a rural road, the children were asleep in the car. According to Diane, she was flagged down, by a strange man on the side of the road. She stopped the car and got out. Diane claimed he had demanded her car, but she refused. He then shot her three children who were sleeping in the car. Diane had attempted to fight the man off but was shot in the arm. She broke free and raced to the hospital to get care for her kids.
That’s one version of the story. Diane’s version. Here’s the police version of the story.
It was true that Diane had been out with her kids that day. And it ended up at the hospital. She was honking her horn for help and crying out “Somebody shot my kids!!”
Staff went to assist and noticed inside the car, it was covered in blood, three small children were in the car, one in the front, a girl about 7 or 8; another girl in the back a little older, and the third child was just a toddler. The receptionist called the police.
The staff weren’t expecting this, and it was bad, very bad. ICU staff were recruited to assist in the ER and a top surgeon was on staff to help the children, they were carried in by weeping nurses and interns. Dr. Mackey explained the situation to the reinforcements, “Chest wounds!”
Two of the children were still breathing, strenuously. The child in the front seat was beyond assistance, she was pronounced dead moments after being wheeled to the ER.
The two children who were still alive, were given all the attention available. The two kids were hooked up to machines to help pump their little hearts and other vital organs. Miraculously, Dr. Mackey and the other skilled doctors kept them alive.
One child was dead, one child defied the odds of blood loss, heart stoppage, and delicate surgery and lived, and one child was at risk of paralysis, but was alive. The question remained to be answered; Who would do this to three innocent little kids?
Diane didn’t have an answer. She relayed the story that they were driving home from visiting a friend and a stranger (later described as a bushy haired stranger) flagged her down on Old Mohawk Road, and then started shooting her children.
The detective who approached Diane at the hospital noted that she was being treated for a bullet wound and some minor scratches. She seemed to be eerily calm considering the traumatic events of the evening. The detective asked if she could join them at the scene and point it out as best as she could. Diane remembered it exactly and when they arrived at the scene, it was noted in Ann Rule’s book that it was “the most desolated spot” on the road, hardly a place for a young mother to stop for a stranger.
Returning to the hospital she was informed on the status of her children. She learned that Cheryl had died, and that Danny stood a chance of surviving. Her calm reply was not something anyone had expected: “Do you mean the bullet missed his heart? Gee whiz!”
The investigation began into this heinous crime. Detectives listened to the story about visiting a friend and the stranger who then shot the children, and then the shot she had received on her arm. The lead detective on the case, aptly named, Dick Tracy, remembered other cases where a victim was shot in the arm, and it was always a staged shot to look as if they were attacked. But he decided to pass judgement only after the evidence was in.
The police were all tasked with different evidence collections. They all knew that this case would require a lot of questions, a lot of evidence, and they had hoped that they would be able to find the monster who attacked this little lives, and changed them forever. The detectives knew there would be overtime, and they all were happy to do it if it meant they could help solve the case.
Police got permission to search Diane’s house, and they obtained several items for examination. Detective Tracy, noticed a man in a picture frame on the TV, and wondered if this was the man whom Diane had called at the hospital, before knowing about her children, before calling their father and informing him of the tragic events.
Eventually Diane was allowed to see her children in the ICU, several nurses were stationed by her oldest daughter, Christie. Detective Paul Alton was also in the room and both he and the nurses observed: the icy demeanor of Diane when she leaned over and told her daughter “I love you.” with no emotional feeling. Christie, seeing her mother approach, had genuine fear in her eyes, and her heart rate accelerated from 104 BPM to 147 BPM when her mother spoke to her. Why would a daughter be terrified of her mother?
The district attorney’s office handed the case to Fred Hugi, relatively new in the office. He remained on top of the case, which he knew would lead to a murder trial, from the beginning. He ordered round the clock protection on the children, and a psychologist to sit with Christie daily to build up trust for when she was healthy enough to speak of that night.
Fred and investigators began to doubt the story that always seemed to change in the retelling from Diane. And when the investigators spoke with Steve Downs, they learned that Diane owned not just the two weapons she claimed, but three, and one of them was a .22 caliber handgun, the same caliber as the murder weapon. Steve was honest with the detectives about the relationship that he had with his ex-wife, and showed fatherly grief over what happened. He made immediate plans to fly to Oregon from Arizona. Steve denied that Diane could harm the children to get the married man (Robert) back. He stated that she, “Loved those kids.”
From the beginning Fred and the District Attorney’s office didn’t believe Diane’s story. They felt it was incomplete, the picture incorrect or even retouched. The investigators questioned, how the stranger knew to be on Old Mohawk Road that night? How did he know Diane would be there? She had said that is was a sightseeing adventure when they turned onto that road and not planned.
The five bullets that were used in shooting the kids, were all accounted for, no other bullets had penetrated the car itself. There was gunpowder in the backseat and on the passenger side door panel where Cheryl was sitting. Blood surrounded all three children, but there was no blood on the driver’s side door, or steering wheel. Diane claimed that she was shot last, while she was getting into the car to get to the hospital, so she would have instinctually grabbed the wound, and blood would have transferred to the wheel by her hand. But that didn’t happen.
Investigators began to suspect that whomever had shot these innocent babies, was seated in the front seat of the car, and that the wound Diane received was self-inflicted before reaching the hospital.
May 25, 1983, Cheryl Lynn Downs was laid to rest. The Springfield, OR, community, friends and family all were there to share in the bereavement. But Fred Hugi received some good news in all of this; Christie and Danny were no longer in danger. Christie has suffered a stroke which paralyzed her arm, and garbled her speech. Danny would be paralyzed for life, but they were both alive. With therapy they were optimistic that Christie would be able to speak again fully. Both kids had defied the odds and survived.
The investigation continued and more and more elements were adding up to Diane’s guilt. But they had a problem; they didn’t have a witness nor did they have the gun. The entire case so far was circumstantial. One witness did come forward, Mr. Joe Inman who was driving on Old Mohawk Road the night of the murder. He stated that he had come across a red Nissan, the same as Diane’s car, at about 10.20 pm and it was driving at about 5 – 7 miles per hour. It wasn’t being driven critically as she claimed. It was at this time that Diane claimed she was racing to the hospital to save her kids.
The case was moving a long and Diane had spoken with investigators, unfortunately she wasn’t able to answer their questions with more than an I don’t know. However Christie Downs, who was in protective care, was making progress. She had regained her ability for speech, and her counselor in charge of her therapy was making progress with her.
When she was able to ask Christie about her sister, brother, and mother, Christie stated that they had been hit lots of times by their mom.
“When you were on the road that night, did you see anyone you didn’t know?”
Christie answered with no.
“Where Danny and Cheryl crying?”
Again she stated no.
“Why wasn’t Cheryl crying?”
Christie replied that Cheryl was, “dead.”
She couldn’t go on and her counselor did not push her.
February 28, 1984, a pregnant Diane Downs was arrested when leaving her car at the post office. The trial began in May of 1984. Fred Hugi had the jury taken to the scene of the crime, painting a picture of that night. He then took them to the county impound lot to see the blood stained red Nissan. He wanted them to experience the terror of those kids that night.
The prosecutions star witness was Christie Downs. She was escorted to the witness box by Fred Hugi, and he hated that he had to put this on a child. Facing her mother, in a court of law, about a night that forever changed her young life.
Fred Hugi began by explaining to Christie 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.
Eventually he asked about the shooting. Christie’s voice was quiet, but clear.
“She leaned over to the back seat and shot Danny,” Christie said.
“What happened 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.
“Yeah,” she answered.
“Who shot you?”
“My mom,” she said simply.
June 14, 1984, the jury came back with a verdict, guilty. Diane was guilty of one count of murder, two counts of attempted murder, and two counts of first degree assault. The judge sentenced her to life plus fifty years.
Between the 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, she is now known as Rebecca Babcock.
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. She still claims to be innocent.
The children, 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 happy-ever-after. In 1986, they moved into the home of their new loving adopted parents, Fred and Joanne Hugi.
Be kind, make good choices, be safe