Diane Downs (Elizabeth Diane Frederickson Downs) was born on August 7, 1955 in Phoenix, Arizona (United States). She was the eldest of four siblings. Her parents Wes and Willadene moved the family around until Wes got a steady job with the United States Postal Service, when Diane was around eleven years old.
The Fredericksons were conservative, and until she was fourteen Diane seemed to follow her parents’ precepts. As she entered her teens, a more defiant Diane emerged as she struggled to adjust to the social environment of the school, which meant going against her parents’ way of life.
At fourteen Diane changed her formal name, Elizabeth, to her middle name, Diane. She swapped out her boyish hairstyle for a shorter, more modern bleached blonde style. She began to wear more elegant clothes that enhanced her more mature figure. She also began a relationship with Steven Downs, a sixteen-year-old boy who lived across the street from her. Her parents did not agree with her relationship with Steve, but that did not influence Diane’s decision about her, and at sixteen they already had sexual relations.
Upon finishing high school, Steven entered the United States Navy and Diane attended Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College. The couple promised fidelity to each other, but Diane apparently did not quite keep her promise, and after a year at the school she was expelled for promiscuity.
However, the long-distance relationship seemed to survive and in November 1973, Steven having returned home, the couple decided to marry. The marriage was tumultuous from the start. Fights over money problems and accusations of infidelity often meant that Diane left Steven to go to her parents’ house. Despite the problems in their marriage, in 1974 the Downs had their first daughter, Christie.
Six months later Diane entered the United States Navy, but returned home after three weeks of basic training suffering from severe blisters. Diane later said that the real reason for leaving the Navy was that Steven did not take care of Christie. Having a child did not seem to help the marriage, but Diane became pregnant again, and in 1975 their second daughter, Cheryl Lynn, was born.
For Steven, having two children was enough, so he had a vasectomy. This did not stop Diane from getting pregnant again, but this time she decided to have an abortion. The girl she aborted she named Carrie.
The Downses moved in 1978 to Mesa, Arizona, where they found work in a trailer factory. There Diane began having affairs with some of her co-workers and again she became pregnant. In December 1979 Stephen Daniel Downs, Danny, was born, and Steven accepted the child even knowing that he was not his father.
The marriage lasted another year, until 1980, when Steven and Diane decided to divorce.
Diane had relationships with various partners over the next few years, including affairs with married men, and also attempted to reconcile with Steven.
In order to support herself financially, she decided to become a surrogate mother but failed to pass two of the psychiatric exams that are carried out on applicants. One of the tests showed that Diane was highly intelligent but also psychotic tendencies, a fact that she found amusing and that she would brag about to her friends.
In 1981 Diane got a full-time job as a postal carrier with the United States Postal Service. The children often stayed with Diane’s parents, with Steven, or with Danny’s father. When the children stayed with Diane, neighbors expressed concern about how she was taking care of them. Often the children were not dressed appropriately depending on the weather, they went hungry and asked for food. Diane kept working even when she couldn’t find a nanny, and she left six-year-old Christie to look after the children.
Diane was finally accepted into a surrogate mother program in late 1981, for which she received $10,000 after carrying a child to term. After that experience she decided to open her own surrogate motherhood clinic, but the project quickly failed.
It was at this time that Diane met her co-worker Robert Nick Knickerbocker, whom she considered the man of her dreams. Their relationship was very intense from the beginning, and Diane demanded that Knickerbocker leave his wife. Overwhelmed by his demands and still in love with his wife, Robert Nick ended the relationship.
Devastated by her failed love affair, Diane returned to Oregon without ever accepting that her relationship with Nick was over. She continued to write to him and they had one last meeting in April 1983, in which Nick completely rejected her, telling her that the relationship was over and that he had no interest in being the father of her children.
On May 19, 1983, around 10 p.m., Diane stopped on a quiet street in Springfield, Oregon, and shot her three children multiple times. She then shot herself in the arm and drove slowly to McKenzie-Willamette Hospital. Hospital staff found Cheryl dead, and Danny and Christie dying.
Diane told doctors and police that a man with thick hair stopped her on the highway and tried to take her car. When she resisted, the man began shooting at her children and from her at herself.
Investigators were soon suspicious of Diane’s story and her reactions during police questioning, in which she interspersed bizarre and implausible descriptions of her children’s injuries. For example, she was surprised that a bullet had hit Danny’s spine and not his heart. She seemed more interested in communicating with Knickerbocker than in informing the children’s father or learning about the progress of their injuries. In addition, she Diane did not stop talking, which was not at all logical after suffering such a traumatic situation.
Diane’s story about that tragic night was disproved by the forensic inquest. The bloodstains on the car did not match her version of what happened, and no gunpowder residue was found where it should have been based on her account.
Despite being fractured due to the impact of the gunshot, Diane’s arm injury was not serious compared to those of her children. She also discovered that she had not reported that she had a .22 caliber pistol, the same as the bullets used in the crime.
Diane’s diary found by the police helped uncover her motive for shooting her children. She wrote there obsessively about the love of her life, Robert Knickerbocker, and it was particularly important what she wrote about what he said, that she didn’t want to raise children. She also found an ornament, a small golden unicorn that Diane had bought a few days before shooting the children. On the unicorn she had written the names of each of her children, as a kind of keepsake to her memory.
A man testified that he passed Diane on the highway the night of the shooting, and that he did so because she was driving too slowly. This contradicted Diane’s statement to the police, stating that she sped away and that she headed to the hospital in terror.
But the strongest evidence was provided by Christie, the surviving daughter who was unable to speak for months due to a stroke she suffered from the attack. During Diane’s visits, Christie displayed fear, anxiety, and distress. When she was finally able to speak, she told prosecutors that there was no stranger and that it was her mother who shot.
Realizing she was going to be framed, just before her arrest she met with detectives to tell them there was information she had not included in her original statement. She told them that the man she shot at her was someone she knew, as he called her by her name. If the police had believed her new statement, the investigation would have lasted several more months. But they did not believe her and told her that it was almost completely certain that she was the one who shot, because her lover did not want to raise children.
On February 28, 1984, after nine months of intense investigation, Diane Downs, at the time pregnant, was arrested and charged with murder, two attempted murders, and criminal battery against her three children.
Diane and the press
Diane conducted numerous journalistic interviews in the months leading up to her trial. Her goal, most likely, was to win the sympathy of the public, but in reality her reaction was exactly the opposite, because her answers to journalists’ questions were inappropriate. Instead of appearing as a mother devastated by the tragic events, she appeared narcissistic, insensitive and little affected by the situation.
The trial began on May 10, 1984, and lasted six weeks. Prosecutor Fred Hugi presented the case on behalf of the State; he presented the motives, the forensic evidence, he presented the witnesses who contradicted the version that Diane gave to the police and finally he presented a witness, Diane’s own daughter, Christie Downs, who testified that it was Diane who shot her.
Diane’s defense attorney, Jim Jagger, admitted that his client was obsessed with Nick, but noted that Diane’s childhood was marred by an incestuous relationship with her father, leading to her promiscuity and inappropriate behavior.
The jury found Diane Downs guilty on all counts on June 17, 1984. She was sentenced to life in prison and an additional fifty years.
Prosecutor Fred Hugi and his wife adopted Christie and Danny Downs in 1986. Diane gave birth to their fourth daughter, Amy, in July 1984. The baby was taken from her and given up for adoption, named Rebecca Becky Babcock. . On October 22, 2010, Rebecca Babcock was interviewed on Oprah Winfrey’s television show and on ABC’s 20/20 on July 1, 2011. She spoke of her troubled life and how little communication she had with Diane.
Diane Downs’ father denied the incest allegations, and Diane later recanted. To this day, her father believes in Diane’s innocence and has a website where he offers $100,000 to anyone who can provide information that will completely exonerate her and achieve her freedom.
On July 11, 1987 Diane managed to escape from the Oregon Correctional Center for Women and was recaptured in Salem, Oregon ten days later. She received an additional five-year sentence for the escape.
Diane was first given the option of parole in 2008, and during the hearing she continued to say she was innocent. “Over the years I have told you and the rest of the world that a man shot me and my children. I have never changed my story.” However, her story has changed continuously over the years: for example, from the attacker being a man to two men. At one point she said that the men who shot were drug dealers, and later that they were corrupt policemen involved in drug distribution. She was denied parole.
In December 2010, he appeared at a second parole hearing and again refused to take responsibility for the shooting, for which he was again denied parole. Under a new Oregon law, he can’t get a parole hearing again until the 2020s.
Diane Downs is currently in the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California.