Driving the dark streets on my way to work, a country road not unlike the road Diane had been on just hours earlier, the radio was playing. Passing the lake, my ’69 Malibu roaring towards the distant lights of Eugene, I listened in growing incredulity to the news. It was unfathomable that this story was unfolding in the very town in which I lived. Those things just didn’t happen here. In fact, not much happened here at all.
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon, in the early ‘80s, was the place you moved to in order to get away from senseless crime and random shootings. Eugene proper was a small town, housing the University of Oregon. It was progressive, counterculture, and growing: Some said it was growing a little too quickly, and many swore if any more Californians moved up north, they’d pack it in for parts more remote. In contrast, Springfield, just over the Willamette River, was our country cousin. They had more country-western bars, less tolerance for skin pigmentation, and mile after mile of farm land, forests, lakes, and outdoor living.
Our biggest claim to fame until that spring of 1983 was the Oregon Ducks. Later, long after the media circus marking the Diane Downs trial died off, we’d again make it on the map with the Thurston School shooting, but that was still years away, miles away emotionally, really, and up until that time we were just a rest stop along the I-5 corridor, hardly worth notice at all.
Crime was something that just didn’t happen in the area. Not major crimes like this, and definitely not major crimes committed by strangers. In fact, there were no strangers in town, not really. If you had to ask a passerby on the street for directions, you were just as likely to make a new friend, share pictures of your kids, or even a cup of coffee, as you were to get simple directions.
So, driving down highway 99 over 30 years ago, the morning not yet dawned, I was shocked to hear the story playing out across the airwaves. That poor woman, I thought.
That “poor woman” was Diane Downs. That morning, though, she was the mother who watched her 3 children get shot, the woman who bravely fought off her assailant and drove miles for help, while enduring the pain of her own bullet wound. Months later her name would be known in almost every household across America as the most despicable of people; a mother who killed her own child, but that morning she was still that poor woman.
By the time I arrived at work that morning in 1983, it was all anyone was talking about. Did you hear?
We’re not safe! Those poor children! How could this happen here? It could have been me! Why haven’t they caught this guy?
This guy. This bushy-haired stranger standing in the middle of the road, waving down random cars and shooting the children sleeping inside. Surely he must stand out like a sore thumb. He couldn’t possibly be one of us!
That morning, as the horror of what happened to those children rippled across the city, the collective sympathy of Western Oregon was behind the grieving mother. Everyone believed her story, and why wouldn’t they? Well, almost everyone, that is.
One of my co-workers was married to one of Eugene’s finest. That morning, as we all expressed our fear, she spoke three words that would haunt me for years to come, “She did it.” She went on to explain that her husband, and the rest of the police department, knew that Diane was lying as soon as she first told her story. The “bushy-haired stranger” was the same description they were always given when someone wanted to place the blame of a crime on a nonexistent suspect. Though they would look, they all knew in the end this stranger would more likely than not be mom herself.
This was not something we were willing to believe. Mothers don’t kill their children! No mother could fight their protective instinct and cold-bloodedly aim a gun at her own kids and pull the trigger. As the following months came and went with no arrest in sight, no suspect to be had, more and more people came to believe Diane was lying. She just didn’t act like a person who had experienced such horrors. She laughed and joked around. She went to work, full of energy and smiles. She partied at night after work. Any one of us, we thought, would have been crippled by grief.
And then it happened. Diane was arrested.
The crime had taken place in Springfield, closer to Thurston, but the trial was in Eugene. Streets were closed by news vans, minds were closed by differing opinions. No one knew what happened that night in May, but we all had our theories.
By the time Diane Downs went on trial, the city was clamoring to be in the court house. It was the event of the year, a real life soap opera that promised intrigue, violence, and sex. Those who didn’t get a seat in the courthouse lived for news updates and loitered around the courthouse steps, waiting to hear the news as it happened.
And it happened. Boy, did it happen!
Ever so slowly the truth emerged, with the final word – the only word worth listening to, really — delivered by Diane’s own daughter.
“Who shot you?” she was asked. “Mom” was her answer.
The details shocked us.
Diane Downs was a very volatile, insecure woman. She claimed to have been sexually assaulted by her father, mistreated by both parents, abused by all the men in her life. We’ll probably never know exactly what caused Diane to grow so soulless, but she did.
Her marriage was filled with abuse from both parties, abuse the children witnessed. Her youngest child was not her husband’s child. She had wanted another baby and he said no. Her solution? She went out and found a suitable donor, seduced him, and got pregnant. It was that easy for her. This was not a marriage destined to last, and finally, the last semblance of a family was destroyed with accusations, yelling, and a bullet fired into the bathroom floor.
Through this time in her life, Downs was working as a postal carrier in Arizona, where she met the man she considered the love of her life. Robert Knickerbocker was already married, but that didn’t matter to Diane. She decided she wanted him, and that’s exactly what she set out to get. Knickerbocker told Diane that he loved his wife, didn’t want to leave her, and didn’t want children, but none if this stopped Diane from stalking him, harassing him, and trying to convince him to move to Oregon with her. Finally, perhaps frustrated by Robert’s lack of cooperation, Diane packed her 3 children into the car, along with her belongings, including her handgun, and moved her small family to Oregon.
Once in Oregon, however, it wasn’t long before Diane was trying to convince Knickerbocker to join her, but free from her presence, Robert was able to come clean with his wife and work on his marriage.
Diane was becoming a distant nightmare, one he had finally awoken from. He refused Diane’s pleas to join her.
The prosecution believes this is the reason Diane shot her kids. She hoped to unburden herself from the children and lure Knickerbocker in. Without the children, perhaps he would change his mind and move to Oregon after all.
The afternoon of then shooting, Diane had taken her children to visit a friend’s new horse. On the way home they took side roads and new paths. Diane claimed the children loved exploring in such a way.
Soon night had fallen, however, and the children had become sleepy, succumbing to the hum of the car tires on the road, the darkness from roads lacking streetlamps, and the radio playing as they headed home. Were they really exploring, as Diane claims, or was Diane driving until the children fell asleep so she wouldn’t have to look them in the eyes when she shot them? We’ll probably never know.
At some point, most likely when all 3 kids were asleep, Diane pulled over on a stretch of Old Mohawk
Road, a desolate, rural street. There were no street lights, so the dome light had to be on for Christie, Diane’s surviving daughter, to witness what took place. The keys were in the ignition, despite Diane’s claims that she had turned off the car and had the keys in her hands. We know this because as Diane set about trying to rid herself of her troublesome children, Hungry Like a Wolf was playing on the radio.
Diane got out of her car, and while leaving the driver’s side door open, went around to the back. She popped her trunk and reached inside for her gun. She came back to the driver’s side of the car, leaned in, and shot Cheryl first. Cheryl had been sleeping on the floor on the front passenger side, but after being shot somehow managed to open the door in an attempt at escape. Diane then turned her attention to the back seat, where she shot her son, Danny, in the back, instantly paralyzing him for life.
She then looked over to Christie, her oldest child, and while looking her in the eye, shot her twice in the chest. Christie suffered a massive stroke from blood loss, but at least she survived. Cheryl wasn’t so fortunate. After shooting her again, Diane put her back into the car, then set about to stage a car-jacking. She shot herself in the safest place she could, her left forearm, wrapped her arm in a towel, and headed into town.
Diane talks of her frantic drive to the hospital, of hearing her kids cry and whimper as she drove, of feeling relief just knowing they were still alive. In reality, Diane drove at a crawl, hoping the children would be dead, or at least too far gone, by the time she got to the hospital. A car following her that night said she was going so slow, the speed wasn’t registering on the speedometer.
She lost all her children that night; one to death, and the other two to adoption. The prosecutor adopted the surviving Downs children, giving them the lives they deserved. Diane, meanwhile, set about replacing her lost children, as she always did, by becoming pregnant as soon as she realized her story wasn’t being believed.
So it was that on the day Diane sat in court, listening to her daughter recount the horrors of that night in May, she was pregnant again. Very pregnant. That child, a daughter, was put up for adoption as well, after being delivered while Diane was handcuffed to a hospital bed. Years later that child would come to realize who her birth mother was and actually reached out to her, hoping for some kind of connection. Diane, though, was too deeply ingrained in her psychopathy to do anything more than alienate the last child she would ever have.
A little over a year from the date of the shooting, Diane Downs was found guilty of murder and attempted murder, and was sentenced to life plus 50 years. She earned an additional 5 years after escaping prison. She simply scaled a fence and ran off. The fear was that she would try to get to her children and kidnap them, but 10 days later, when found, she was mere blocks from the prison, shacked up with a couple of men. It’s believed that Diane was once again trying to conceive. Thankfully, she didn’t get pregnant during her escape, sparing another child the stigma of having Diane Downs as his mother. With any luck, that escape will be the closest thing to freedom Diane will ever see again.
If there’s one thing that should never be forgiven, it’s betraying a child. Diane had been gifted with beautiful, loving children; children who would have given her the adulation she so desired, because that’s what children do. When a child looks at her mother, she sees god. She sees the most beautiful person in the world. She sees the person who will forever keep her safe, who would forever love her no matter what.
When Christie looked into her mother’s eyes that night in May, she saw a killer. Did Christie know why this was happening? Did she think it was her fault? Did she understand that her mother was sick, willing to destroy the most precious things in her life for a man who never really wanted anything to do with her? How could a little 8-year-old child hope to understand what we adults can’t comprehend?
Some things can never be forgiven.