On May 19, 1983, Elizabeth Diane Downs and her three small children were shot on a country road near Springfield, Oregon. Her 7-year old daughter Cheryl died but her 3-year old son Danny and her 8-year old daughter Christie survived. Within three weeks, Diane had lost custody of her remaining wounded children and had become the number one suspect in the eyes of the police department and District Attorney’s office.
This case flew under my radar so to speak because it happened before my ‘time’. I had nonetheless heard of the legendary Diane Downs; the cruel sociopath who had sacrificed her own children to be free to pursue a relationship with the man she loved. I must humbly admit that I had not questioned the facts of the case before readily accepting this image of Diane as a cold blooded killer. I know better now than to accept blindly the truth presented to us on a silver platter by the media and the judicial system.
Having recently done research on the Liysa Northon’s case which was the subject of a book written by Ann Rule titled Heart Full of Lies, I came across some very interesting information about the Diane Downs’ case because Rule attended the trial and also wrote a book about the case called Small Sacrifices.
In reality, the whole case turned out to be no small sacrifice for Diane Downs, but it was a huge victory for the State, the media and a very lucrative deal for the Queen of crime fiction herself; Ann Rule.
In her book Heart Full of Lies, Rule took so many liberties with the facts that Liysa Northon sued her. It opened a huge can of worms regarding the real identity of the heart full of lies in this case. Some 287 errors and falsehoods were documented by Liysa and verified by official sources. Rule sued the Seattle Weekly after they published the article titled ‘’Ann Rule’s Sloppy Storytelling,” but she lost and had to make restitution.
The popular TV movie “Small Sacrifices” was based on Ann Rule’s book and it painted a horrid picture of the mother accused of shooting her children on Old Mohawk Road. The role of Diane Downs was played by none other than Farrah Fawcett and her lover was played by Ryan O’Neal who had been Farrah’s love interest in real life. They brought out the big guns to unload on the public, their idea of the truth: Diane Downs was a horrible creature and a jilted lover who shot her three children in cold blood to be free to pursue a relationship with the man she was obsessed with.
My opposition to movies about true crime stories is unshakable. It should be illegal to use real names and facts from a criminal case while influencing the public to falsely believe that the whole content of the film is true. The Lifetime channel constantly makes movies based loosely on the truth; this approach is an effective weapon aimed at swaying public opinion about high-profile cases.
Ann Rule promotes her books as true crime stories so to this day, viewers believe that the book and the movie titledSmall Sacrifices document the true story of the Diane Downs’ case; in fact, it is a mix bag of truth, falsehoods, interpretation and plain fiction.
Diane Downs was born August 7, 1955 in Phoenix, Arizona. Her parents Willadene and Wes were old school Baptist parents who raised her under strict guidelines without much warmth but with complete devotion.
Diane was known for her love of all animals which she treated with great care, and for her independent and wild streak. She was extremely intelligent but her emotional IQ was no match and her desire for freedom, love and affection were dangerously dragging her down a path of self-destruction. In high school, she met handsome Steven Downs who saw her for the great beauty she had become. Growing up, Diane had felt like an outsider and kids had been cruel towards her because of her real or imagined ugly duckling looks and demeanor. She did not fit in and was now anxious to assert her independence and live her own life.
She learned at a young age to keep her emotions in check and to always present a strong and brave front. That is the way she was brought up, especially at the demand of her rigid but very dedicated father.
After graduation, Steven joined the Navy and Diane was sent to Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College where she failed miserably at remaining pure and chaste, not unlike most girls of her generation who rejected their strict religious upbringing. She was expelled and reunited with Steven against her parents’ wishes. They had dreamt of a good future for their daughter and Steven was not part of it.
Steven and Diane married on November 13, 1973. She was eighteen and soon realized that she had jumped from the fire into the frying pan. Her quest for love had landed her into an unstable and loveless marriage. Her husband turned out to be a player and a very irresponsible guy who did not really love her.
So Diane did what she thought would bring her the deepest satisfaction in life; she became a mother. She felt fulfilled when she was pregnant because she believed it was the road to unconditional love. Christie was born in October 1974 and Cheryl Lynn in January 1976.
This unhealthy marriage survived and became a daily struggle. Diane ran away from her husband many times between 1976 and 1977, but with nowhere to go except her parents’ house, she would come back. And Steven would hunt her down anyway and charm his way back into her life. It was the story of two young people trying to survive without a safety net.
In 1979, Diane gave birth to Danny who was not the biological son of Steven who had no desire to be a father again. As usual, Diane had resorted to the soothing comfort of a pregnancy to pretend life would get better; she would create a nest around her come hell or high water. And Steven was free to follow her lead or not. Surprisingly, he accepted little Danny and learned to love him dearly. But the birth of this little boy did not make this bad boy change his stripes; he remained a cad and a destabilizing force in their lives.
Finally, Diane found a full-time job with the U.S. Post Office in 1981, and was stationed in Chandler. She had always been the bread winner and never wavered in her desire to bring financial stability to her family. She even became a surrogate mother to make money and provide two parents the opportunity to have a child. She entertained the idea of opening a surrogacy agency but the project never really took off. This was ridiculed countless times in the media, but frankly, it can be a very honorable endeavor, depending on how you want to look at it.
In Rule’s book, Diane is portrayed as a horrible selfish mother but her family and friends saw another version; she loved her children dearly and worked hard to be a good provider. She was the first to admit that at times, she yelled too much and was not the best mother but she seemed to have turned the corner and was doing her best with the means at her disposal. From all accounts, her children adored her.
Diane, of her own admission, had plenty of affairs while she worked at the Post Office. And Robert Knickerbocker became one of her lovers. He actually was the one who suggested they become intimate after many friendly, platonic conversations. As a married man, the ball was in his court and he decided to go for it. Diane found with him, the kind of relationship she had never known before: there was actually care and intimacy involved. Robert and Diane even decided to get matching tattoos. He separated from his wife and was going to follow Diane who, by now, had decided to move and work in Oregon to be closer to her parents. What followed was a tragedy subject to many interpretations.
The move to Oregon
If there was one thing Diane knew about her lover, is that he was fickle and did not like trouble of any kind. After asking her to have an affair, he kept vacillating between his wife and her. He strung her along, played with both women’s emotions, and after saying he would join her in Oregon, reneged and stayed with his wife. Moreover, he told her that he did not want her children or any children for that matter. This statement alone would seal Diane’s fate.
After six weeks in Oregon where the children were happily spending time with their grandparents while Diane worked her postal route, the incident happened on a dark road that led to Diane being accused of murder and attempted murder.
The shooting on Old Mohawk Road
After visiting a friend and looking at her new horse, Diane and her kids went for a drive; not at all unusual for this family not living according to middle class rules. When the young ones fell asleep in the car, their mother decided to head home. She saw a man on the road and stopped thinking he needed help. According to Diane, he shot her kids, she struggled with him and managed to escape after getting shot.
She drove to the nearest hospital where the nursing staff and doctors attended to the children. The police were called in and her parents arrived promptly. Right away, the police asked her to go back to the crime scene even though she did not want to leave her children behind. Her father also insisted she try to help catch the shooter. She unwillingly followed the cops in spite of being in pain and not wanting to leave the premises.
In the nurse’s notes, she is described as in shock and unable to grasp the situation. Most people described Diane’s injury as minor or superficial but in reality, it was a very serious injury. Her arm was severely damaged, so shattered that she needed a graft from a hip bone. A steel plate had to be attached and some lead fragments were removed.
Her children were obviously more severely injured because being captive in the car while a shooter aimed at them gave them less of a chance to wiggle out of the situation than an adult outside the car.
Diane’s injury had to be quite painful and she had to be in shock while driving to the hospital and accompanying the detectives to the crime scene. So how she behaved at the time, should not have been a factor influencing the authorities. But her behavior became the most important factor in the investigation that followed.
The detectives took Diane to the crime scene and were able to retrieve shell cases on the ground where the incident happened. But strangely, they took no photos of the crime scene and did not lift fingerprints from the car. Diane’s automobile was secured and examined and no gun was found. She also underwent a gun residue test that same evening that revealed that she had not held or shot a gun. She had no blood spatter or gun powder residue on her hands, clothing or hair. Meaning, she could definitely not have been the shooter.
In her book, Ann Rule made sure to mention that Diane went to the bathroom in the hospital and running water was heard, meaning she was washing her hands while the door remained open. First of all, she could only use one of her hands and I doubt that the nurses at the time, were preoccupied by the sound of water in a public bathroom. Plus who leaves the door open when they go to the washroom?
It takes a very deep scrubbing with soap and water to get rid of gun powder residues and a little wash with one hand would not do the trick. Plus, Diane could have never cleaned her clothes and her hair to remove blood and gun powder. So that theory does not hold water.
‘’Gunpowder is one of the toughest stains around, when it comes to removing it from clothes. The fact that – if it gets on your skin – it is like being given a tattoo, should give you some idea what a tough stain it is. Washing soda is your best bet: It includes, among its ingredients, the exceedingly corrosive carbolic acid. If you use this mixed water, you can lift off a gunpowder stain.’’
The bushy haired stranger
Diane described the stranger that shot them on the road and a police artist came up with a sketch. DA Pat Horton declared early in the game to the local paper that ‘the search for the bearded stranger was not very high on their priority list.’’ To the authorities, it was a ridiculous notion that they would not entertain so they did not follow on numerous leads coming from people who had seen someone corresponding to that description.
They already had made up their mind that Diane was the perpetrator so they laughed off the idea of the ‘bushy haired stranger.’ The problem was that they could not find the gun anywhere and they had nothing on Diane.
Teams of people and detectives combed the area for months looking for the gun but it was nowhere to be found. Even prosecutor Fred Hugi was seen walking the grounds to try to find the weapon. They were in a difficult situation because without evidence, they could not charge her for the crime. Yet in their mind, she was already guilty. Sheriff’s Deputy Roy Pond admitted in court that he had already concluded that Diane was guilty and stopped following leads on the orders of his sergeant three weeks after the shooting.
Almost from day one, Diane was perceived as a ‘cancer’ they had to remove. They did not like her attitude and she did not behave the way they expected a grieving mother to act. So it was a relentless game to try to reel her in.
She was fighting back and they did not like it. So they did everything in their power to slant the media and the public in their favor.
This case had many similarities to the Alice Crimmin’s story. An attractive woman whose two children were killed in mysterious circumstances and the cops decided to go after her. They hated her attitude and thought she was promiscuous and showed no sorrow or remorse. Instead of grieving, Alice went partying and had sex. They finally charged her and she did 10 years for the death of her children. To this day, there is not enough evidence to prove her guilt or innocence for that matter.
Not unlike Diane, Alice did not want to share her pain in public. They both fainted when they saw their dead child, but it did not count. The authorities wanted to see them mourn and fall apart. But these women did not show emotions and did not fold when asked to. And these men in black perceived this as an act of war. And they proceeded to go after them with every legal or illegal means at their disposal.
The best policy for Diane Downs would have been to remain silent, but she fought back and smiled at the wrong time and according to them, enjoyed the attention. It did not matter that they had no evidence; they did not like her attitude and she was going to pay for it.
The two mental disorders that cause excessive talking are Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia. If Diane was bipolar, the non-stop chatter would be part of the deal. And the flat affect and sometimes inappropriate smiling would come with the territory so you cannot judge her actions without taking into account that she might not have been acting according to the norms, but it had nothing to do with the evidence of the case. But it is useless labeling anyway.
Right after the shooting, little Danny would ask the nurses, ‘Why did the mean man shoot me?’ and it would be written down in the daily notes. Christie could not speak but after some rehab, she kept saying she did not know who shot her or her siblings.
The powers that be knew they had nothing on Diane so little Christie became their sacrificial lamb. But to convince this little girl to turn on her mother, they needed to isolate her from her family and work relentlessly on her ‘confession.’
Even Ann Rule in her book, keeps mentioning that they only had a few months to get Christie to talk, otherwise they could not keep her away from her mother any longer.
Three weeks after the crime, Judge Foote from family courts, removed Danny and Christie from the care of Diane Downs and her family. Even if the nurses’ notes indicated countless times that the children asked for their mother and enjoyed her visits, they cut them off from the only family they knew and loved; supposedly for their own protection.
In fact, Diane and her lawyer wanted Christie to be able to heal before being questioned and to be accompanied and taped during the sessions. A very reasonable request that was rejected. It became a judicial kidnapping to obtain a coerced confession.
Christie was only eight, had suffered gunshot wounds and was in shock. She had a stroke and was treated with mood altering Dilantin before and after testifying. She had been isolated from her whole family and being unethically interrogated. It was not unlike brainwashing. Every time, she said she did not know, they told her to think again and made suggestions. And the interrogations were not taped and were barely documented.
The unreliability of children’s testimony has been documented by cognitive psychologists such as Elizabeth Loftus of the University of Cornell and others. The harm done to families by unscrupulous district attorneys who bully children into falsely testifying against their parents has recently been documented in a documentary called “Witch Hunt” by Sean Penn about Kern County (CA) District Attorney Ed Jagels. There is no way that a jury would convict Diane today, based on the clearly coached testimony of Christie.
And the fact that she and her brother Danny were eventually adopted by Fred Hugi who prosecuted Diane Downs is the most blatant case of conflict of interest I have ever heard of.
It took months to get Christie to say that her mother was the culprit ant that is when they arrested her. Everything was in the bag and ready for trial.
From the very beginning, the DA’s office had their ducks in a row because in an unprecedented move, Judge Gregory Foote who had denied access to the children by all blood relatives and given their care over to the State, was promoted from ‘juvenile’ to ‘senior’ judge to preside over the trial of Diane Downs. It was Judge Foote’s first criminal case and it was against a woman whose children he had removed from her care even though she had not been convicted or sentenced; a conflict of interest and pure madness. They had him in their pocket and with the testimony of little Christie they were in business.
Diane’s father had hired an ex-Prosecutor to defend his daughter and his name was James C. Jagger. It turned out to be a mistake because he was married to a County Circuit Court Judge who would become a colleague of Foote and he had no intention of defending Diane vigorously. You wondered at times, which side he was working for.
Mr. Downs must have had a bad feeling about Jagger because before trial, he tried to retain defense attorney Melvin Belli who had the reputation of fighting for his clients and to win all his cases. Belli filed a motion for a 3-week extension to familiarize himself with the case and declared Diane innocent in a press conference, but Foote denied the motion and declared ‘’you have an attorney, use him.”
Foote ruled in favor of the prosecution and against the defense on most of the admissible evidence questions including all the nurse’s notes about Danny talking about a man shooting him but admitted Christie’s reports about her mother shooting her.
Diane’s brother sat in court one day and saw Foote looking at Hugi before ruling on an objection. The prosecutor would gently shake his head and Foote would follow with a ruling.
Foote refused 30 to 50 reports by detectives of sightings or leads about the shooter but admitted reports from people in Arizona willing to badmouth Diane. It was rigged and the fact that Ann Rule sat in the courtroom ready to produce a Masterpiece of Guilt could only help the prosecution.
According to the State, ballistics evidence proved that Diane Downs was guilty. They claimed to have found two lead cartridges in Diane’s rifle after the shooting but there were discrepancies. The tool marks did not match and the detective lied on the stand. During closing arguments, Fred Hugi mentioned the Ruger model number and said he had the bill of sale, but it turned up at a police raid years later in Perris, California where a detective involved in the case, Dick Tracy, had been employed prior to his move to Oregon. The gun did not match the ballistics from the shooting site. Ruger #14-76187; Diane’s gun, was not the murder weapon. They tried to come up with another story to explain that it was not the gun after all but the jig was up.
It was proven in court that the shooter had to be left-handed to have been able to shoot the kids in the car at the right angle and Diane was right-handed. Hugi had to come to this realization during a demonstration at trial.
Fingerprints at the crime scene were suppressed by the State.
Police witness reports of strangers and confessions were suppressed or not pursued.
Years later, seven witnesses signed affidavits telling of a man named Jim Haynes’ continuing confession that he was the shooter, and he physically resembled the sketch.
Diane’s Mental State
During Diane’s interrogation, Fred Hugi said in front of the jury that she had been diagnosed as a ‘deviant sociopath.’
In fact, Diane had consulted a psychologist after the tragedy and after months of consultation, she was never diagnosed as a sociopath. The definition of ‘deviant sociopath’ does not even exist in the DSM-HI, which is the official psychiatric diagnostic manual. She did diagnose her as suffering from cyclothymic disorder and treated her accordingly. She signed an affidavit to that effect and wanted the jury informed of it but it was never done.
As soon as Diane was found guilty, Hugi demanded that Diane be evaluated by a psychiatrist before sentencing so they could declare her a dangerous offender and give her a stiffer sentence.
Strangely enough, a woman who was seen for 8 months by a psychologist and declared to be in shock, would now be assessed by the ‘State hired psychiatrist’ to confirm the label Hugi conveniently made up during trial. And Hugi seemed pretty sure he would get what he was asking for.
So when Dr. George Suckow from the Oregon State Hospital in Salem was called as a State’s rebuttal witness and he made a professional diagnosis of Diane as histrionics, antisocial and narcissistic, he openly said in court that he interviewed Diane for 1 hour and read evidence presented by the state to make his diagnosis.
It gave Anne Rule carte blanche to use these labels in her book and it stuck. Diane was now labeled as a dangerous offender. Mission accomplished.
The unicorn and Hungry like the Wolf
Anne Rule made a big deal of a brass unicorn engraved with the children’s names that Diane had purchased. It was omnipresent in the courtroom as well as the Duran Duran song Hungry like the Wolf that supposedly was playing when the children were shot in the car.
According to Rule and the court, the unicorn was a memorial to her children that she purchased after premeditating their murder. It was farfetched, unfounded and entirely made up by Rule to boost the sales of her book. There is absolutely no evidence that Hungry like the Wolf was playing when Christie got shot but it is another detail they added to bring a dramatic element to this trial. They played the tape in the courtroom, and the fact that Diane did not break down but tapped her foot to the music, was supposed to be another proof of her guilt. Only in Hollywood and in Ann Rule’s books, would you find such fantasy.
In fact, if someone was Hungry like the Wolf in this courtroom, it was a certain crime author who could already smell and taste the fortune coming her way after the publication of this juicy story.
Fred Hugi was pretty upset when Ann Rule went Hollywood with his case. I am convinced that he did not want too many people to know about the improprieties that happened in his courtroom. But he overestimated the kind of people that would go along with this soap opera. They were not truth seekers and enjoyed a nice burning at the stake instead.
Rule defended her right ‘to earn a living’ and to tell her story. Too bad she did not interview Diane or her family. She talked to Diane for 15 minutes, there was the bizarre and partial Oprah interview that was basically a ‘let’s bash Diane’ event and she wrote to Diane in jail to ask her what she thought of Hugi adopting her children. That was the extent of her ‘investigation’ of Diane’s side.
When Diane’s youngest daughter grew up and reached out to her mother, the media and Rule grabbed hold of her and made sure she would hear nothing good about her mother. Rule even talked about writing a book about her but it never materialized. It probably was not impactful enough for readers.
The foreseeable verdict
Diane was cooked the minute she walked in that courtroom. Evidence or not, they were going to do their best to put her away for life. And their plan worked. The poor jury went along and Jagger did not put much on much of a defense anyway.
Considering the lack of evidence, it seems that she was thrown to the wolves because of her personality. Christie became the star witness against her mother and who could resist such a touching testimony? Her lover and former husband testified against her but it did not represent evidence but character assassination. They had to create this monster as they had no concrete evidence.
There was never a real motive for the crime even if the State insisted that Diane wanted to be free to pursue her love interest. Why would she have driven the kids to the hospital then? And she knew that Knickerbocker hated trouble so he would not have come back to her after an ugly shooting where she had been wounded and her kids damaged.
I do not care if the bushy haired stranger made no sense or if they could not explain the why of the tragedy, I do not care if she was madly in love with a guy because all that counts is proof and evidence in a court of law, and there was definitely a reasonable doubt. Without the media blast and rush to judgment from the police and DA’s office, we might have uncovered the truth.
Years later, Christie was heard saying by classmates that she did not know who shot her. There is also a recording where she says that she had no idea who shot them. The tape is real and probably not admissible but it proves that her testimony was coerced. Caught in the act, Hugi declared that Christie said that only because she was pressed for an answer. Of course, because this is what she does when people ask her questions concerning her mother. After all, she was conditioned this way.
Diane was found guilty and sentenced to life and she has been in prison ever since. She was in solitary confinement for years and even escaped from prison once but was recaptured.
In 1999, a Board Certified Psychiatrist practicing in Oakland, California wrote a letter to the parole board on behalf of Diane Downs to explain how things had changed since 1984 when she was diagnosed with a ‘severe personality disorder.’ He did not consider her a risk factor at all and believed she would do well if released into society, because she had no prior history of violence and never had a problem with violence or bad behavior while incarcerated.
In 2008, a psych evaluation by L. Williams, Ph.D., Chief of Mental Health at Valley State Prison for Women, explained Diane’s lack of emotions and its relationship to her case.
Ms. Downs makes every effort to avoid emotional stimuli in order to reduce the demands made on her. She functions best in highly structured environments where she has a sense of control. She may be highly vulnerable to losing control of her emotions in emotionally charged situations, creating faulty judgment and ineffective and inappropriate behavior.
“She keeps her emotions under tight control, presenting only socially acceptable feelings and burying other contradictory feelings.”
As far as her innocence goes and the possibility of being paroled if she admitted her crime, Diane strongly maintains her innocence. She states, “Idid not shoot my children and I can’t say I did. It would not benefit you, my children, or society for me to perpetuate that lie. If I was of a mind to manipulate the Board by giving voice to the words they want me to utter, I’d have sold my soul two decades ago when the lies would have benefited me and my youth passed long ago. It’s too late for me to call myself a murderer (when I am not) just to purchase my freedom. I did not shoot my children.”
She goes on to say that she has deep regret and mourns the loss and death of her children.’
If it was not such a high profile case, Diane Downs would have been paroled a long time ago, considering her good behavior and lack of priors. The Parole Board had an obligation to parole Diane between 1998 and 2002 if she could provide reasonable cause to show she was not a danger to society. According to Oregon law, this would have to be supported by a psychiatrist’s report or a Wardens’ letter and Diane provided both. But the Parole Board refused to hear her. She followed all the correct Parole Board procedures for two years with no hearing. She then went through the State (Circuit) Court habeas corpus relief for four years to no avail. She is nowhere near being paroled and if she admitted guilt, I am not even convinced they would release her. Her case was too public and they are afraid of public backlash.
I do not know what happened on Old Mohawk Road on that dark evening, but I know that they did not have enough evidence to convict and try Diane Downs. They should have taken their time to investigate this case thoroughly and without prejudice.
Diane Downs and Alice Crummins were considered sluts and cold-blooded women and were judged on their unusual character. The lousy men in their lives never took a hit because after all, it was these witches’ fault.
It is ironic that you have to be a perfect mother with no lovers to be considered innocent until proven guilty in America.
The lovely Farrah Fawcett who played in the movie Small Sacrificeswas known for her epic battles with lover Ryan O’Neil. Her son ended up in jail and O’Neil’s children accused him of neglect and bad parenting. Farrah had trouble with the law because of a passionate love affair with a movie director. So if we started judging people harshly for their flaws, it would never end.
A trial should be based on evidence only and Diane Downs was condemned because of her flaws. She has done her time in prison and I hope that she gets the chance to get out and spend time with her aging parents and siblings who have been fighting relentlessly for her release.
Anne Rule might have inflamed the case with her book Small Sacrifices and her theory of the crime, but in reality, the case of Diane Downs was no small sacrifice. The price of celebrity for her was losing her freedom and her children for life. It does not get any bigger than this.
Diane and her brother James
The Case of Liysa Northon – Who Said True Crime Does not Pay?