It was 27 years ago Wednesday that single mother Elizabeth Diane Downs shot her three children – killing one and seriously injuring the other two – on a dark, rural Lane County road, in one of the most notorious murder cases in Oregon history.
From that warm spring night on May 19, 1983, when Downs claimed a “shaggy-haired stranger” had shot her kids, to the bizarre spectacle a year later when a very pregnant Downs appeared at her six-week trial in Eugene, to her brief escape from the Oregon State Penitentiary three years later, the entire tale has seemed like a made-for-TV murder mystery.
In fact, that’s exactly what it became in 1989, two years after Seattle true-crime author Ann Rule’s best-selling book, “Small Sacrifices.”
So, after all these years, what else could possibly be revealed capable of shocking anyone?
How about the fact that the child Downs was pregnant with during her 1984 trial – the product of Downs’ brief fling with a Cottage Grove newspaper reporter – has now gone public a month before her 26th birthday?
Rebecca Christine Babcock’s story was told to ABC’s “20/20″ on Friday, and it also appears in the June issue of Glamour magazine that recently hit newsstands, a collaboration between the TV show and the magazine.
Babcock, now a single mother and college student in Bend, bears a noticeable resemblance to the child killer who gave birth to her. She declined an interview request by The Register-Guard.
“Right now, my interest is in finding a publisher/writer and getting a book going,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I have been told that until I do that, I shouldn’t speak to any press.”
Babcock, 25, was adopted by a Bend couple, Chris and Jackie Babcock, shortly after she was born at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene on June 27, 1984. She discovered the truth about her biological mother from a baby sitter when she was a child, according to the Glamour article, which was co-written by The Oregonian’s Lisa Grace Lednicer and Eric Mason, a former Portland TV reporter who covered Downs’ 1984 trial for KOIN-TV.
Mason came upon the story 2 1/2 years ago when an acquaintance in Bend told him that the baby girl Downs had named “Amy Elizabeth” was living in Bend and wanted to find someone to tell her story. Mason said Monday he first met “Becky” Babcock in early 2008 when he was invited by the acquaintance, who knew Babcock from church, to meet her at a Bend pizza parlor.
Mason, now a private investigator who lives in Salem, and Lednicer know each other from covering the Oregon Legislature over many of the same sessions. They approached Babcock about doing a magazine piece as a way to garner interest from a book publisher. Babcock was not paid by either Glamour or “20/20″ for her interviews, Mason said.
Rule participated in the “20/20″ spot, her segment taped at the Springfield home of former Lane County detective Doug Welch – the lead investigator in the Downs case 27 years ago. Rule said Monday that, over the years, she has been contacted many times by women claiming to be the baby girl Downs was pregnant with during her trial.
So when Mason contacted her a couple of years ago with the news about Babcock, Rule did not believe him.
“So many people had called and said they were Diane’s daughter,” said Rule, 74, who has written more than 30 true-crime books, beginning with “The Stranger Beside Me” about serial killer Ted Bundy.
Now it appears Rule could have a sequel to “Small Sacrifices” on her hands. Rule met Babcock at Welch’s home for the “20/20″ piece. Babcock is looking for someone to tell her story, and Rule said she might make a pitch for it.
“I’ve asked readers on my Web site” if they would want to read about Babcock’s story, Rule said. “They all said, yes, they want to know.”
If she does tell it, the next step might be helping Babcock locate her biological father, Rule said. In fact, Rule has already met him. She befriended the man, once a reporter at the Cottage Grove Sentinel who now lives in Portland, back in the mid-1980s while putting together “Small Sacrifices.” He agreed to share how he came to conceive a child with Downs as long as his name and occupation were changed for the book, Rule said.
Rule gave the father the alias of “Matt Jensen” and described him in her book as “very tall with bright blue eyes, black hair, beard and moustache – Diane’s idea of a perfect male.”
On Monday, Rule remembered the man, then in his 20s, as a “very, very nice, good-looking man. Intelligent. He was upset that he had fallen for Diane’s seduction.”
According to the book, Downs, who lived in Springfield but was a mail carrier in Cottage Grove, seduced the man she met on her mail route with a bottle of whiskey one summer night in 1983 – because she was obsessed with getting pregnant again.
Babcock told ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas on “20/20″ that she would now like to find her biological father, too.
“I’d sure like for Rebecca to meet her dad,” Rule said. “I think it would help her see that her heritage is not all negative.”
Negativity is definitely what Babcock got after finally getting up the nerve to contact Downs – who is serving a life sentence plus 30 years in a California federal prison for women – about four years ago, according to the Glamour piece.
After an initial positive response by letter, a second letter from Downs to Babcock was “filled with paranoid fantasies,” the Glamour article says. “On 12 pages torn from a legal pad, Diane scrawled stories about a secret man – ‘someone very powerful has been watching over you all your life for me’ – and how she was in jail so she’d be safe from the real killer.”
Subsequent letters grew more disturbing as Downs told Babcock she should take her son, born in 2002 when Babcock was 17, away from Bend or he too would grow up to become a killer. Babcock then cut off contact with Downs, according to the article.
The piece begins by describing how Babcock, after an idyllic childhood, sat down to watch “Small Sacrifices” on video – the TV movie starred the late Farrah Fawcett – with a boyfriend when she was 16. She was horrified.
“It was like a dream,” Babcock says in the article. “I couldn’t be from the belly of such a monster. But I was.”
She had run to a bookstore years earlier, after a baby sitter told her the truth, and flipped through the pages of the book, but had never fully understood the magnitude of it all. That led to episodes of teenage rebellion, drug use, fears that she had evil blood flowing through her veins, teenage pregnancy and other parallels with Downs’ life, she says in the article.
But through years of struggle and growth, she seems to have come to terms with her past, Mason said.
“What I learned from her is that she is at peace with being the biological child of Diane Downs and has learned to live with it,” Mason said. Rule and Welch said they, too, are impressed with what they have seen in Babcock.
“She’s a remarkable lady,” Welch said. “I was very pleased after meeting her. She doesn’t seem to have any of the traits her mother has. I wish her the best.”