Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Diane Downs: Her Children Got in the Way of Her Love

The Investigation Begins

Detectives who spoke with her in a private room at McKenzie-Willamette were equally surprised at her attitude. One investigator, a sharp, keen-witted veteran of the county's homicide squad who was aptly named Dick Tracy, found her unlike other women whom he had encountered after similar crises. In fact, he later defined her as "very rational, considering what she had undergone." Together with his partner on the case, detective Doug Welch, who also found Diane Downs too stoic for a mother whose entire brood was just shot, Tracy conducted an interview to garner some personal background on the mother and her children as well as to begin building a chronology of events leading up to the shooting.

To that point, they had determined that the bullets that had been fired at the kids were .22 caliber, shot from either a handgun or rifle; detectives suspected a handgun. Powder burns on the children's skin indicated that the weapon had been fired at an extremely close proximity, especially those on the deceased girl, Cheryl, who had been in the front seat. Blood splayed across the car's doors, seats, windows and elsewhere indicated that the murderer had discharged the gun from the left, or driver's side, which agreed with Diane's story claiming the intruder had reached in through her window.

About the mother herself, the detectives learned that she was 27 years old, was a mail woman for the U.S. Postal Service and worked the Cottage Grove division. Having previously been a letter carrier in Chandler, Arizona, she recently divorced there (from a man named Steve Downs) and, after obtaining a work transfer, relocated to Oregon to be near her parents, Willa and Wes Frederickson. The Fredericksons were former Arizonians who had moved to Oregon years earlier. Wes Frederickson was also a post office employee.

Diane sketched for her interviewers a quick history of that evening: According to Diane, she and her children had eaten a fast dinner at home, then left their small duplex home at 1352 Q Street in Springfield, bound for a co-worker's home on rustic Sunderman Road. The friend, Heather Plourd, had told Diane a few days earlier at the workplace that she was thinking about buying a horse, and Diane had found an ad in the newspaper about horse rentals that she figured Heather might appreciate seeing. Not knowing Heather's phone number they weren't intimate friends Diane decided to bring the advertisement herself. The drive, she explained, offered a good opportunity to get the kids out of the stale house for a couple of hours.

On the way home after a brief chat with Heather and her husband, Diane thought that she would cut through Old Mohawk Road to the main highway. She thought it might be fun to go sightseeing; the kids enjoyed watching the moon from the unlit countryside. It was then, after she turned onto Old Mohawk, that she spotted the man. He was standing in the center of the gravel road, signaling, as if for help. She described the man as " his late twenties...about five feet, nine, 150 to 170...dark hair, a shag-wavy cut and a stubble of a beard." He wore "a Levi jacket (and) an off-colored T-shirt."

She braked and got out of her car. It was then that the stranger produced a pistol from under his jacket and demanded that she turn over the keys to her automobile. She refused, but in retaliation, said Diane, he reached past her in through the driver's window and opened fire on her family. When he then tried to reach for the car keys, she fought back, outstepping him. But, as she slipped back into her car, he fired one more time, at her now, striking her arm. Slamming the gas pedal, her Nissan sped off and away. Her children were hurt, she could see that, and thought only one thing: to get them to the hospital as quickly as possible.


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