Diane Downs

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Diane Downs
Diane Downs 1984.JPG
Diane Downs in 1984
Born Elizabeth Diane Frederickson
(1955-08-07) August 7, 1955 (age 63)
Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.
Occupation Postal worker
Criminal chargeMurder
• Attempted murder
• Assault
Criminal penalty Life plus 50 years
Criminal status Incarcerated; earliest possible release 2020
Steve Downs (m. 1973–1980)
Children 4
Conviction(s) June 17, 1984; 34 years ago (1984-06-17)

Elizabeth Diane Frederickson Downs (born August 7, 1955) is an American woman convicted of the May 1983 murder of her daughter and the attempted murders of her other two children.[1] Following the murder and attempted murders, she 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 plus 50 years.[2]

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.[3][4]

Early life[edit]

Elizabeth Diane Frederickson was born in Phoenix, Arizona to Danish and English American parents Wesley Linden (1930-2017) and Willadene (Engle) Frederickson on August 7, 1955.[5] She alleged that her father molested her when she was a child (although both parents denied that any such incidents ever took place, and in the late 1980s she recanted her allegations).[5] She graduated from Moon Valley High School in Phoenix where she met her husband, Steve Downs.[5] Afterward, she enrolled at Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College in Orange, California but was expelled after only one year for promiscuous behavior. She then returned to her parents' home in Arizona.[5] On November 13, 1973, she married Steve Downs, after running away from home.[5] Their first child, Christie Ann was born in 1974, Cheryl Lynn followed in 1976, with Stephen Daniel being born in 1979. She and Steve divorced in 1980, about a year after the birth of their son.

Downs was employed by the United States Postal Service assigned to the mail routes in the city of Cottage Grove, Oregon before her 1984 arrest and trial.

Cheryl reportedly told her grandparents' neighbor shortly before her death that she was afraid of her mother.[6]


On May 19, 1983, prosecutors contend that Downs shot her three children, Stephen Daniel (born 1979), Cheryl Lynn (born 1976), and Christie Ann (born 1974). She then drove them in a blood spattered car to McKenzie-Willamette Hospital. There was blood all over the inside of the car but none on her. Upon arriving at the hospital, Cheryl was already dead, Danny was paralyzed from the waist down, and Christie had suffered a disabling stroke. Downs herself had been shot in the left forearm. She claimed she was carjacked on a rural road near Springfield, Oregon, by a strange man who shot her and the children.

Investigators and hospital workers became suspicious because they decided her manner was too calm for a person who had experienced such a traumatic event. She also made a number of statements that both police and hospital workers considered highly inappropriate.

Their suspicions heightened when Downs had, upon arrival at the hospital to visit her children, called Robert Knickerbocker, a married man and former coworker in Arizona, with whom she had been having an extramarital affair.[7] The forensic evidence did not match her story; there was no blood splatter on the driver's side of the car, nor was there any gunpowder residue on the driver's door or on the interior door 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; he stated that he was relieved that she had left for Oregon and that he was able to reconcile with his wife.[8] She did not tell police she owned a .22 caliber handgun, but both Steve and Knickerbocker said she did own one.

Investigators later discovered Downs 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 her children. Most damaging, witnesses saw her car being driven very slowly toward the hospital at an estimated speed of five to seven mph, contradicting her claim that she drove to the hospital at a high speed after the shooting. Based on this and additional evidence, she was arrested on February 28, 1984, nine months after the murder, and charged with one count of murder and two counts each of attempted murder and criminal assault.[9]


Prosecutors argued that Downs shot her children to be free of them so she could continue her affair with Knickerbocker, who (she claimed) let it be known that he did not want children in his life. Much of the case against her rested on the testimony of her 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 convicted on all charges on June 17, 1984, and sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years. She would have to serve 25 years before being considered for parole. Psychiatrists diagnosed her with narcissistic, histrionic and antisocial personality disorders.[10] Most of her sentence is to be served consecutively. The judge made it clear that he did not intend for her to ever be free again.[11]


The two surviving children eventually went to live with the lead prosecutor on the case, Fred Hugi. He and his wife Joanne adopted them in 1986.[11]

Prior to her arrest and trial, Downs became pregnant with a fourth child and gave birth to a girl, whom she named Amy Elizabeth, a month after her 1984 trial. Ten days before Downs' sentencing, Amy was seized by the State of Oregon and adopted by the Babcocks. Her parents gave her the name Rebecca, she spoke out in 2010 about her life. She appeared on ABC's 20/20 discussing how she feels about her biological mother. She wrote her in her younger years and now regrets it, considering Downs as a monster. [12] She appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show on October 22, 2010,[13] and on 20/20, episode "Blood Ties" July 1, 2011.[14]

Downs was incarcerated at the Oregon Women's Correctional Center in Salem, Oregon. She escaped on July 11, 1987, and was recaptured just a few blocks from the prison on July 21.[1] She received an additional five-year sentence for the escape.

After her recapture, Downs was transferred to the New Jersey Department of Corrections Clinton Correctional Facility for Women at Hugi's request.[15] The Salem prison was located 66 miles from Hugi's home in Springfield; during Downs' ten days of freedom, Hugi feared that she would attempt to travel there. Despite significant security upgrades at the women's facility after the escape, state officials accepted Hugi's argument that the risk of harm to Christie and Danny in the event of another escape remained too great for Downs to remain incarcerated in Oregon.

In 1994, after serving ten years, Downs was transferred to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.[16] While in prison, she has earned an Associate Degree in General Studies.[16] As of 2010, she is located in the Valley State Prison for Women.[15] In 2013 Valley State Prison for Women was converted to an all-male facility [17] so she is no longer there.

Author Ann Rule wrote the book Small Sacrifices (1987) detailing Downs' life and murder trial.[18] The book documents accounts by friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and her daughter that survived the attack, Christie, who question the quality of her parenting.[19] A made-for-TV movie also titled Small Sacrifices, starring Farrah Fawcett as Downs, aired on ABC in 1989.

Parole hearing[edit]

Downs' sentence meant she could not be considered for parole until 2009. Under Oregon law of the time, as a dangerous offender she would have been eligible for a parole hearing every two years until she is released or dies in prison.[20]

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."[21] Her first parole hearing was on December 9, 2008.[21] 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."[21] He also wrote that "she alternately refers to her assailants as a bushy-haired stranger, two men wearing ski masks or drug dealers and corrupt law enforcement officials."[21]

Downs participated in the hearing from the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California.[21] She was not permitted a statement, but answered questions from the parole board.[21] After three hours of interviews and thirty minutes of deliberation, she was denied parole.[21]

Downs faced her second parole hearing on December 10, 2010.[22][23] 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.[4]


  1. ^ a b Painter, John Jr. "The 1980s". The Sunday Oregonian. December 31, 1989.
  2. ^ Stern, Henry (9 April 1989). "Child Killer Sits Behind Bars --Awaiting Her Wedding Day". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. Retrieved 14 July 2017. 
  3. ^ "Downs is denied parole"
  4. ^ a b "Parole board keeps Diane Downs locked up". KATU.com. Portland, Oregon. Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Geringer, Joseph. Diane Downs: Her Children Got in the Way of Her Love. truTV. Retrieved on March 5, 2009. New York, Signet. 77
  6. ^ Rule, Ann. 1987. Small Sacrifices. New York, Signet. 120-121, 129-130, 186-187
  7. ^ Baker, Mark (2008-05-19). "Diane Downs". The Register-Guard. p. A1. 
  8. ^ Rule, Ann. 1987. Small Sacrifices. New York, Signet. 151-177
  9. ^ "Diane Downs: Her Children Got in the Way of Her Love". The Crime Library. p. 1. Retrieved 2009-11-30. 
  10. ^ Rule, Ann. 1987. Small Sacrifices. New York, Signet. 440-445
  11. ^ a b "Ann Rules Newsletter". p. 3. Archived from the original on 2010-03-09. 
  12. ^ "Becky Babcock: My Mother Was a Murderer". ABC News. Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  13. ^ "The Daughter of Diane Downs". Oprah.com. Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  14. ^ "20/20: Blood Ties". Dailymotion. ABC News. 13 October 2015. Retrieved 14 July 2017. 
  15. ^ a b Geringer, Joseph. "Diane Downs: Her Children Got in the Way of Her Love'". TruTV. Archived from the original on March 4, 2009. Retrieved May 28, 2015.  (This story is taken primarily from a book by Ann Rule entitled Small Sacrifices)
  16. ^ a b "Diane Downs maintains innocence as parole hearing looms". KGW-TV. 2008-12-03. Archived from the original on 2008-12-06. Retrieved 2008-12-03. 
  17. ^ http://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Facilities_Locator/VSP.html
  18. ^ Tims, Dana. "Murderer's libel suit dismissed". The Oregonian. January 18, 1988.
  19. ^ Rule, Ann. 1987. Small Sacrifices. New York, Signet. 129-136, 155, 213
  21. ^ a b c d e f g "Diane Downs Denied by Oregon Parole Board". Salem-News.Com. Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  22. ^ "Diane Downs is up for parole again". KATU. Portland, Oregon. 2010-11-09. Retrieved 2010-12-10. 
  23. ^ Willamette Week (2010-11-09). "Diane Downs Latest Parole Hearing is Next Month". Willamette Week. Retrieved 2010-12-10.