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Diane Downs: Martyr or Murderess?
"Somebody just shot my kids!" was all Diane Downs kept screaming as McKenzie-Willamette Hospital emergency room staff scrambled to her assistance. It was about 10:45 p.m. May 19, 1983 in Springfield, Oregon, when her red Nissan raced up to the ER drop off with horn blaring. Just beyond the automatic doors medical personnel saw a blonde woman in her late twenties wildly pointing to her car. The receptionist immediately followed protocol and called the police.
Inside the blood soaked interior of the car laid three small children. Cheryl Ann Downs, an eight year old blonde haired girl, was slumped over in the front passenger seat. In the back was her sister and brother, seven year old Christie and Danny, just a toddler. All had been shot at point blank range in the chest.
The mother, Diane, had also been shot. A single bullet had entered her left forearm, split in two as it shattered the radius and exited, leaving two smaller wounds. The two in the back were still breathing, although laboriously. Cheryl Ann died moments after being wheeled in.
Christie miraculously survived surgery despite severe blood loss, heart stoppage and delicate surgery. Unfortunately she had also suffered a stroke during surgery brought on by loss of blood. Even if she recovered from the gunshot wounds she still might not be able to tell who shot her. Danny was also at risk of paralysis. What heartless monster could have shot three innocent children?
Diane didn't give an answer right away, seemingly avoiding the identity of the shooter and skipping on to events leading up to the assault. She tearfully told the receptionist they had been driving home after visiting a friend in nearby Marcola when a "bushy-haired stranger" waved her down. Thinking he needed help, Diane pulled over. And that was when the stranger pointed his gun through the window and shot her children.
Springfield and Lane County authorities immediately sprang into action issuing an all points watch on city and county roads for anyone matching the vague description.
Sergeant Robin Rutherford of the Lane County Sheriff's Office was the first official to question the mother. When he arrived, the nurses were tending to her arm. His first impression was she seemed to be unusually calm under the circumstances. The medical personnel had also noticed she wasn’t the same wild woman who they had first encountered.
Rutherford, felt it was safe to ask her to accompany him back to the scene of the crime. The location turned out to be a dark desolated spot. Rutherford mused it wasn’t a place a competent mother with three children would have pulled over to help a stranger, especially at night.
Upon returning to the hospital she was informed about the death of her girl and status of the other two. The staff was amazed at the calm manner in which she took the news. They had all expected her to fly into hysterics. But, her countenance changed to one of apparent surprise when told Danny had a chance of surviving. Her comment, regarding what would have been good news to anyone else, raised some eyebrows as well as a few suspicions. "Do you mean the bullet missed his heart? Gee whiz!"
Detectives investigating the case determined the gun used had been a .22 caliber pistol or rifle, mostly likely a handgun. The investigators then questioned Diane to build a chronology of events leading up to the shooting. They too found the 27 year old mother to be unusually calm, considering what she had undergone.
The interview established Diane was a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. She had recently moved from Chandler, Arizona, after divorcing her husband, Steve Downs. Diane had also worked as a letter carrier in Arizona and had transferred to Oregon to be near her parents…or so she claimed that was the reason.
According to Diane, she and her children had left their home in Springfield, bound for a friend’s home on Sunderman Road. Her friend said time Diane had left about 9:45 p.m. This meant the shooting must have occurred at 10:15 p.m., give or take a few minutes, in order to reach the hospital by 10:45 p.m.
Something didn’t add up. Diane had said she had decided to take her children sightseeing along Old Mohawk Road as the kids enjoyed watching the moon from the unlit countryside. However a witness had seen Diane's red Nissan, near 10:20 p.m., moving very slowly along that road. And the investigators didn’t buy the sightseeing bit…who goes sightseeing at that late hour?
Sketch of Bushy Haired Stranger
One of the detectives had read the doctor's report about Diane's arm injury. He noticed the place she had been wounded was the same place other killers had shot themselves to make it appear they had been attacked.
A routine search of Diane’s home produced a .38 caliber pistol, a .22 caliber rifle, a box of standard .22 caliber shells and a diary. Neither firearm had been fired. Diane adamantly stuck to the story she didn’t have a .22 pistol throughout . However, her ex-husband in Arizona, Steve, begged to differ saying she most certainly did.
One particular item was a photo of a young man in a beard on top the television. Diane had called a man in Arizona, not long after arriving at the hospital. Investigators had thought it strange she would call someone in Arizona before alerting the children’s father. Was the man in the photo Diane had called? Maybe the ex husband knew.
When questioned about the Arizona man, Steve replied, “You must mean the married guy she was having an affair with.” Further digging revealed she wasn’t the doting mother she pretended to be. According to Steve, Diane had been hopping from one bed to another for quite a while and he was glad to be rid of her.
One married coworker, Lew Lewiston, said he had carried on an affair with her for several months and had tried to end it several times after she began showing signs of a “fatal attraction.” But Diane refused to let him go. He had even told his wife, Nora. Lew explained, “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." Two investigators hit upon the same conclusion at once. The children were getting in the way of her torrid affairs.
Lew decided to end the affair once and for all one night in February, 1983. "Diane asked me who I loved the most, her or Nora. I said I loved Nora. She blew up. She ranted and raved and screamed at me. I'd never seen anyone act that way before."
When Lew returned home, Diane followed. She even had the nerve to walk up the steps of his home…with Nora standing there. "She pounded on our door all night long," Nora said. "Then she called on the phone." Diane confronted her the next day on the steps of her home screaming and shouting, but had the door slammed in her face.
When Diane was finally allowed to see Christie, several nurses and an investigator was present. As the mother took her daughter’s small hand she quietly said, "I love you." However, her words were devoid of any warmth. The investigator also noticed something else. Christie’s eyes had showed fear when she saw her mother come in and the heart rate monitor showed her pulse had jumped significantly.
Fred Hugi of the District Attorney's office was assigned to prosecute the case. From the beginning he sensed foul play. The facts coming to light didn’t support the story Diane Downs had given. With each retelling slight variations surfaced. Hugi decided to put a 24 hour guard on the children.
No one in the DA's office believed there had been a bushy haired stranger. Every similar case had one…the man who could never be produced in court. And there seemed to be no logic to Diane’s story.
What would the man have to gain by shooting the children? If he had wanted the car he would have shot the driver. Blood smeared the side door of the front seat where Cheryl had been shot and blood stained the rear seat where Danny and Christie had been hit. But there was no blood on the driver's side!
Diane as a Teen
If a bullet had hit Diane’s arm as she claimed, she would instinctively have grabbed it with her other hand. There would have been blood on that hand and steering wheel. That and location of gunpowder particles most likely meant whoever did the shooting had been seated in the driver's seat and then put a bullet in their arm before arriving at the hospital.
But, the case against Diane Downs was still weak. There was no murder weapon. Experts determined the gun probably had been tossed into the Mohawk River and carried downstream by the current. The strongest evidence was some of the unfired .22 caliber shells found in Diane's home had once been loaded and ejected from the same gun that shot the children. For this evidence to count they still needed the gun. The case hinged on little Christie’s testimony and chances were she would never be able to speak normally. There was hope, albeit slight.
Cheryl Downs' funeral took place on the 25th. However, the somber occasion was lightened somewhat by the news Christie and Danny were out of danger. One of Christie's arms was paralyzed and her speech was hard to understand, but doctors were optimistic she would be able to speak normally again with therapy. Danny would probably be permanently crippled but he had no brain damage and would live. Both had beaten the odds.
Danny was still confined to his bed and under police protection until he could be medically released, at which time he would be placed in foster care. The home where Christie was living was kept a secret.
By spring of 1984, Diane had become the media's darling because she looked a little like Princess Diana. A few papers even dubbed her "Princess Die" and she played the part to the hilt. Finally, Diane called for a meeting with detectives claiming she had information she had not divulged earlier. At first, the detectives hoped the meeting would reveal something worthwhile, but it became obvious it was only a ploy to buy more time.
Diane explained the killer must have been someone she knew as he had called her by name. But, the detectives saw through what was clearly a charade and turned the tables by firing a barrage of questions in rapid succession. Why was she telling them this now? Was he a friend from Oregon or Arizona? What purpose would he have to kill her kids? Did she really rush to the hospital immediately after the kids were shot or pause a while? Why didn't she try to stop the gunman when he began shooting? She had no answers.
Then they asked point blank if she tried to kill her kids because they got in the way of her love life. That question got a response. Diane violently cursed the kids, called them obscene names and stormed out. Then she hooked up with an old lover and became pregnant, perhaps playing the sympathy card. She told a TV reporter she became pregnant because she missed her children. Hugi, watching the report, knew the truth. Diane was hoping her pregnancy would keep her off death row.
Christie, miraculously now able to talk, was now questioned. However, due to the trauma the little girl had endured the therapist who had been gingerly working with her was also present.
The therapist asked Christie to tell what happened the night of what she called "that terrible thing.” Christie, obviously finding it difficult to provide a large amount of information was asked a series of smaller questions. "Was there anyone there that night you didn't know?" "Were Danny and Cheryl crying?" To both questions she said no. "Why wasn't Cheryl crying?" A single word described it all. "...dead." However, the most important question about who did the shooting was too much for Christie to bear at that particular time and the session was suspended until she was more able.
What was to be a six-week trial opened May 10, 1984 in Eugene at the Lane County Courthouse. Throughout the trial, witnesses came and went. But, the highpoint was when Christie Downs, in tears, took the stand. Fred Hugi’s heart broke. It was clear he loved the child and detested having to question her.
From time to time, he handed tissues to wipe away the tears. He didn't rush her and made it as easy as possible for her under the circumstances. But when the all important question of who did the shooting came, Christie rallied and stated "My mom. She leaned over to the back seat and shot Danny."
On June 14, 1984, Diane Downs was pronounced 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…and the list went on. She was sentenced to life in prison, plus an additional 50 years for using a firearm. In the interim Diane had given birth to a little girl, whom she named Amy. Amy was adopted by a caring family.
Today Diane sits in the Valley Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California. She became eligible for parole in 2006. In 2012 she was again denied.
In 1986, Danny and Christie moved into the home of their new adopted parents, Fred and Joanne Hugi.