A Woman Scorned: The Tragic & Deadly Story Of How Far Diane Downs Went For Love
Just before 11 P.M., Diane Downs reportedly pulled her blood-soaked car up to the door of McKenzie-Willamette Hospital and screamed, “Somebody just shot my kids!”
SPRINGFIELD, OR — Before Charles Stuart in 1989, and before Susan Smith in 1994, Diane Downs made national headlines by claiming that an unknown assailant had violently attacked her and her family, causing outrage and making national headlines.
The Downs incident occurred on May 19, 1983, when the 27-year-old mother insisted that she and her three children had been shot by a stranger on a deserted road in Springfield, Oregon.
Local police alerted the public to be on the lookout for a dangerous man with a gun as the toll of the attack on Downs and her children became clear: seven-year-old Cheryl was dead; three-year-old Danny was permanently paralyzed from the waist down; and eight-year-old Christie was clinging to life, having suffered a stroke because her blood pressure was so low.
Downs herself had been shot in the forearm during what she claimed was a struggle with the mysterious stranger. But, as would be the case years later with both Stuart and Smith, the shocking truth eventually came to light that Diane Downs had allegedly lied about the deadly attack on her children. The ghastly crimes were not perpetrated by a nameless, faceless stranger as she told police, but seemingly by Diane Downs herself.
Downs was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1955 and attended Moon Valley High School where she met and fell in love with her future husband, Steve. After graduation, the two went their separate ways for a bit, Steve to the Navy and Diane to Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College in California.
Downs was expelled from the college after one year, reportedly for her promiscuity, and she returned home to Arizona and reconnected with Steve. The couple married in November 1973, when Diane was only 18 years old.
The marriage was rocky almost from the start, but she became pregnant quickly and had her first child, Christie, in October 1974. A second child, Cheryl, quickly followed in January 1976.
Despite the arrival of two daughters, Diane and Steve’s marriage was unstable, and Diane would often take the kids and leave their home, but would always eventually return home to Steve.
The family moved to Mesa, Arizona, and Diane and Steve worked at the same mobile-home manufacturer. It was in Mesa that Diane had an affair with a coworker and became pregnant yet again. In December 1979, she gave birth to her son Danny. Steve knew that Diane had multiple affairs, and that Danny was not his biological son, and he and Diane divorced in 1980.
Downs then fell in love with a married coworker named Robert Knickerbocker, who continuously promised Diane he’d be with her and always reneged. Knickerbocker even reportedly told Downs he’d leave his wife and move to Oregon to be with her, where she'd taken a job with the U.S. Postal Service to be closer to her parents.
Eventually, in early 1983, Knickerbocker told Downs that he was not going to leave his wife for her and that he did not want to be father to Downs’ children or any children, for that matter. For Downs, this was the last straw in a series of culminating disappointments in her life.
Downs had only been living in Oregon for six weeks when it seems she just snapped. On the night of May 19, 1983, Downs was driving with her three children. According to Downs, they had visited a friend in the nearby town of Marcola and were driving back to Springfield along a lonely stretch of highway. Downs is said to have claimed that she spotted a bushy-haired man who waved down her car along the desolate road. She then said she pulled over because she thought the stranger needed help. But Downs' story continued that when she got out of her car to help, the man told her that he wanted her vehicle.
When Downs expressed disbelief at the man’s request, she said he started shooting through the window at her three children. Downs said that she then faked throwing her keys out of the car into some bushes, pushed the gunman away, and got back into her car and drove as fast as she could to the hospital with her gravely injured children. Downs herself had been shot in the left forearm.
Just before 11 P.M., Downs pulled her blood-soaked car up to the door of McKenzie-Willamette Hospital and screamed, “Somebody just shot my kids!” Cheryl, seven; lay dead in the front seat, and Christie, eight; and Danny, three; were sprawled in the back seat, clinging to life.
Downs brought authorities to the crime scene, where police found spent .22 caliber bullet casings, but could not find a weapon. When she returned to the hospital, Downs was informed that Cheryl was dead, but her other two children had survived the attack.
Hospital employees recall that Downs’ attitude was very strange and she seemed incredibly calm in spite of her tragic situation. The only living witness to the crime was Christie, whose stroke impaired her speech and made her unable to speak to police. Three-year-old Danny was believed to have been asleep at the time of the incident.
Almost immediately, police suspected that something was amiss. Detectives, like the hospital staff, were struck by Downs’ aloof attitude about the shootings and the fact that one of her children had been killed. Downs’ story also changed over the the course of several interrogations, leading police to suspect that there hadn’t been a violent predator on the road that night at all, but rather Downs had attacked her own children and shot herself to make her story more believable.
Police interviewed Steve Downs about his ex-wife and discovered that she owned a .22 caliber gun like the one used in the shootings. Steve also told police that Diane was still obsessed with her ex-lover Robert Knickerbocker, who had eventually put an end to their torrid love affair.
When questioned by police, Knickerbocker admitted to the affair and said that each time he'd tried to break off his relationship with Downs, she'd become violent. Evidence continued to pile up against Diane Downs. Although the .22 used in the shootings was never found, police found unfired bullets in Downs’ home that had the same extractor marks as bullet casings found at the crime scene.
Downs tried to defend herself against the allegations and said, "Why would I have taken my kids to the hospital? Wouldn't I have made sure they were dead and then cried crocodile tears? That's insane to think that I would do such a thing and then bring the witnesses in against myself — that's crazy."
Nine months after the shootings, on February 28, 1984, Diane Downs was arrested and charged with one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder. Prosecutors argued that Downs wanted to kill her children so she could be free to continue her affair with Robert Knickerbocker, who had been adamant that he did not want children.
When the trial began, Christie Downs, then nine-years-old, had recovered the ability to speak and she provided extremely damaging testimony for the prosecution. On the witness stand, the young girl was asked if she remembered who shot her. Christie’s response: “My mom.”
Christie said that her mother had pulled the car over on the dark, isolated road, retrieved something from the trunk of the car, and started shooting at her and her siblings. On June 17, 1984, a jury found Diane Downs guilty of murder and attempted murder. She was given a life sentence plus 50 years.
In an interesting development, in 1986, Christie and Danny Downs were adopted by Fred Hugi, the lead prosecutor who put their mother behind bars for the rest of her life.
It seemed as if Diane Downs’ bizarre and tragic story was over when she was sent away to prison to serve her sentence, but on July 11, 1987, Downs escaped from the Oregon Women's Correctional Center in Salem. For 10 days, Downs remained at large.
On July 21, she was recaptured less than half a mile away from the prison at a house with a group of men. Later that year, Downs was transferred to a maximum-security prison in New Jersey, where authorities believed she would be less likely to escape because she knew no one there and would have no place to run.
Today, Diane Downs is 63 years old and sits in a California prison. She's been imprisoned for nearly 35 years.
All these years later, Diane Downs still maintains her innocence. Downs was denied parole in 2008 and 2010. Her next parole hearing will be in 2020.
For more on this case, watch the "Fatal Attraction" episode of Investigation Discovery's Deadly Women on ID GO now!