On the night of May 8, 1982, Elizabeth Diane Downs gave birth to a baby girl, Jennifer, in a delivery room where the traditional bonding of mother and newborn had been turned upside down. "I looked at the baby, between my knees down there, and my first thought was of the mother," Downs would say later. "There were tears running down her face, and she wouldn't let go of my hand. All she could say was 'Thank you.' "
Downs, a surrogate mother, had been artificially inseminated with sperm from the woman's husband nine months before, and had signed a contract agreeing to give the couple the baby for $10,000. The woman was infertile, and this was one way she could have a child of her own.
"People have wondered why I won't regret this, giving up the baby," Downs told The Washington Post in an interview about surrogate mothers in February 1983. "And that's very easy to answer. When you kill a child, when you have an abortion, you've terminated something." (Downs herself had earlier had an abortion.) "You've murdered somebody--it's cruel, it's horrible, it's terrible. But when you do something out of love, when you carry a child for somebody else, and turn that life over to them, you haven't done anything bad, and it's nothing you look back on and regret. It's good."
On May 8, 1984, exactly two years after the birth, Elizabeth Diane Downs, a blond and pale 28-year-old letter carrier, took a seat next to her defense attorney on the first day of one of the most sensational trials in Lane County history. She is charged with the murder of her own child, Cheryl Lynn Downs, 7, and the attempted murder and first-degree assault of her other two children, Christie Ann Downs, 9, and Stephen Daniel Downs, 4. She has pleaded not guilty on all charges, which are being heard by a nine-woman, three-man jury.
The children had been shot by what police think was a .22-caliber pistol. Cheryl Downs was dead on arrival at the hospital. Christie Downs suffered a stroke and probably will have trouble speaking for the rest of her life. Her brother is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the chest down. Both are now in foster homes. If Downs is found guilty, she faces life imprisonment.
This is a story about the giving of life and the taking of life. Both the prosecution and the defense are trying to use this bizarre surrogate mother twist to advantage. The prosecutor, Fred Hugi, implies that only a callous woman would give up a child for money, while the defense lawyer, Jim Jagger, argues that surrogate motherhood was much more important to Elizabeth Diane Downs than the married man the prosecution told the jury she was obsessed with--to the point of killing the children she felt he didn't want.
She wrote in one of her unmailed letters to him that make up her diary, "You know I don't want a daddy for my kids . . . You would never be left alone with them." The prosecution entered the diary into evidence.
Downs has testified that a "shaggy-haired" stranger shot her and her children on a dark and isolated country road. She also says that the parents of the child she gave up, who only know Downs by her face and first name, probably don't know about the trial that began on their child's second birthday.
And once again, Downs is pregnant--due, she says, last Saturday. "I'm afraid of going into labor before the trial is over," she says. Downs is divorced, and has refused to say publicly who the father is. "I didn't have any friends after all this happened," she says during an interview in the county jail. "He was young, single, attractive--well, you've been listening to my life on the stand. You know." After she got pregnant, she says, "he wasn't much of a friend." The State of Oregon will have custody of the baby once it is born.
The case has seized this town like no other murder in recent memory. People line up outside the courtroom as early as 7 a.m. to get a seat three hours later when the trial begins. Most are housewives who take careful notes. Many have convinced themselves that Downs is guilty, and their questions are not who, but why? What really happened that night on that road? "I just want to understand her," says Pam Mercer, a 37-year-old mother of three. Many live in Springfield, the lumber mill town just across the river, and plenty of others in this liberal university town refer to the people in the case on a first-name basis, as if they've known them for years.
Others haven't made up their minds. "I'm here to see if she shot her children--especially Christie, because Christie was her favorite," says Pat Trotts, a welfare mother with three sons. Those who can't stand to miss their soap operas have them videotaped, then run home to watch them at five.
It has rained solidly for most of the last week of the trial, adding a gray, drab feeling to the already depressing proceedings. It is cool, around 60 degrees, and the lush woods that envelop the old logging roads smell of moist earth. The rivers that run through the county, stretching from the summit of the Cascades to the Pacific Ocean, are swollen and overflowing--the McKenzie, the Willamette, the Mohawk.
It was on Old Mohawk Road on the night of May 19, 1983, that Elizabeth Diane Downs was driving with her three children. There were thick woods on one side, an overgrown field on the other. The river was nearby. It was sometime around 10 p.m. when she says she came to a small bend in the road. She says a man flagged down her 1983 Nissan Pulsar. She stopped, got out of the car, and asked him if she could help. He demanded her car, and when she refused, he turned a gun on her three children. Cheryl, in the front seat, was shot twice, once each in the heart and lungs. Christie was shot twice in the chest, and Danny once in the back. Downs was shot in the left arm. "I felt like I was in a nightmare," she testified. "It's one of those things where you want to do something, you know you should do something, but you're not there, really." She says she shoved the man down, got back in the car, then sped to the hospital.
The prosecutor, arguing before the jury, said that on the night of May 19, Downs took her children out to the area of Old Mohawk and then shot them, perhaps on any of the desolate logging roads that crisscross the woods. Then, he said, she turned the gun on herself to support her story and began driving slowly toward the hospital, at about five miles an hour, while she waited for them to die.
No murder weapon has ever been found, although divers searched the river for days.
Christie Downs, sobbing on the witness stand, said her mother did it. Her mother's lawyer says Christie saw Downs through the rear window as she stepped away from the attacker, and that her daughter's memory has been warped by the trauma.
No shaggy-haired stranger has ever been found.
The case is expected to go to the jury this week. Cycles of Abuse
A year and a half ago, Elizabeth Diane Downs curled up in a chair at the home of friends in Louisville, Ky., eager to talk about surrogate motherhood. After the birth of Jennifer in May 1982, she was eager to become a surrogate mother for a second time. In February 1983, she was in Kentucky for three days of inseminations at the downtown offices of Dr. Richard Levin, a fertility specialist who runs a large surrogate parenting practice.
In the interview she was articulate and thoughtful. Like most surrogate mothers she had had to pass a series of psychological tests. She talked wistfully of Jennifer, but seemed to have adjusted to giving her up. She also talked without emotion about her own unhappy childhood--which would become a theme at her trial.
She grew up in Arizona, the daughter of a postal worker. She didn't like her father's lectures, strict rules and the power he had over her mother. "He spent way too much time with my mom, and my mom spent no time with me," Downs says. She testified that when she was 12, he sexually abused her. When she was 13, she tried to cut her wrists. When she was 18, with a high school education, she married Steve Downs, a farmhand she describes as being as dominating as her father. Now he's an electrician. "I suppose I potentially thought he could be a miniature of my dad," she testified. Her parents didn't like him, but that was fine. "I did not marry Steve for love," she said on the stand. "I married Steve to get out of the family."
And to have children.
"I guess what you're saying," prosecutor Fred Hugi asked her in court, "is that you wanted a daughter but you didn't want a husband."
"That explains it pretty well," she replied.
She gave birth to Christie, the "first good friend" she ever had. "Christie was the first person that really, really just plain loved me," she says. Then she gave birth to Cheryl, who was a "colicky" child. She ended her next pregnancy with an abortion, but then, after seeing pictures of fetuses at an antiabortion booth at a local fair, she regretted it. "I felt the need to do something to make amends for what I had done wrong," she testified. "When I had the abortion, I was led to believe that a six-week fetus is nothing more than mucus."
She testified that Steve had had a vasectomy, so she sought out a friend, Mark Sager, who became the father of her third child, Danny. Steve was furious, but he lived with it, she added. Sometimes he would beat her, she said. Sometimes she would scream at her own children, which later worried her so much that she wrote a short essay about child abuse while attending an Arizona community college part time. At the prosecutor's request, she read from it in the courtroom.
"When these abused children grow up, they will no doubt abuse their own children," she read aloud. "Generation after generation, the abuse continues." She looked at Hugi, the prosecutor.
"Do you understand, Mr. Hugi, that you can stop the cycle? I stopped."
"Your method of stopping the cycle was to eliminate a generation?" he asked.
"No," she said, without apparent anger. "I did not."
After the birth of Danny, Downs still felt a loss. "I found out you cannot replace a child that you have killed," she said during the interview last year in Kentucky. "I've decided it was a girl. And when I get to heaven, she's probably going to be standing there saying, 'Mom, why'd you do that? Why didn't you give me a chance to live my life, and do what I wanted to do?' It really makes me feel rotten."
Divorced from Steve, she became a surrogate mother. "I was so happy," she recalled in Kentucky. "It was the most stable time in my whole life. I had a purpose for being here. And that's been my whole hang-up since I was a little kid. Why am I here? Just so my dad can yell at me. Just so my husband can criticize me. Just to take care of my kids. But these people needed me. It made me somebody. I told the parents that that baby did more for me than I ever did for them."
By the time the baby was born, she had become involved with Robert Knickerbocker, a married man at the post office where they both worked in Chandler, Ariz. Although she had had several affairs with coworkers at the post office, she testified, she felt more comfortable with "Knick," as she called him, than with any other man in her life. But it was an "on-again, off-again" relationship, as Knickerbocker testified, and in April 1983, anxious for a new life, Downs moved to Oregon. By that time, her father, Wesley Frederickson, had become the postmaster in Springfield, and Downs saw it as a good place to move ahead. "I have more advantages than most people," she wrote in her diary. "My dad's name pulls power."
She hoped that Knickerbocker would leave his wife, Charlene, and join her in Oregon. That spring, she began writing him unmailed letters in her diary. They are key to the prosecution's case.
April 21, 1983: "I still think of you as my best friend and lover, and you keep telling me to go away and find someone else."
April 29: "It doesn't matter what Charlene says . . . I'm a little sad that she has convinced you that the kids would be a burden, because I know it would not be true."
May 11: "I have three beautiful children that I love more than anyone else. I think I love them even more than you now . . . Danny says he's my best buddy, and I'm his best buddy. He always gives me kisses and hugs. Every morning when I go to work, he waves and says, ' 'Bye, Mom. Pick me up after work. I love you.' "
But Downs testified that the unmailed letters were "just a lot of mush . . . something you write to a man." She also said that "the reason those kids surfaced in those letters was purely by accident . . . I was losing interest in Knick. He was becoming too time-consuming, even for letter-writing . . .
"Let's put it this way," she also told the jury. "If I loved him as much as I said in those letters, wouldn't I have sent them?"
The diary ends on May 17, 1983--two days before the shootings. In the Emergency Room
When the three children were brought into McKenzie-Willamette Hospital on May 19, the scene was "an emergency physician's nightmare," in the words of John Mackey, the doctor in charge that night. Both hospital workers and police have testified that Downs was unusually controlled under the circumstances.
"What I observed was a woman who was very calm, very self-assured . . . not tearful, not angry, occasionally smiling, occasionally chuckling," Mackey testified. "I saw a woman who appeared to be in very good control of herself."
But Downs' mother, Willadene Frederickson, testified as she wept on the stand that her daughter was "hysterical" that night. "She was crying when I walked in . . . She said, 'Mom, I can't live without my kids.' I said, 'Don't worry. They'll be okay.' "
Downs' behavior at the hospital is what first made investigators suspect her, although she wasn't charged until February of this year. Jagger, Downs' lawyer, explained the coolness she showed toward hospital workers by maintaining that Downs was taught by her father to severely control her emotions. "I've never really been allowed to cry," she said on the stand.
Another problem for the defense is that Knickerbocker testified that he saw a .22-caliber pistol in Downs' trunk the night before she left Arizona for Oregon. Downs says she gave the pistol to her ex-husband. But a crime lab report used by the prosecution found that the .22-caliber bullet casings retrieved at the shooting site and .22-caliber cartridges found in a rifle at Downs' apartment "all were worked through the same gun." Jagger contends that sheriff's investigators, under pressure to get a suspect, took the casings from the shooting scene and planted them in the rifle. "Can you imagine how hard it is to find a murderer when you aren't looking for one?" Downs says during the interview in jail. "Mom becomes real easy."
Jagger has also had to explain the blood spatters found on the outside of the car. The prosecution claimed in court that Cheryl Downs was shot once inside the car and once outside the car because of the pattern of blood on the panel outside the passenger side. The defense had a private forensics expert testify that the blood simply could have dripped there when medics lifted the wounded children out of the car at the hospital.
And finally, Downs has had to explain why she gave different accounts of the shootings during the days after they happened. In a taped interview played in court, she told two detectives that the shootings were committed by two men in ski masks who knew her name and also knew she had a five-inch tattoo of a rose on her back. And in a phone conversation taped by Knickerbocker, Downs said her ex-husband had found a "hitman" to do the shootings. Her ex-husband has testified he thinks Downs did it.
Jagger explained the discrepancies with dreams--in other words, that Downs couldn't distinguish between reality and nightmares.
"I felt like I was going crazy back then, during June, July and August," she testified. "I didn't know what was real and wasn't real . . . there's one specific dream. A person flagged our car down . . . Cheryl was still shot in this dream, she's always shot in my dreams. But she's alive . . . and Cheryl saves us, even though she's shot. She saves us." A Letter to Jennifer
On May 8, 1983, less than two weeks before the shootings, Downs wrote another letter in her diary. This one was to Jennifer, the child she bore as a surrogate mother.
"Hello baby," she wrote. "How is your life? I think about you often, and wonder what goes on with you, week by week. Did you know that today is Mother's day, as well as your birthday? You and your mommy must really be having a big celebration.
"I don't know exactly what to say to you, Jenny, so I'll say what's on my mind . . . Don't give yourself and your love to anyone, unless you are sure they are worthy . . . And, when the heartbreak comes, don't try to chase it away. It can't be done. Accept the pain and learn from it . . . A wonderful man once told me that if something was worth waiting for, then wait for it. I believe him, my love, and you should too.
"Goodbye Jennifer. I love you." CAPTION: Picture 1, Elizabeth Diane Downs being escorted from the courtroom; Picture 2, Downs in 1983; Picture 3, Robert Knickerbocker entering the courtroom with his wife Charkene and sheriff's detective Doug Welch.Photos Copyright (c) 1984 by Betty Udesen--The Springfield News