Murder Most Vile Volume 2

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Wife, Mother, Murdress

At around 10:50, on the night of Thursday, May 19, 1983, a late-model red Nissan Pulsar with Arizona plates pulled up to the ER at McKenzie-Willamette Hospital in Springfield, Oregon. The driver, a blonde woman in her twenties, staggered from the vehicle. “Somebody just shot my kids!” she screamed pointing back towards the car.

ER medics are of course used to dealing with such situations. Nurses Rose Martin and Shelby Day were out of the door in an instant, running towards the woman. Seeing that she was only slightly injured they pointed her inside, then went to the aid of her passengers. Meanwhile, receptionist Judy Patterson, as is protocol in such cases, got on the phone to the police.

The first thing that nurses Martin and Day saw as they approached the car was blood, lots of it, sprayed across the interior, spattering the bodies of three small children. A blonde-haired girl was slumped in the passenger seat, another girl and a boy, no more than a toddler, in back. All appeared to have suffered gunshot wounds to their chests.

The children were pulled from the vehicle and rushed into the hospital where it was determined that one of them, the girl who had been in the front seat, was already dead. Meanwhile, with personnel from the ICU brought in to assist, a battle was waged to save the other two. Thanks to the skill of the medical professionals involved, 8-year-old Christie Downs and her 3-year-old brother, Danny, would eventually pull through. The dead girl was their sister, Cheryl, aged just 7.

Police officers from both Springfield and Lane Counties had in the interim responded to the call and it was quickly determined that the crime fell within the jurisdiction of the Lane County Sheriff's Office. Sergeant Robin Rutherford then spoke to the children’s mother. She said that her name was Diane Downs and that she’d been driving to her home in Springfield, after visiting a friend in Marcola. As she’d turned onto Old Mohawk Road, a man had flagged her down. He’d demanded her keys. When she refused to hand them over, he leaned into the car and fired at her children.

Without waiting to get the finer details, Rutherford immediately put out an APB on the suspect. If there was a madman on the highway, taking potshots at travelers, he needed to be apprehended before he could shoot anyone else. Diane Downs described the perpetrator as, “white, late twenties, about five feet nine, 150 to 170 pounds, dark wavy hair, a stubble of beard, wearing a denim jacket and an off-colored T-shirt.” Yet despite quick action by the police, despite an exhaustive search, no trace of the mystery gunman was found.

And it wasn’t long before officers began to wonder whether he even existed. Something about Diane Downs’ story, about her demeanor, just didn’t sit right. She was too calm for one thing. Someone who had come through such a terrifying experience, losing one of her children, seeing others severely injured and not yet out of danger, would have been devastated, traumatized. Diane was calm and dry-eyed. On hearing that her middle child, Cheryl, had died, she registered no emotion. When she learned that Danny was going to make it, her response stunned medical staff. “You mean the bullet missed his heart?” she said incredulously. “Gee whiz!”

And the crime scene itself caused law officers to question her story. The stretch of highway between Marcola and Old Mohawk Roads was dark, desolate and eerie. Why, they wondered, would a young mother, with three small children in the car, stop for a total stranger in such an isolated spot?

Another cause for suspicion was the wound to Diane’s arm. Those officers who’d been on the job more than a few years had seen that kind of injury before. Usually, it was self-inflicted by criminals who wanted to create the impression that they were the victim, rather than the perpetrator.

All of this was, of course, conjecture. Downs had said that she’d stopped because she thought the man needed help and that might be true. As for her demeanor, well, we all deal with grief and trauma in our own way. Better to focus on the physical evidence. Of that, there was plenty.

It was determined that the weapon used had been a .22, probably a handgun; powder burns on the children’s skin suggested that the shots had been fired at extremely close range; blood spatters indicated that the shooter had fired from the driver’s side of the vehicle.

This tied in with Diane Downs’ story. She said that she’d been returning from visiting a co-worker, Heather Plourd. On the drive home she’d decided that she’d take Old Mohawk Road rather than the highway because she thought it might be, “fun to go sightseeing.” It was just after making the turn that she spotted the man, standing in the middle of the gravel road, signaling for her to stop.

She applied the brakes and got out of the car. The stranger approached, then produced a pistol from his jacket and demanded her car keys. She refused to hand them over, whereupon he leaned in through the driver’s window and fired at her children. He then reached for her, but she evaded his grasp, got into the car and got the engine started. He fired one more shot, hitting her in the arm. Then she mashed her foot down on the gas and raced away. Her only thought, she said, was to get her kids to the hospital.

The next step in the investigation was to carry out a search of Diane’s home. She willingly agreed, informing officers that she kept a .38 revolver and a .22 caliber rifle there for self-protection. Neither weapon had been fired recently but the police nonetheless took both into evidence, along with a diary.

Meanwhile, Diane’s vehicle was transported to the crime lab for further investigation, and the body of Cheryl Downs went to the morgue for autopsy. Then Diane was allowed in to see her daughter Christie, who was now out of surgery and stable. Several nurses and a police officer were present at this visit. All would later testify to Christie’s strange reaction to her mother’s presence. As Diane approached the bed and whispered a faint, “I love you,” Christie’s eyes appeared to widen in fear, while the monitor measuring her heart rate jumped from 104 beats per minute to 147.

The day after the shootings, the case was assigned to rookie Assistant DA Fred Hugi. Despite his relative inexperience, Hugi took one look at the evidence and decided that something was amiss. And those inklings of doubt only increased after he interviewed Diane Downs. Her description of the harrowing event was nonchalant, even peppered with humor at times. Not only that, but she kept making subtle enhancements to her story, as though the added details would lend credibility.

Another reason to question Diane’s version of events was a piece of information gleaned from the children’s father, Steve Downs. According to Downs, his former wife had not been entirely honest about her weapons cache. She also owned a .22 pistol, he said. Asked about this, Diane flatly denied ever owning such a weapon.

Hugi didn’t believe her, and now made finding that weapon his number one priority. But an extensive search of the area surrounding the crime scene, even sending divers to the depths of the nearby Mohawk River, did not turn it up. And there was more bad news for Hugi, when doctors informed him that Christie Downs had suffered a stroke. The child was probably the only one who could testify as to what had really happened that night. Now doctors were saying that she might never recover fully enough to do so.

Despite these setbacks ADA Hugi was more certain than ever that Diane Downs had been the shooter. One question, though, still bothered him. Why? Why would a young mother brutally gun down her three young children? In order to find the answer, he decided to look into Diane’s background and dispatched investigators Doug Welch and Paul Alton to Arizona, where she’d lived until recently.

Diane had worked as a mail deliverer out of the Channing post office. Co-workers there didn’t have anything particularly negative to say about her, but there were not many who had a kind word either. What emerged was a picture of a determined, yet insecure woman, a woman with a warped sense of priorities. She refused for example, to deliver copies of Playboy magazine on her route, yet at the same time it was common knowledge that she slept around. Steve Downs had told investigators that his former wife liked to “bed hop.” In Arizona, investigators found plenty of evidence of that.

Diane’s most recent beau had been one of her co-workers, Robert Knickerbocker. When the officers interviewed Knickerbocker, he said that he’d become involved with Diane shortly after her divorce from Steve Downs in 1981. She had actively pursued him and he, knowing her reputation, had gone along, thinking that the affair would amount to nothing more than a few sexual encounters with no strings attached. Instead, he’d landed himself in a “Fatal Attraction,” situation. Diane was soon pressing him to leave his wife for her. Knickerbocker then tried to break off the affair but Diane refused to let go.

Matters eventually came to a head when Diane insisted that he choose between her and his wife. Knickerbocker told her that he still loved his wife. After that he confessed the affair and he and his wife were reconciled. But Dianne continued to stalk him, once even confronting his wife at their home and on another occasion pounding on their front door for hours and screaming obscenities.

That was in February 1983. Not long after, Diane put in for a transfer to Oregon and moved to Springfield to be close to her parents. But she continued harassing her old boyfriend with letters and phone calls.

Knickerbocker shared two other important pieces of information with the officers. He confirmed Steve Downs’ assertion that Diane had indeed owned a .22 handgun. He also provided the officers with a possible motive for the shootings.

On one occasion during the relationship, Diane had showed up to meet him with her kids in tow. Knickerbocker had left immediately, saying he didn’t want to spend time with her while she was with her kids. His reason for this, he explained to the officers, was because he didn’t believe that the children should be exposed to their mother’s infidelities. However, Diane had interpreted it differently. She became obsessed with the idea that Knickerbocker only wanted to end the relationship because of her children. Armed with this information, the detectives returned to Oregon.

In June 1983, Assistant DA Hugi called a meeting of his investigative staff to determine if they had enough to arrest Diane Downs for murder. The conclusion was that, despite strong circumstantial evidence, the absence of the murder weapon meant that they probably didn’t. Nonetheless, a grand jury was assembled to hear testimony in the case.

During the nine months that those proceedings lasted, Diane Downs became something of a media darling, appearing in tabloids and newspapers up and down the Pacific coast. Most media depicted her as an innocent woman who been through a terrible ordeal and was now having her grief compounded by being dragged through the courts. Contributing to this image, Diane got herself pregnant by a new lover and used this in the press. She said that she’d decided to have another child because she missed Christie and Cheryl and Danny so much. (Christie and Danny had been placed in foster homes by a judge.)

In February 1984, the grand jury announced its ruling. They indicted Downs on one charge of murder, two charges of attempted murder, and two charges of criminal assault.

The matter came to trial at the Lane County Courthouse, in Eugene, Oregon, on May 10, 1984. By then, it was a sensation across America, with people divided as to whether Diane Downs had gunned down her children or not.

There were several moments of high drama during the trial, most notably when the jury was transported to the crime scene, and when they were allowed to view Downs’ blood-spattered Nissan Pulsar. The most dramatic interlude, though, was the testimony given by Christie Downs.

Shivering and teary-eyed, speaking in a barely audible voice, Christie was asked, “Who shot you?"

“My mom,” she said simply.

After that the case was lost to Diane Downs. Almost overnight, public opinion swung against her. She went from martyr to demon in the blink of an eye. When the jury announced its decision on June 14, 1984, no one was surprised that it was, “Guilty.”

Diane Downs was sentenced to life in prison, with fifty years added for using a firearm in the crime. Not long after sentence was passed she gave birth to a daughter who she named Amy. The child was subsequently adopted.

In 1987, Downs pulled off a daring escape from the Oregon Women's Correctional Center. She remained at large for 10 days, before being captured less than a mile from the prison. As a result of that escapade she was transferred to the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Institution in New Jersey. She remains there to this day.

Danny Downs was confined to a wheelchair as a result of his injuries, while Christie made a full recovery. Both were adopted by Fred Hugi, the Assistant District Attorney who had successfully prosecuted their mother.

Murder Most Vile Volume Two features another 17 shocking true crime stories.