It was an unthinkable, brutal killing in 1983 that terrified parents around the country. A mother was driving one night down a rural road in Oregon when her three children, who were asleep in the car, were shot at point-blank range by a stranger in the dark. At least, that's the story Diane Downs told police. What really happened is almost too horrific to imagine.
Diane said a shaggy-haired stranger flagged down her car on the night of May 19, 1983, and after what she claimed was a botched carjacking attempt, the man shot her three sleeping children. As she tried to flee, Diane said he also shot her in the forearm.
Diane told police she pushed the man away and sped to the nearest hospital—but a witness testified she was driving less than 10 miles an hour.
By the time Diane arrived at the hospital, her 7-year-old daughter, Cheryl, was dead. Eight-year-old Christie had lost so much blood she suffered a stroke, and 3-year-old Danny was left paralyzed.
Police said Diane's story never added up. Then, at the trial, Diane's surviving daughter, Christie, took the witness stand and testified that her mother was the shooter.
Diane was convicted of shooting her children, killing one and critically wounding the others. She was sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years.
Diane is still in jail and maintains her innocence to this day. Her surviving children were adopted by the prosecutor in this case and his wife. Christie and Danny are now in their 30s and have chosen to live private lives.
However, there is one more child entangled in this story. During the trial, it was revealed that Diane was pregnant. She never identified the baby's father, and the media speculated she did it to gain sympathy from the jury.
In 1988, Oprah interviewed Diane from prison and asked her why she got pregnant. "I missed my kids desperately. I had just seen Christie on the 2nd of October, and it's like opening a wound and pouring salt in," Diane said. "I was extremely lonely beyond belief and beyond explanation. On October 13, I just went and got pregnant because I was so lonely."
Ten days after she was found guilty, Diane gave birth to a baby girl who was adopted soon after. Today, that baby is a 26-year-old woman named Becky. After years of hiding from the truth, she's speaking out about what it was like to discover that her birth mother is a cold-blooded killer.
Becky says she always knew she was adopted, but when she turned 8, she started asking questions about her biological mother. "My mom told me that she was in prison, that there was a book about her and when I was old enough, she would tell me more," Becky says.
Three years later, Becky tricked a babysitter into revealing the name of her birth mother: Diane Downs. Becky went to a bookstore to look her up and was shocked at what she found. "I flipped through the pictures, and there was a picture of Diane sitting at a table with her hand up, and her fingers were eerily the same as mine—like identical—and it scared me," she says. "I slammed the book shut, and I left."
When she was 16, a boyfriend showed Becky the TV movie Small Sacrifices starring Farrah Fawcett, which is based on her mother's life. It was then, Becky says, that the reality of who Diane was truly sunk in. "She's not a mother," Becky says. "She's a monster."
From there, Becky says she went into a downward spiral. "I started drinking, doing drugs, sleeping around," she says. "I really was just trying to find love from anywhere I could. I ended up getting pregnant when I was 17 years old."
At 20 years old, Becky found herself broke, homeless and pregnant for a second time. "I made the hardest decision I've ever had to make," she says. "I decided to put [my son] up for adoption."
Hoping to find someone who could understand, Becky turned to the woman who had given her up as a baby. "I was in so much pain from losing my son that I wanted to relate to somebody," she says. "I wanted to know that the pain I felt was okay, and I reached out to Diane."
Becky wrote a letter to Diane in prison telling her who she was. "She responded quite normally, actually," Becky says. "She related to some of the things that I had written to her. She had been excited that I contacted her, and she said that she always knew I would."
The next letter she received from Diane wasn't so nice. "About the second letter, I became curious about my biological father, and I had asked her questions. It angered her," Becky says. "She seemed to throw tantrums, and she didn't understand why I wanted to find him. I think it was her way of keeping me in contact with her...she wouldn't tell me who he was."
As time went on, Becky says Diane's letters became frightening. "Her letters started to be conspiracy theories—she believed that she was being kept in prison to be kept safe," she says. "I asked her to stop writing at one point—this was after she told me people had been watching me my whole life and were trying to kill me—and at that point, she then accused me of being one trying to kill her."
Becky says she now regrets ever writing to Diane. "I have an amazing family, and there's not room in my life for someone like Diane Downs," Becky says.
Still, Becky says there have been moments when she was fearful of turning into her biological mother. After a particularly hard day, Becky says she sought advice from a counselor. "I was stressed out—bills were due, I had just lost a child—I had the weight of the world on my shoulders," Becky says. "I felt like I was going crazy, honestly. I went into my counselor and I said: 'Am I like her? Am I going crazy?' And she grabbed my hand, she looked me straight in the eye, and she said, 'Honey, crazy people don't know they're crazy.' She says, 'You're dealing with life.'"
Diane may be the woman who gave birth to her, but Becky says they don't have to have a connection. "I was raised in a godly home, and I'm well adjusted," she says. "My son is amazing and well adjusted. And if I don't want to, I don't have to think about Diane again."
Becky has tried to reach out to her surviving half-brother and half-sister, but they have chosen to remain private. "Understandably, it was something that was very difficult for them to get through," Becky says. "But they're doing well. They're very well adjusted and happy, and we kind of left it at that."
Printed from Oprah.com on Thursday, December 12, 2013