Unmasking a Murderous Mother, Crime Writer Ann Rule Closes the Book on Another Psychopath

updated 09/14/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Two months ago, just as Ann Rule's latest true-crime tale was breaking onto the best-seller lists, the book's murderous subject escaped from a prison in Salem, Ore. Diane Downs, the psychopathic killer whose cold-blooded assault on her own children is chronicled with chilling detail in Small Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and Murder (NAL Books, $18.95), was on the loose. Although she lives in Seattle, only 200 miles from the prison, Rule was not about to bolt her doors and hide in the bedroom closet. "I decided a long time ago," she says, "that if I was going to be afraid, I shouldn't be doing what I'm doing."

In her 22-year career as a crime writer, the 55-year-old divorced grandmother has come face-to-face with some of the most notorious killers in America. With the unflinching eye of a detective, she has detailed their deeds and delved into their thoughts, producing some 1,400 magazine articles and six books. In the process, Rule has become one of the country's foremost experts on psychopathic criminals and a sought-after police consultant on serial killers.

In contrast to her subjects, Rule herself is a gentle soul who can't even bring herself to squash a spider. What fascinates her are "the monsters that sometimes live behind wonderful facades." Diane Downs, according to Rule, was just such a Jekyll and Hyde personality. In 1983 Rule was sitting in her office at home when she heard a radio news bulletin about a young mother and her three children who had been shot by a "shaggy haired" man. The mother, Diane Downs, then 27, had apparently received an arm wound and the assailant had killed one daughter and critically wounded her other daughter and her son.

"My first thought," says Rule, who has raised four children, now grown, "was, 'Oh, how awful. How could a mother ever survive the emotional pain?' And then, because half of me thinks like a cop, there was a little feeling that cops call 'hinky,' when something just doesn't jell right."

The tip-off was Downs's description of the assailant. It is typical of criminals, Rule knew, to blame their crimes on the "BHS"—police parlance for bushy haired stranger. Lane County police, as it turned out, shared her suspicions and arrested Downs in February 1984, nine months after the crime. That's also when Rule got on the case.

It would take her three years to unearth and write the grim truth behind the crime. A divorced Arizona mail carrier, Downs had moved with her son, Danny, 3, and her daughters, Cheryl, 7, and Christie, 8, to Springfield, Ore., hoping her lover would leave his wife and join her. When he refused, saying that he didn't want kids, Downs shot her own children. Then she wounded herself and concocted the story of assault by a stranger.

What both appalled and intrigued Rule was how any mother could so viciously turn on her own offspring, especially a woman like Downs who insisted that her greatest fulfillment in life was to have children. By the time of her trial Downs was again pregnant, by an unidentified man she had slept with only twice. "It was a wonderful trial for someone writing a book," says Rule, "because Diane is a compulsive talker and a compulsive journal keeper and a compulsive telephone taper and interview taper. So she testified for four and a half days." But the physical evidence and the heartrending testimony of her daughter, Christie, convinced a jury that Downs was lying.

At one point during the trial, the prosecutor presented a tape of the Duran Duran hit Hungry Like the Wolf, which Christie said was playing when the attack took place. "On the tape there are snare drums that sound like gunshots and little cries that sounded like kids screaming," recalls Rule, "and I looked around and the jury was pale green and the press was pale green. And I looked at Diane. She was snapping her fingers and tapping her foot and singing along. Of all the courtroom dramas I've been to, this was the most dramatic."

Rule speculates that Downs' immediate motive was her desire to win back the lover in Arizona, who eventually testified against her. But the roots of her antisocial personality go back to a childhood of sexual abuse that left her, says Rule, "an empty, hollow woman" who craves pregnancy because it "literally and figuratively fills her up, makes her feel as if she is not alone." But once born, her children became for her mere possessions, to be used or abused. "As an indignant, outraged mother, I don't feel pity for Diane," says Rule. "I did feel sorry for the child Diane; the woman Diane is a monster."

Rule talked to Downs herself only twice, once over the phone and once in person. Her prison interview with Downs was particularly chilling. To prove that she couldn't have shot her son, "she went into this discussion about the size and shape of the pattern of blood that came from Danny's mouth, 3-year-old Danny," says Rule. "At that point I looked into her eyes, and there was no emotion at all on her face. I realized then that I wasn't going to get anything from Diane."

Because of their frequently high intelligence, says Rule, psychopathic killers can come across as attractive individuals in daily life. "And we've got to realize they don't get better," she says. "We don't know how to cure them yet." For that reason, Rule reluctantly favors the death penalty for serial killers. "There's always the chance that the sociopath can charm his way out of prison," says Rule, who's seen several of her most vicious subjects paroled as model prisoners, only to kill again.

Rule's curiosity about criminals like Downs goes back to her childhood, when she spent rapt hours with her grandfather, a sheriff in Stanton, Mich. "It fascinated me how grandpa could take a broken button or a blood drop and figure out who done it," she recalls. After graduation from the University of Washington in 1954 with a major in creative writing, she trained to become a cop for the Seattle police department but was dropped from the force when her severe nearsightedness was discovered.

Her yen for police work found another outlet when her husband, a technical writer for Boeing, decided to go back to school. As a means of supporting the family, Rule began writing crime stories. To research her articles, she took police science courses, rode with homicide and arson units, joined victim support groups and developed a wealth of law enforcement contacts throughout the Northwest.

In 1971 Rule was volunteering at a Seattle crisis clinic where she met a student intern who impressed her. "I used to think that if I were younger or my daughters were older, this would be the perfect man," she says. He was Ted Bundy, a serial killer now awaiting execution in Florida for the 1978 slayings of three girls. Police have since linked Bundy to the murders of at least 36 other women. Rule's book about Bundy has sold over one million copies. With 100,000 copies of Small Sacrifices in print and movie rights sold for a tidy six-figure sum, she has definitely found that crime writing pays.

Downs's July 11 escape, however, suggested that the writer's involvement with cold-blooded killers might not be without risk. Rule had been told by the security chief at the Oregon Women's Correctional Center that Downs had read the book and was enraged over it. Three years ago a friend gave Rule a gun, but she can't always remember where she keeps the ammunition. She jokes that she relies on children and pets for protection. Professional competition led to an amicable 1972 divorce from her husband, who has since died. Her youngest son, Mike, 23, still lives at home, while his brother, Andy, 26, lives a few blocks away. Her daughters Leslie, 29, and Laura, 31, who has two children, also live in the Northwest.

Rule was unnerved but not surprised by Downs's prison breakout. "I think she planned it for a long time, because Diane doesn't do anything without planning it," she says. Some people speculated that Downs might try to contact her children. Danny, who is now paralyzed from the waist down, and Christie, who suffered some neurological damage and temporarily lost her speech, were taken in by the district attorney who prosecuted Downs after their father relinquished custody. The baby Downs bore after the trial has been adopted. But Rule, knowing her patterns, speculated that once out, a single idea would be foremost in Downs's mind: getting pregnant. She would go looking for a "suitable donor," Rule predicted, "someone intelligent, with good bone structure, no genetic black marks and drug free."

When tracked down by police to a house only six blocks from the prison after 10 days on the run, Downs was with a man, Wayne Seifer, 36, a psychiatric aide and the estranged husband of one of Downs's fellow inmates. Downs seems to have been there with Seifer the entire time, leaving the bedroom only to go to the toilet or take a shower. She had apparently knocked on Seifer's door after escaping and convinced him that she was innocent. "I spent 10 days with her," Seifer told reporters. "I fell in love." As Rule predicted, someone else had fallen for the trap. Prison officials will not say whether she is pregnant.

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