When it comes to killers, they don’t get much more chilling than Diane Downs, who in May of 1983 shot her own children in cold blood, killing one of them and changing the lives of the other two forever.
Even more unbelievable, is that she still maintains her innocence.
Diane Downs was born Elizabeth Diane Frederickson on August 7, 1955 in Phoenix, Arizona. Her parents were a Danish-American couple named Wes and Willadene Frederickson. Not much is known about her childhood, except Diane’s claims that her father molested her when she was young.
Diane graduated from Moon Valley High School in Phoenix, which is also where she met her future husband, Steve Downs. She went on to enrol at the Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College in California but was quickly expelled due to promiscuous behaviour. In November of 1973, she married Steve Downs after running away from home. The marriage lasted until 1980, about a year after the birth of her youngest child Stephen “Danny” Downs, at which point the two divorced.
Life seemed pretty quiet for Diane until a fateful day in May of 1983, where everything changed.
The day in question was May 19th. It was the day that Diane Downs presented herself to the McKenzie-Willamette Hospital in a blood-spattered car and with a bloody towel wrapped around her arm. In the car lay the three small bodies of her children.
Her six-year-old daughter Cheryl was crumpled on the floor near the front passenger door. She wouldn’t survive. Eight-year-old Christie had two shots in the chest and had suffered a massive stroke. Her younger brother Danny, just four, was paralysed from a bullet lodged in his back.
According to Diane, she had been driving on a rural road near Springfield, Oregon when she noticed a “bushy-haired stranger” waving at her from the side of the road. Diane stopped to see if the man needed help, when he apparently shoved a gun through the window and shot her and her children.
Doctors rushed into action to save the children, rushing them into surgery to remove bullets and fight to keep them alive. While her children bled out on operating tables, Diana Downs was treated for a single bullet wound in the arm. She sipped tea while the nurses treated her, with one particular woman, Nurse Rose Martin, noting her composure. She assumed that Downs was in shock, and reassured her that she’d be able to see them soon.
Amazingly, Diane laughed at this comment and made a joke about having good insurance.
The nurse wasn’t the only one unnerved by Diane’s manner. Investigators and other hospital workers found her manner much too calm for someone who had experienced an event. There were holes in her story as well. There was no need for Diane to have been on the road she described so late at night, with all of her young children in tow. There was no reason that any mother would stop to help a stranger in that situation. And there was no response when Diane learned that her middle child Cheryl, had died.
Even more telling was Christie’s response when her mother was finally allowed in to see her. According to investigators, the girl was terrified, and machines showed an unmistakable spike in her heart rate.
The more investigators dug, the more they learned about Diane Downs, and the kind of woman she was. They began to develop a theory that, although sick, connected the dots.
In a diary seized by law enforcement, Downs writes about her passion for a married man in Arizona named Robert Knickerbocker. Like Diane, Robert worked as a mail handler with the postal service. He knew of Diane’s reputation as a loose woman, and decided she would be an appropriate fling.
However, she quickly became obsessed with Knickerbocker but wrote in her diary about him being against being a dad to his mistresses’ children. At one point, the two were planning on moving in together, but then Knickerbocker called it off. It was April of 1983.
Police uncovered yet more evidence. Downs had purchased a .22 caliber handgun in Arizona, the same used to shoot her children. They never found the weapon, but unused casings with the same extractor markings as those pulled from her children were discovered.
The final blow came in May of 1984, one year after the shootings. Downs’ surviving daughter Christie had recovered enough to give testimony at trial. When asked who had shot her, Christie said:
“My mom did it.”