Elizabeth Diane Downs was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1984. This was her punishment for the shootings and attempted murders of her three children. One of them died as a result of her actions. At the time of the incident, Downs told authorities that there was an attempted carjack. Of course, this later proved to be a lie. In 1987, Downs escaped prison and was on the run for a short period of time before being recaptured.
In the spring of 1983, Diane Downs shot her three children, with all intentions of killing them. To make the story of the attempted carjacking more realistic, she went so far as to shoot herself in the arm. However, witnesses saw Downs’ car as she drove the children to hospital in an attempt to save them. She was so desperate for help that she drove a mere 5 miles per hour. Her calm demeanor at the hospital raised red flags. And it all came to a head when one of her surviving children, unable to speak after suffering a stroke, expressed fear and an increased heart rate when Downs came to visit her. Forensic evidence didn’t support Diane’s story either. She was arrested 9 months after the shooting.
Elizabeth Diane Frederickson Downs (born August 7, 1955) is an American convicted murderer. She shot her three children, killing one, and then told police a stranger had attempted to carjack her and had shot the children. She was convicted in 1984 and sentenced to life in prison.
Downs briefly escaped in 1987 and was recaptured. She is the subject of a book by Ann Rule and a made-for-TV movie based upon it, both called Small Sacrifices. She was denied parole in December 2008 and again in December 2010.
Elizabeth Diane Frederickson was born in Phoenix, Arizona to Wes and Willadene Frederickson on August 7, 1955. She alleges that her father molested her when she was a child. She graduated from Moon Valley High School in Phoenix where she met her future husband, Steve Downs. After high school, she enrolled at Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College in Orange, California, but after a year was expelled for promiscuity and returned to her parents’ home. On November 13, 1973, she married Steve Downs. They were divorced in 1980, about a year after the birth of Stephen “Danny” Downs.
Downs was employed by the United States Postal Service assigned to the mail routes in the city of Cottage Grove, Oregon before her 1983 arrest and trial.
By accounts of friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and eventually by the surviving daughter Christie, Diane Downs was an unfit parent who put everything before her children and was especially cruel to Cheryl, who told a neighbor of her grandparents shortly before her death that she was afraid of her mother.
On May 19, 1983, Downs shot her three children, Stephen Daniel (born 1979); Cheryl Lynn (born 1976); and Christie Ann (born 1974). Downs drove the children in a blood-spattered car to McKenzie-Willamette Hospital. There was blood spatter all over the inside of the car but none on Diane. On arrival at the hospital, Cheryl was already dead. Downs herself had been shot in the left forearm. Downs claimed she was carjacked on a rural road near Springfield, Oregon by a strange man who shot her and her three children. Investigators became suspicious because they decided her manner was too calm for a person who had experienced such a traumatic event.
Their suspicions heightened when Downs went for the first time to see Christie, who was unable to speak after suffering a stroke. Christie’s eyes glazed over with apparent fear and her heart rate jumped dramatically. They also discovered that immediately upon arriving at the hospital, Downs had called Robert Knickerbocker, a married man and former colleague in Arizona with whom she had been having an affair.
The forensic evidence did not match Downs’ story; there was no blood on the driver’s side of the car, nor was there any gunpowder residue on the driver’s panel. Knickerbocker also reported to police that Downs had stalked him and seemed willing to kill his wife if it meant that she could have him to herself; Knickerbocker stated that he was relieved that Downs had left for Oregon and he was able to reconcile with his wife. Downs did not tell police she owned a .22 caliber handgun, but both Steve Downs (her ex-husband) and Knickerbocker (her ex-lover) said she did own one.
Investigators later discovered she bought the handgun in Arizona, and although they were unable to find the actual weapon, they found unfired casings in her home with extractor markings from the same gun that shot the children. Most damaging, witnesses saw Downs’s car being driven very slowly toward the hospital at an estimated speed of five to seven mph, contradicting Downs’ claim that she drove to the hospital at a high speed after the shooting. Based on this and additional evidence, Downs was arrested nine months after the event, on February 28, 1984, and charged with murder and two counts each of attempted murder and criminal assault.
Prosecutors argued that Downs shot her children to be free of them so she could continue her affair with Knickerbocker, who let it be known that he did not want children in his life. Much of the case against Downs rested on the testimony of surviving daughter Christie, who, once she recovered her ability to speak, described how her mother shot all three children while parked at the side of the road and then shot herself in the arm. Christie was eight years old at the time of the murder and nine years old at the time of the trial.
Downs was found guilty on all charges on June 17, 1984, and sentenced to life in prison plus fifty years. Psychiatrists diagnosed Downs with narcissistic, histrionic and antisocial personality disorders. Most of her sentence is to be served consecutively. The judge made it clear that he did not wish Downs to ever regain her freedom.
The surviving children eventually went to live with one of the prosecutors of the case, Fred Hugi. He and his wife Joanne adopted them in 1984.
Prior to her arrest and trial, Downs became pregnant with a fourth child and gave birth a month after her 1984 trial to a girl she named Amy. Ten days before her sentencing, the baby was seized by the State of Oregon and adopted soon after. She was renamed Rebecca “Becky” Babcock.
Downs escaped from the Oregon Women’s Correctional Center of the Oregon Department of Corrections on July 11, 1987, and was recaptured in Salem, Oregon on July 21. She received a five-year sentence for the escape.
After her escape, she was housed in the New Jersey Department of Corrections Clinton Correctional Institution. In 1994, after serving ten years, Downs was transferred to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. While in prison, Downs has earned an associate’s college degree in general studies. As of 2010, she is located in the Valley State Prison for Women.
Author Ann Rule wrote the book Small Sacrifices in 1987, detailing the life of Downs. A made-for-TV movie called Small Sacrifices, starring Farrah Fawcett as Downs, was released in 1989.
Diane Downs’s last child, born shortly after her trial concluded, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show on October 22, 2010 and ’20/20 July 1, 2011.
Downs’s sentence makes her eligible for parole consideration after serving 25 years. Under Oregon law, as a dangerous offender she will be eligible for a parole consideration hearing every two years until she is released or dies in prison.
In her first application for parole in 2008, Downs reaffirmed her innocence. “Over the years,” she said, “I have told you and the rest of the world that a man shot me and my children. I have never changed my story.” Downs’s first parole hearing was on December 9, 2008. Lane County District Attorney Douglas Harcleroad wrote to the parole board, “Downs continues to fail to demonstrate any honest insight into her criminal behavior…even after her convictions, she continues to fabricate new versions of events under which the crimes occurred.” She alternately refers to her assailants as a “bushy-haired stranger”, two men wearing ski masks or drug dealers and corrupt law enforcement officials.
Downs participated in the hearing from the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California. She was not permitted a statement, but answered questions from the parole board. After three hours of interviews and thirty minutes of deliberation, Diane Downs was denied parole. Downs was eligible to reapply for parole in 2010.
Downs faced her second parole hearing on December 10, 2010. She was denied parole, and under a new law will not be eligible for parole for another ten years. She will have to wait to apply for parole until 2020, when she will be 65 years old.
She looks like a model out of the pages of Cosmopolitan or Vogue, a woman with a Cover Girl complexion and a Pepsodent smile.
But behind the attractive facade lies a cunning, sinister killer who according to court testimony shot and killed one of her daughters and seriously wounded her second daughter and her son.
Oregon law enforcement authorities have never encountered anyone quite like Elizabeth Diane Downs. From the moment she was arrested on Feb. 28, 1984 to the moment she was convicted on June 19, Downs maintained she was innocent of the shooting, that a stranger or strangers trying to commandeer her car, shot her and her three children on the night of May 19, 1983, along a rural road near Springfield.
Yet, right from the start, Lane County authorities considered Downs a prime suspect in the shootings. They seriously doubted her story that a “shaggy- haired stranger” flagged her down and then demanded her car keys. Downs claimed that when she pretended to throw her keys into some bushes, the stranger became unglued, pulled out a gun and shot her and her three sleeping children in the car. The man fled on foot.
Downs suffered a bullet wound in her left arm, although authorities contended it was self-inflicted to throw suspicion off her. Her daughter Cheryl Lynn, 7, was fatally wounded, and her other two children — Christie Ann, 8, and Stephen Daniel, 3, sustained near paralizing injuries from the shootings.
Lane County Sheriff’s Deputies arrested Downs Feb. 28, 1984, as she entered the Cottage Grove post office where she worked as a part-time letter carder. A Lane County Grand Jury indicted Downs on one count of murder, two counts of attempted murder and two counts of first-degree assault.
Downs’ 31-day jury trial in Lane County Circuit Court in Eugene was one of the most widely-covered murder trials in Oregon history. Downs played to the cameras lined up outside the Lane County courthouse when she arrived and departed each day, forever smiling and waving to the assembled reporters, photographers, television cameramen and spectators. She seemed to bask in the spotlight outside the courtroom.
But inside the courtroom, Downs was taking a beating from some unrelentless prosecutors who had obviously done their homework and some key witnesses who shot holes through her story. The most damaging testimony came from her own surviving daughter, Christie Ann.
On the witness stand Christie Ann Downs testified her mother stopped the car off a rural road, got out of the car and went back to the trunk. The girl then testified her mother opened the trunk, shut it and returned to the car with something in her hand. Seconds later, she heard the first shot.
When asked by Frederick A. Hugi, Lane County Deputy District Attorney, how she knew her mother fatally shot her sister, Christie Ann replied in a quivering voice: “I watched her …..My mom did it.”
Then, under Hugi’s questioning, Christie Ann tearfully told the jury that her mother leaned over the back seat of the car and shot her brother, Danny, and her.
Despite some pointed cross-examination by Downs’ attorney James C. Jagger, Christie Ann denied anyone coached her or told her to lie about the shooting. Jagger had suggested in his opening remarks that others had told the girl what happened the night of the shooting and that she had been led to believe that her mother committed the acts.
Testifying in her own defense, Downs later denied she shot her children because they stood in the way of her and her former lover. The prosecution contended Downs shot her three children because her ex-boyfriend in Chandler, Ariz., didn’t want any part in a woman with three children.
She insisted she loved her three children, that she never cared enough about any man to want to harm her children.
The jury of nine women and three men deliberated 36 hours before returning its unanimous verdict: Guilty of murder for the shooting death of Cheryl Lynn Downs. Guilty of attempted murder in the shootings of Christie Ann Downs and Stephen Daniel Downs. Guilty of first-degree assault for the attack on her three children.
Downs, who was carrying her fourth child at the time, showed little emotion as the verdict was read by Circuit Judge Gregory G. Foote. She was later sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years.
But authorities hadn’t heard or seen the last of Elizabeth Diane Downs. On July 11, 1987 — three years after she was sentenced — Downs pulled off a daring escape from the Oregon Women’ s Correctional Center in Salem. Authorities said she scaled two, 18-foot fences surrounding the prison, climbed under a pick-up truck, and waited several minutes before calmly walking away. Prison officials later said they believe Downs wore several layers of clothing to avoid puncture wounds from the barbed wire atop the fences. A tattered striped shirt was found under the pick-up truck where Downs reportedly hid after scaling the prison fences.
An alarm hooked to the outside fence rang briefly at 8:40 a.m. that morning, but prison officials didn’t think anything of it, saying the sensitive alarm went off accidentally at least once a day due to anything from a strong wind to a bird. However, when a nurse arriving at the prison 15 minutes later reported seeing a suspicious woman climb out from under a pickup truck and walk away, saying she believed the woman was Diane Downs, prison guards did a quick emergency roll call and discovered Downs missing.
A massive search of the Salem area was launched. Ironically, Downs, wearing civilian-type clothing, was picked up hitchhiking, virtually right across the street from the women’s prison and adjacent to Division 2 headquarters of the Oregon State Police. The unwitting couple that picked up Downs drove her to the site of a restaurant at State and 24th streets, three blocks from the prison, where Downs got out.
The couple would later tell authorities Downs said she needed to get to a phone quickly because her boyfriend had just been injured in an automobile accident.
Downs’ escape triggered a multi-state search which surprisingly ended 10 days later back in Salem — less than a half mile from the prison. Indentations on a piece of paper found in Downs’ cell were analyzed by the FBI. Using an electrostatic process, the FBI was able to enhance the indentations on the paper, which included an address of a house and a map showing its location.
Oregon State Police conducted a driveby surveillance of the run-down house for two days. Then, state and local police served a search warrant on the house and found Downs and four men inside. The four men were charged with hindering prosecution.
In November, 1987, Downs was transferred to the Correctional Institution for Women, in Clinton, N.J., a maximum security prison. In exchange, Oregon prison officials agreed to take two New Jersey criminals.
Downs made news again in September, 1991, when Marion County Circuit Judge Duane R. Erstgaard denied her request for a new trial. Erstgaard wrote his decision in a letter to Downs’ attorneys, saying she was adequately represented by lawyers in her trial and appeal. The Oregon Court of Appeals upheld her convictions in February, 1987.
But Elizabeth Diane Downs, whose story was the subject of at least two novels and a made-for-television movie, continues to maintain her innocence in her never-ending efforts to overturn her 1984 convictions from her new home — the Washington State Women’s Correctional Institute in Gig Harbor, Wash.