Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

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

Blood Splattered Auto

Even though the sun had long set over the verdant hills of Springfield, Oregon, Thursday, May 19, 1983, remained as warm at night as it had at noon. There was a quiet to the evening, the kind of languishing stillness that sometimes thresholds a storm. But, the night staff at McKenzie-Willamette Hospital felt no oncoming torrent, and, after so-many years fighting unpredictable emergencies they often found themselves with an innate power to feel something sinister in the air. And, the professionals they were, they were always ready.

Nothing had pre-armed them, however, for the drama that unfolded at their literal doorstep at approximately 10:48 p.m. No warning had come until the red late-model Nissan bearing Arizona license plates careened into the emergency drop-off, bleating its horn to scare the devils from hell. The skeleton night shift all heard it; their faces told them immediately that what they had anticipated a quiet night in ER was not to be. Dr. John Mackey, physician in charge, and the two nurses Rose Martin and Shelby Day felt the familiar adrenaline. Receptionist Judy Patterson rolled back her typewriter ledge and quickly forgot about the routine insurance forms she had been updating.

In the driveway, just beyond the double automatic doors of ER, a blonde woman in her twenties waved them on; she looked ashen in the fluorescent tube lighting, and she wildly pointed to the interior of her car.

"Somebody just shot my kids!" was all she seemed to know how to say. Patterson, hearing the mother's words, did what she always did in emergencies involving violent crime: She dialed for the police.

Nurses Martin and Day teetered when they looked through the windows of the Nissan. Side panels were soaked in blood and amidst the blood lay three small children, one in the front passenger seat, two in the back. First glance told the nurses the children had been shot at very close range. A golden-haired child up front, a girl, couldn't have been any more than seven or eight, the RNs apprised; of the two in the rear, one was a girl, maybe a trifle older than the other, and a boy, merely a toddler.

This call was unexpected, and it was bad, very bad. Personnel from intensive care were summoned to assist ER, and a swat-like team of white-coat professionals including top surgeon Fred Wilhite volleyed to the scene as the trio of injured youngsters were carried in by weeping nurses and pale interns. As reinforcement came, Dr. Mackey explained the situation to them in two taut words, "Chest wounds!"

Two of the children still breathed, although strenuously; the boy gasped for air. The child found slumped in the front seat appeared beyond help; despite frantic efforts by the doctors at the operating table, the damage had been lethal. She was pronounced dead moments after being wheeled to Emergency.

Only later did the medics learn the children's names and ages Christie Downs, 8; Cheryl Ann Downs, 7; and Danny Downs, 3 but names and ages didn't matter yet; in fact, they were the least important factor of this hour, this night, this calamity. What mattered is that someone without a heart had deliberately attempted to murder three kids in cold blood, and, despite the odds, despite a fate that looked gloomy, the caretakers hastened to keep that fate at bay and beat it at its own game: with deliberate intention.

Skilled hands attended to the two operable victims. Feeling the children succumbing to severe blood loss and lack of oxygen, they performed tracheotomies on them to free the flowing blood and salvage much-needed air. Machines began to pump the little hearts and revitalized the other organs. Despite the children's fragile condition, Mackey and his experts kept them alive. Miraculously.

Author Ann Rule, who relates the tragedy in her excellent book, Small Sacrifices, writes, "One child was dead (Cheryl). One child (Christie) had defied the odds and lived through profound blood loss, heart stoppage and delicate surgery. One child (Danny) seemed stable, but was at risk of paralysis. Who in the name of God could have aimed a pistol at three small children and pulled the trigger?"


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