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Child Killer Sits Behind Bars --Awaiting Her Wedding Day

April 09, 1989|HENRY STERN | Associated Press

CLINTON, N.J. — Convicted child killer Elizabeth Diane Downs, who describes herself as the most hated woman in America, giggles nervously as she talks of her plans to marry a former police officer from Oregon.

The 33-year-old former mail carrier, one of Oregon's most notorious criminals of modern times, also smiles a lot when she talks of a new book, due out this spring, about her trial.

Downs was sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years for killing her 7-year-old daughter and wounding her two other children on a rural road outside Springfield, Ore., on May 19, 1983. An appeal of the conviction was set aside without comment on Jan. 4.

Scaled Prison Fence

She was transferred to the Correctional Institution for Women in New Jersey after she escaped in July, 1987, by scaling a fence at the Oregon Women's Correctional Center in Salem. She remained at large for 10 days until she was found with a group of men less than a mile from the prison.

Prison authorities believe she has less chance of escaping in New Jersey because she doesn't know anybody here and would have no place to run.

Prison guards at Clinton say Downs keeps to herself, but associates say she thrives on publicity. As one guard put it: "The last thing her ego needs is another interview."

"She sees a camera and her whole world brightens," says Ann Rule, a Seattle-based author whose book, "Small Sacrifices," about the Downs case rode the best-seller list of the New York Times for 25 weeks last year.

"I don't believe she has any emotion for her children beyond the fact that they're her possession and somebody took them away from her."

Prosecutors charged that the children were shot because Downs believed they interfered in her relationship with a boyfriend who did not want to be a father.

Blames Stranger

Downs contends that a stranger flagged down her car and shot her and the children. She was wounded by a single bullet in the left arm.

"What happened the night of the shooting was so horrendous, so unexpected, so unbelievable," Downs said in a recent jailhouse interview. "I'm very self-disciplined and I need to have control of my own existence. I just reached a point of not knowing what was real and what wasn't."

Cheryl Lynn Downs, 7, was killed. Fourteen year-old Christie Ann was left with speech impairment, and 9-year-old Danny is paralyzed from the waist down. The lead prosecutor in the case, Lane County Assistant Dist. Atty. Fred Hugi, adopted the children.

Downs says she spends her time exchanging letters with her new fiance, whom she described as a former police officer who saw her on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and wrote her because he felt sorry for her.

"Anybody who would want to be involved with the most hated woman in America must be a nut," Downs says. "But he's not a wacko. He's genuine."

She declines to identify the man except that he is a former Oregon police officer who has since moved to New Jersey.

"I'm lucid. I've been married before and I said I never would do it again. But I'm in love," says Downs, who was married for eight years to Steve Downs, an electrician and farm laborer.

Kim White, a state Corrections Department spokeswoman, confirmed that Downs has asked the department for permission to marry the man. White also would not identify him.

Seek Permission to Marry

She said the couple are in the preliminary stages of applying for permission to marry. They still must meet with the prison chaplain and obtain the approval of the superintendent who submits the request to a committee for a recommendation.

New Jersey does not permit conjugal visits, she added.

Downs, who earned an associate's degree in general studies while imprisoned in Oregon, has also completed a book, "Best-Kept Secrets," scheduled for release this month by Danmark Publishing, of Springfield, Ore. About 75% of the 350-page book will be direct quotes from the trial transcript, Downs said.

A spokesman for Danmark says that any profits from the book will go to the state of Oregon under a law passed in the wake of the Downs case.

Its release surely will spark more discussion of the case, but Downs says she doesn't believe her children will suffer if people talk about her case.

"How could the truth hurt the kids?" Downs says. "I get so frustrated when I hear things like that. . . . How can the truth hurt anybody unless they're a liar?"

But Rule says the truth that she observed in the nine-month trial was a guilty Downs, who was pregnant at the time with a child who was subsequently put up for adoption.

Called 'Manipulative'

"I've never seen anyone as manipulative as Diane," Rule says, describing her as "sociopathic, histrionic and narcissistic."

"I think she knows what she did," Rule says. "The truth is buried so deep that she doesn't have to think about it. She's not crazy though."

But Downs denies her guilt and says the bonds between her and her children remain.

"They're part of my body that broke away," she says. "They love me, but at the same time they're uncomfortable with ever being with me again."

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