"Stalked in the forest, too close to hide
I'll be upon you by the moonlight side"
- From Duran Duran's 1982 hit song "Hungry Like the Wolf"
Park your car in the darkness - on a warm May night just like the one 25 years ago today - right where the river meets the road, and feel the stillness of the Mohawk Valley air.
Stand in the middle of the road where she said the stranger with the "shaggy hair" and "stubble beard" stood, and see your shadow created by the three-quarter moon.
Peer toward the river, through the blackness in the trees, and wonder if that's where she tossed the never-found gun - then feel your skin jump, your pulse quicken, as something skitters in the brush.
This is where it happened. And this story - about something unthinkable, something unimaginable in its horribleness - is an anniversary story about an event some would just as soon forget.
So why tell it? Why remember the sad tale of child killer Elizabeth Diane Downs, convicted by a Lane County jury in 1984 of shooting all three of her children, killing Cheryl, 7, and gravely wounding Christie, 8, and Danny, 3?
It's a "cautionary tale," said Seattle true-crime author Ann Rule, whose best-selling book on Downs' case, 1987's "Small Sacrifices," helped make both her and Downs household names. "It certainly should warn people that we need to take care of all kids, not just our own. We need to be reminded ... maybe to stop it from happening in other instances."
Rule remembers those who came forward later, neighbors, co-workers, ex-lovers, to tell of Downs' bizarre and neglectful parental behavior. "If you see a child mistreated, say something," she added.
For every person who would rather not recall the awful event that happened on that dark and lonely curve of Old Mohawk Road, north of Springfield, on May 19, 1983, there are just as many - probably more - who still find Downs a fascinating study in filicide. Hers is a story about the dark side of obsession.
For many others, the story became an obsession of a different sort.
Rule was drawn in from the beginning. She sat in the front row, squeezed together with the rest of the press, at Downs' trial, absorbing every word, every little movement.
You could say former Lane County Deputy District Attorney Fred Hugi, in a way, devoted his life to the case. After spending a year completely consumed with the first homicide he ever prosecuted, he later adopted Christie and Danny Downs.
Despite Diane Downs' varying versions of what happened that night, and her conviction on all counts, her father, former Springfield postmaster Wes Frederickson, is still intent on proving the innocence of his oldest child. Downs, now 52, has been lodged in the maximum-security Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, Calif., since 1993, after stints in New Jersey and Washington state prisons that followed her 10-day 1987 escape from the Oregon Women's Correctional Center.
A resident today of Denison, Texas, Frederickson has a Web site, www.dianedowns.com, that challenges everything in the case, from trace metal tests performed on Downs' hands the night of the shooting to ballistics tests, to even saying he knows exactly who the "shaggy-haired stranger" is that his daughter initially blamed. He even includes a photograph of the man, a lifelong Lane County criminal, on the site.
"I thought somebody needed to say something for Diane," said Frederickson, 77, who hinted that more might soon be revealed. "I'm getting ready to do something. I don't know what it is, but I'm going to blow some of those people out of the water," he said of those who prosecuted and locked up his daughter.
The prosecution said Downs' motive was her obsession with a married Arizona man, a fellow postal carrier who spurned her love and refused to follow her to Oregon 25 springs ago.
Robert Knickerbocker (called Lew Lewiston in Rule's book) took the witness stand at Downs' murder trial, saying, "I have nothing against children, I just don't want any of my own," and claiming he saw what police said was the murder weapon in the trunk of Downs' car the night before she moved to Oregon with her children.
Today, Downs' sordid tale lives in infamy on the Internet. Google "Diane Downs" and you get about 140,000 hits, about four times more than when you enter "Kip Kinkel," who killed four people in Springfield 10 years ago Wednesday.
"The fascination has to do with the fact that for the average person, one of our worst fears is to outlive our children," said Frank Colistro, a Portland forensic psychologist who has served as a consultant to the Oregon Department of Corrections for 30 years. "So the thought of a parent killing, or attempting to kill, their own children is horrendous beyond all imagination."
Downs' case, though, had so many unbelievable subplots that "it was almost like a movie," recalled Rule, who added that Downs' story and her writing about it "changed my life. It changed a lot of people's lives."
In fact, Downs' story became a made-for-TV movie. The 1989 two-part series starred Farrah Fawcett in the role of Downs and Ryan O'Neal as Lew Lewiston.
How could it not end up as a movie? In addition to an attractive 27-year-old mother shooting all three of her children as Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" was said to be playing on the car's casette deck, her blaming a "shaggy-haired stranger" for the shootings and driving the kids to the hospital herself, you had this:
Downs had been a surrogate mother (in 1982 she gave birth to a baby girl for a Louisville, Ky., couple) who seemed obsessed with being pregnant; when the trial began she was more than seven months pregnant with the child of a Cottage Grove man she'd had a brief fling with; she claimed her strict Baptist father molested her as a young girl; one of the Lane County detectives on the case was named Dick Tracy; the prosecutor, Hugi, eventually adopted Christie and Danny; and all that was followed by Downs' 1987 prison escape, which again put her in the national headlines.
"It had a little bit of everything," recalled Lane County Circuit Court Judge Greg Foote, who was just 36 years old when he heard the case, his first murder trial as a judge. "Not to mention that it was a pretty strange story to begin with."
`Somebody shot my kids!'
When the spring sun sets on a clear 72-degree day like the one a quarter-century ago today in the Mohawk Valley, the Coburg Hills to the west are black against the night air, silhouetted by the midnight-blue horizon. And stars you cannot see in the city dot the sky.
Downs took her children from the family's duplex in the 1300 block of Q Street, just on the north side of the Eugene-Springfield Highway, and drove toward Marcola to visit a co-worker at her home on Sunderman Road.
A divorced single mother, Downs and her children had arrived in Oregon on Easter after driving from Chandler, Ariz., where Downs had been a postal carrier. She had been working out of the Cottage Grove Post Office for about six weeks.
They left the friend's home between 9:40 p.m. and 9:50 p.m., according to various estimates. Downs said she then took the kids "sightseeing" along the Mohawk River, even though it was 10 p.m. She was coming back on Marcola Road, heading south toward Springfield, when she turned off onto Old Mohawk Road, she said. The children were asleep by now, she claimed.
Not far down the road, where it curves by the Mohawk River, a man was waving his arms for her to stop, she said. He wanted her car even though he had a beat-up yellow late e_SSRq60s or early e_SSRq70s Chevrolet pulled to the side of the road. Downs got out of her car and faked throwing her keys into the bushes, she said. That's when the man shot the children, then shot her in the left arm, Downs told authorities.
She jumped back into her car and sped toward McKenzie-Willamette Hospital in Springfield, about 15 minutes away. She pulled her red 1983 Nissan Pulsar with Arizona license plates up to the hospital entrance about 10:40 p.m., screaming, "Somebody shot my kids!" according to Rule's book.
Cheryl, who was in the front passenger seat, was already dead, having been shot twice, including in the heart. Christie sustained two gunshot wounds to the chest and was near death. She would have a stroke that impaired her speech and partially paralyzed her right arm. Danny was shot near the spine and was paralyzed from the waist down. Downs' own gunshot would, police would later say was self-inflicted.
The biggest show in town
By early June, news broke that Downs was a suspect in the case. A bizarre local story had become a national one. Downs - who talked freely about the case - held press conferences at will up until her arrest, expressing her outrage, but was no longer allowed contact with Christie and Danny, whom the state Children's Services Division put in foster care.
Downs was arrested Feb. 28, 1984, after Christie told a grand jury that it was indeed her mother who shot her and her siblings.
Downs' six-week trial began May 8, 1984. Crowds were so large from the start that Foote moved the trial from the fourth floor of the Lane County Courthouse to the largest courtroom in the building, on the third floor. There were lines of spectators outside the courthouse every day, jockeying to get a seat inside.
Despite not having the murder weapon, key evidence the prosecution did have was the testimony of ballistics experts who discovered that some of the cartridges in a .22-caliber rifle found at Downs' duplex had been worked through the action of a .22-caliber Ruger pistol, the gun that had belonged to Downs' ex-husband, Steve Downs, and that she left Arizona with, he said. Marks left by extractors on shell casings found at the crime scene were identical to marks found on the rifle cartridges.
`Who shot you?'
The trial had "all those things you see in fiction that you don't usually see at a real trial," Rule recalled. Things such as the playing of "Hungry Like the Wolf" in the courtroom. As the song played "I'm on the hunt, I'm after you ..." most everyone got chills, Rule said. Everyone except Downs, who sat there mouthing the words, snapping her fingers, and tapping her toe to the music.
Said to be Downs' favorite song from the album "Rio," which police found in the casette deck of her car after the shooting, it was that song, about frustrated passion, and that album that a psychologist used to help Christie trigger her memory of who shot her. She said it was playing when her mother pulled the trigger over and over.
At age 9, Christie took the stand on May 15, 1984. She sobbed at times, and there were few dry eyes in the courtroom that day, but it was her courageousness that made the difference in the trial, Rule wrote. There probably would have been no conviction without her testimony.
After Christie testified that her mother went to the trunk and returned with a gun and shot her brother and sister, Hugi asked her, "Who shot you?" Rule wrote.
"My mom," Christie answered.
The jury deliberated for 36 hours before emerging at 12:20 a.m. on June 18. Downs, on the verge of giving birth, listened as Foote said the jury found her guilty on all counts.
On June 27, she was taken from the Lane County Jail to Sacred Heart Medical Center, where she gave birth for the fifth time, to a baby girl. The baby was taken from her shortly after and put up for adoption.
On Aug. 28, Foote sentenced Downs to life plus 50 years, saying her crime was "an outrage of the highest proportions" and that she had treated her children "like they were some kind of worthless baggage."
Dr. George Suckow testified at the sentencing that his psychiatric examination of Downs concluded that she had not one but three personality disorders - narcissistic, histrionic and anti-social.
Those who commit filicide usually fall into the "character-disordered" category, rather than mentally ill or emotionally disturbed, said Colistro, the Portland forensic psychologist. Those people are "supremely self-absorbed," he said.
One more version
Lane County Deputy District Attorney Paul Graebner recently pulled a handful of evidence - love letters to "Knick," photographs, affidavits, phone records - from one of four file cabinets in the Lane County district attorney's office that still contains evidence from the Downs case. Much of it is from appeals. Downs is one of the most litigious defendants in Oregon history. She has filed at least 12 appeals since being convicted, according to a 2005 Associated Press story.
Graebner has been the office's keeper of the case practically since arriving in 1987. He was on the same trial team as Hugi when Downs' post-conviction appeals began to come through and someone else needed to step in because Hugi now had a conflict of interest since he and his wife, Joanne, adopted Downs' children in 1986.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing Graebner pulled from the file cabinets was an affidavit of his own dated March 27, 1992. Attached to it was a copy of a little-known Nov. 7, 1984, handwritten letter from Downs to her Eugene trial attorney, Jim Jagger, in which, Graebner said, "she acknowledged to Jagger that she lied to the jury about many events." The letter was collected by the Oregon attorney general's office as part of Downs' post-conviction appeal paperwork in Marion County, Graebner said.
Jagger, who still practices law in Eugene, didn't respond to a phone call seeking comment about the letter.
Downs changed her story many times during the course of the investigation, from the initial "shaggy-haired stranger" story to saying the gunman knew her and called her by name, to saying it was two men in ski masks. Five months after being convicted, and about two months after being sent to prison, she had changed it again. Here's some of what she wrote:
Yes, there had been a "stranger." And the reason she pulled over that night was because she was flirting with him in a cat-and-mouse game on Marcola Road.
"We pulled off Marcola onto Old Mohawk. Why? Just because ... The kids were asleep, he was a man, and I wasn't tired yet. I like men, and I love to flirt."
She pulled over and the man parked behind her. "He asked me if I had any `smoke,' and even though he wasn't exactly my kind of guy, I figured it would be better to placate him, rather than offend him."
She had a bag of marijuana in her trunk so she went to get it. Her ex-husband's pistol, the .22-caliber Ruger that has never been found, was sitting in the trunk, inside a black case. Before she knew what happened the man grabbed the case, removed the gun, threw the case and the marijuana onto the hood of his car and grabbed Downs' arm.
They struggled and he shot Christie, who, like Cheryl and Danny, was still asleep. Then he shot the other two children. Downs struggled with the gunman again. The gun went off and she was struck in the left arm.
When the gunman looked away briefly, Downs pushed him, jumped in her car and escaped. "I have no idea if he fell or what. I wasn't looking at him."
Downs wrote that she didn't tell the police the truth at the hospital because "I couldn't tell them about my loose morals which put us in the dangerous situation. I didn't want my parents and the hospital staff and the police to think I was a tramp." Plus, she was afraid she'd lose her job with the post office if they knew she had marijuana.
"I couldn't tell them about the pot, therefore I couldn't tell them about the gun. I was afraid, Jim - afraid of what people would think of me. Ironic, isn't it? I didn't want someone to think I had loose morals, and now they think I'm a murderess."
A postscript: Christie still lives in Springfield, with her husband and toddler son. She graduated from Thurston High School before going on to college. Dan Hugi graduated from Marist High School and, despite his paralysis, competed on the school swim team before heading off to college. Hugi retired from the district attorney's office in 1997. None of the three has ever spoken publicly about the case and did not respond to requests for interviews.
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|Title Annotation:||City/Region; Twenty-five years after a horrific crime on a lonely country road, people are still fascinated by Diane Downs|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||May 19, 2008|
|Previous Article:||County sees no good options.|
|Next Article:||Downs' parole considered soon.|