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True Crime Profile: The Mysterious Case of the Downs Family Carjacking

On May 19, 1983, Diane Downs, a mother of 3, drove up to a hospital with her car covered in blood and her three kids (aged three, seven and eight) wounded heavily in the back seat. She was bleeding from a wound on her forearm. This day was, as it would be for anyone, life-changing for the Downs family. Just a few hours prior, Downs was a mother to three healthy children, but by the end of the day, one of her three kids had passed away while another was paralyzed and the third had suffered a stroke. Within 24 hours, Downs suffered one of the most tragic events a parent could undergo.  

According to Downs’ initial telling of the story, she and her family were carjacked by a man on a road near Springfield. This man shot Downs and her children before fleeing the scene. The picture we have painted here is  disturbing:  a mother and her three children are shot by the side of a rural road, leaving one of her children dead and the other two seriously injured.  

Investigators and hospital workers worked closely with Downs while she was in the hospital with her children. They helped to build her case and comfort her after the loss of her child. However, her behavior did not match the profile of a distraught mother.  Downs was  extremely calm during the retelling of events, and both investigators and hospital workers agreed that this was not the typical response of someone who had just undergone a traumatic event. It did not help Downs’ case that as soon as she arrived at the hospital she made a call to Robert Knickerbocker — the man with whom she was having an affair.  Knickerbocker was a previous coworker of hers and also a married man.  From here, the case shifted drastically. 

As more evidence was collected, it countered Downs’ story. First, there was no blood or gunpowder residue on the driver’s side of the car. If Downs had been shot along with her kids by someone outside, the driver’s side of the car should have retained some gunpowder residue, as well as blood splatter from Downs’ close-range injury. The case very quickly spirals after this; Knickerbocker was contacted shortly after and both he and Downs’ husband, Steven Downs, revealed that Downs actually owned a .22 caliber handgun — something Downs had not stated to the police previously. 

With all the information coming out, the suspicion was quickly shifting away from a mystery man and onto Diane Downs herself. In fact, in the conversation with Knickerbocker, he divulged that Downs’ had stalked him and implied that she was willing to go to the extent of killing his wife to be able to be with him openly. This took a lot of suspicion off Knickerbocker as he also explained that after Downs moved away, he felt quite relieved and was able to work through his relationship with his wife. It was also reported that Cheryl Lynn, one of Downs’ three children, had told neighbors of her fear of her mother not long before her death. 

From here investigators knew for certain Downs was behind the attack, so the case became about proving her guilt. The investigators could not find her gun but were able to find unfired casings in her house that matched the profile of the weapon used in the attack. Furthermore, witnesses saw her car driving at an extremely slow pace to the hospital. This information is critical since in her account she was speeding to the hospital. It also just seems unlikely that a mother concerned about her three kids getting shot would drive five to seven  miles per hour to the nearest hospital. Most important of all, one of Downs’ surviving children testified against her, telling the story of how her mother was behind the attack. 

This case is pretty grim. An obsessive mother of three had an affair with a man who didn’t want children and assumed that killing her children would make him want her. There is a lot of unpacking there. However, the case doesn’t end on a completely depressing note; her two surviving children went on to be happily adopted by the lead prosecutor on their case and his wife. Downs on the other hand was convicted of one charge of murder and two counts each of criminal assault and attempted murder, nine months after the shooting. She was also diagnosed as a deviant sociopath and was ultimately sentenced to life in prison plus fifty years.  

Prison was apparently not enough for Downs, however, as she escaped her cell on July 11, 1987, by scaling a razor-wire fence. This fence was no easy climb as it was 18 feet tall and literally covered in razors.  She escaped for 10 days before being found and having five years added to her sentence. Downs was later transferred to another prison, as the prosecutor on the case argued that Downs would escape the facility again and try to come for her children. Thankfully there were no more escapes after her transfer, and her children were able to grow up in a truly safe home.