While my mother was not a killer (at least to my knowledge). I found myself relating to Rebecca’s story in many ways. Probably because of her mother’s narcissism.
It could have been any ordinary teen date night: Rebecca Babcock, then 16, settled down with her boyfriend on his red futon to watch a video. She had no idea what she was about to see until the credits began to roll. Two minutes into the opening scene, the TV screen filled with Farrah Fawcett yelling, “Someone just shot my kids! There’s blood. Blood everywhere!” Becky wanted to look away but couldn’t. And as the moments ticked by, she realized: It was the horrifying story of her birth mother, Elizabeth Diane Downs. Becky knew she was adopted; she even knew that her birth mother was in prison. But she’d never wanted to know the details of her mother’s crime, and no one had volunteered them. That night, she says, “as I watched, the horror of what my mother did became real.”
The events of the spring night in 1983 when Downs committed her crimes are almost too gruesome to imagine. Downs was driving on a rural road outside Springfield, Oregon, when her three children—Danny, three, Cheryl, seven, and Christie, eight—were shot. Cheryl died from her wounds, Danny was paralyzed and Christie suffered a disabling stroke. Downs claimed that a lone gunman with shaggy hair had tried to kill her children while attempting to steal her car. Prosecutors found evidence that proved otherwise, and charged Downs with the crime. Her motive, they believed: The man she had been dating didn’t want kids.
The case made headlines across the nation, in part because, during the nine-month investigation, Downs got pregnant again by a different man. Chained and visibly showing, Downs was a head-turning beauty who would smile for the cameras and wiggle her hips on the way to the courtroom. Reporters who covered the 1984 trial were struck by how much she enjoyed the attention. Then, in stunning testimony, Christie identified her mother as the shooter; a jury convicted Downs on all counts, and she was sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years.
Ten days later Downs gave birth to a girl she named Amy Elizabeth, setting off another press frenzy. Reporters staked out the hospital, but authorities sneaked the newborn girl out unseen. Amy Elizabeth essentially disappeared.
That girl, renamed Rebecca Babcock by her adoptive parents, has remained anonymous until now. For the first time, she has decided to come forward and tell her story about what it was like to grow up as the daughter of a notorious killer. It hasn’t been easy—for years Becky feared she might be impulsive and calculating, like her birth mother. She doubted that anyone could truly accept or love her, given her genetic legacy. Becky felt so alone and confused that she rebelled against the loving parents who took her in unconditionally, but now she wants the world to know how she’s fighting to rebuild her life and her family.
Hidden in Plain Sight
As she watched the movie with her boyfriend, Becky wept at the scene in which Farrah Fawcett cradled her newborn. “Every emotion a person can feel swept over me in a haze,” says Becky. “It was like a dream. I couldn’t be from the belly of such a monster. But I was.”
What the salacious movie didn’t show: Just hours after Becky was born, officials drove her 25 miles from the hospital to a small hotel where her adoptive parents were waiting. Chris Babcock, a chemist, and his wife, Jackie, a stay-at-home mom, already had one adopted daughter, Jennie. They had been trying for two long years to adopt another child. When authorities contacted them about Becky, they were thrilled to add her to their family, regardless of her birth mother’s story. Friends and fellow church members knew Becky was adopted, but Chris and Jackie didn’t reveal her heritage. They simply set out to do their job as parents: give Becky the happiest childhood possible.
The Babcocks’ home sat on 80 acres in the high desert, where the smell of juniper filled the air after a rain and Becky’s bedroom faced the Cascade mountain range. Becky’s mother was a beloved community volunteer, and although her father traveled as far as Asia for business, he’d been there to sit up with the girls when they were sick, and told them adventurous bedtime stories complete with silly voices.
Diane and her crimes were largely forgotten until the Babcocks learned she had escaped from prison just three years into her sentence, Becky says. Fearing that the fugitive might try to kidnap young Becky, authorities recommended that her parents tell the nursery school and babysitter about Diane—and what she was capable of. Within two weeks Diane was found shacked up with a new man and was locked away once more. But Becky’s secret couldn’t be reclaimed.
As an eight-year-old, Becky was already pestering her mom about her biological mother. Jackie revealed little, saying only that “she had blond hair and green eyes.” Once, Becky recalls, Jackie said her biological mother “did something really bad” and that they’d talk about it when she was older. “I thought maybe she stole a car,” says Becky. “I never imagined she’d be a murderer.” Insatiably curious, Becky began to work on her babysitter, who eventually slipped and revealed both Diane’s name and the fact that a book had been written about her case. Becky went to Barnes & Noble and flipped through the pages, but then, scared, put it back on the shelf. “I was still playing with Barbies. I wasn’t ready for that,” she says. Even today, she’s never read the book or searched online about Downs. “I am afraid that if I know more about what really happened, it may have some control over my life—that I might forgive her for killing her daughter, or that I may hate her more. It’s like Pandora’s box: I do not want to open it for fear of what’s inside.”
If Diane’s story still frightens her at 26, imagine how Becky must have felt hearing the first details as a young teen. She longed for a confidant, but felt she couldn’t turn to her parents. “My parents wanted to protect me from her,” says Becky. “I knew that if I wanted to know more [about her], they would be disappointed, because they wanted more for me. I felt it would break my mom’s heart.” She’d always been close with Jennie, but lately her sister had had no time for her because she’d started sneaking out, drinking and using drugs. “When Jennie wasn’t around anymore, I had no one who understood my confusion and anger,” says Becky. “I felt alone and didn’t know where to go.” Soon she was following Jennie to parties, where she began experimenting with pot and meth and dating older men.
Then she saw her birth mother’s story played by one of Charlie’s Angels, and her teen rebellion careened out of control. She lurched from boyfriend to boyfriend, hoping one could prove to her that she was lovable. “In some ways my genetics are what I feel kept me from really caring about right from wrong,” says Becky. “I had plenty of ‘normal’ friends who did normal things. I chose to be destructive. Deep inside me was the blood of Diane. My addictions mimicked Diane’s in the way of men—like Diane, I lived for the attention.”
Finding out the full truth about your birth mother from a TV blockbuster could devastate anyone, says David Brodzinsky, Ph.D., research and project director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City, who has counseled hundreds of adopted children. It’s hard enough for those who learn disturbing details about their birth parents’ past—such as abuse, neglect or incarceration—in a gradual, considered way. “It’s not just worrying, I’ll [commit crimes like these],” he says. “It’s thinking, This is who I came from, and I can’t ever escape it. And that is a reality. They will never have a different birth mother. What’s important to stress is that we are more than who we come from. Values are not translated genetically.” Becky couldn’t connect with that truth as a teen. In turmoil, she lashed out at her adoptive parents, especially her mother. “I couldn’t accept that my parents loved me enough to raise me as their own, not caring what a monster I came from,” says Becky.
When she was 17, Becky hooked up with an old boyfriend and got pregnant. They’d already broken up again by the time her son, Christian, was born in 2002. Despite becoming a mother, Becky filled the next three years with more partying, more men, more job changes, as she searched for a way to forget her past and feel loved. “A part of me wishes I had never known [that Diane is my mother],” says Becky. “But the other part of me knows that if I never knew, I would not understand why I did the things I did.” She took some comfort in the idea that she could never be capable of Diane’s violence: “She committed the ultimate crime—she killed her child,” says Becky. “I tried to understand one day how she could have done that; it made me physically sick.”
When Christian was three, Becky got pregnant again. Laid off from her job and struggling to support herself and her son, she decided to put the new baby up for adoption. “I remember holding him in my arms seconds after he was born and realizing I had to hand him to a family I had only met twice,” says Becky. “I thought that since I was adopted it wouldn’t be so hard for me to put my son up for adoption, but afterward I was completely lost. It made me think about Diane. I knew the hurt I felt, and I wondered if she felt it too.” Years earlier one of Becky’s boyfriends, bizarrely fixated on the case, had gotten Diane’s prison address. Becky had refused to contact Diane then, but now found the address and wrote to her birth mother.
“You’re probably not going to believe me,” her first letter began, “but I think I’m your biological daughter.” When Diane’s reply arrived, Becky says, “I felt like my heart would pop out of my chest.” Her tone was giddy and loving; she asked what color Becky’s eyes were and if she had any siblings. Diane wrote again the next day, but this letter was filled with paranoid fantasies. 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. She signed it, “Forever, Your Mom.” Becky was flabbergasted. When the letters got crazier and crazier over the next three weeks, Becky asked Diane not to contact her again. Diane’s response was disturbing: “You are a piece of work, Rebecca…,” she wrote, before ranting that Christian could grow up to be a killer. “If you love your little boy, you’ll take him far away from there.” Becky now regretted reaching out to such a deranged woman. “A part of me had wanted to know that she thought of me,” Becky says. “But when she told me she did, it wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t want a murderer to love me.”
The following year Becky finally hit her “enough” moment. According to a sexual harassment claim she later filed, she was out for drinks with coworkers from a car lot when her boss forced her to have sex to save her job. “I realized that even though I was staying clean, bad things were still happening,” she says. “As long as I worked these dead-end jobs, they’d always happen. I had to show my son that his mom was a strong person.” She got enough money from a settlement to pay off debts so she could finally pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. “I never thought I was good enough or strong enough to get my life together,” she says. “I was terrified, but I went back to school. The first semester was awkward and scary, but when I didn’t want to go to school one day, I remembered how I felt when I handed my baby to strangers, and I remembered the life I had lived and how I would be devastated if my son followed in my footsteps. And I’ve kept going.”
Each small accomplishment motivated Becky to reach for the next goal. Medical school will be a hard road, but Becky is determined to stay on the path: She just made the dean’s list, and she spends her nights plowing through anatomy textbooks. She still thinks of the effect Diane’s legacy could have. “I fight with myself every day to not be the person that I feel inside of me,” says Becky. “I look at the way my parents live and that is what I strive for—to be honest, true, good people—instead of becoming my biological mother.” Sometimes the stress of balancing college and parenthood triggers grim thoughts about her birth mother. “I think about Diane most when I feel crazy. When everything’s crashing down upon me and I feel smothered, I think, Do I feel this way because she’s related to me?” But then she thinks of Christian: “I look at my son and I know I have to try harder.”
Christian, who also has Diane’s green eyes and slender fingers, is shy, polite and remarkably well-adjusted. And friends say Becky is now an attentive mother. “It’s almost like a little lightbulb clicked on and she thought, I better start taking care of my kid,” says Marie Armon, Christian’s great-aunt. Indeed, Becky’s bond with Christian is clear. He sneaks up to her often to nuzzle her ear. She responds in kind, like their own secret Eskimo kiss, before he giggles away. “If I do not keep God and my son as my focus, then I may let my dreams fall to the side,” she says. “So I keep looking forward and I hang on to the fact that I am better than Diane. And every day I try to make a better life for my son.”
Becky has no interest in communicating with Diane again, though she did reach out to her half-siblings. Diane’s two surviving children, just three and eight at the time of the shooting, were adopted by the lead prosecutor in the case, but Becky has yet to meet them. “I’m sure life has been tough on them,” she says, “and I guess I don’t want to intrude.” She briefly corresponded with Diane’s father, but didn’t pursue a relationship in part because he still maintains a conspiracy-theory-filled website dedicated to Diane’s innocence.
Becky’s at peace with not knowing the identity of her biological father. “I would not trade my parents for anything,” she says. “A parent is the person who is there when a child has nightmares or a scraped knee, who holds them through the pain of a broken heart.” She’s closer than ever to Jackie and Chris, often calling her mother her “best friend” and her father “my hero,” and she thinks Jennie has her life on track too. And although the Babcocks declined to be interviewed for this story, Chris said in a statement, “We believe this to be Becky’s story, not ours. Our role was adoption and being loving parents,” and they supported Becky’s decision to come forward.
It was a choice she made carefully, motivated by a desire to reassure others struggling with a dark family history. “Until I saw my adopted birth certificate last year, there was still a tiny bit of hope that I was wrong and she wasn’t my birth mother,” says Becky. “But I’m confident that nurture has overcome nature, and even though her blood is in my veins, I am not capable of doing such evil things. I hope this story will help people who have the same stigma. Whether they came from a monster or were even raised by a monster—a murderer, molester, someone who beat them, a thief—that does not define who they are as an individual. Their parent’s mistake does not have to become their story. Each person holds her own pen and paper and can write her own story. People should never let anyone tell them different.”
Lisa Grace Lednicer is a reporter at The Oregonian in Portland. Eric Mason, now a private investigator, was in the courtroom throughout Downs’ trial in 1984.