Surgeon who helped save 1 of Diane Downs' kids in 1983 after she shot her recalls chilling interaction

Diane Downs was convicted of shooting her 3 children, killing 1, in 1983.

March 20, 2019, 4:00 AM

Dr. Steven Wilhite had just walked into his house after a long day working at a Springfield, Oregon, hospital when his beeper went off.

It was May 19, 1983, a warm spring night. Wilhite, a general surgeon, checked the page -- “in those days you didn't have cell phones,” he said -- and was instantly filled with dread and adrenaline.

“Beeper goes off, said, ‘Get in here. We've got three children who have been shot,’” Wilhite told “20/20.” “And my whole body just tingled. And I thought to myself, ‘What am I going to do with three shot children?’”

“It's very seldom that does my body tingle like that,” he added.

Watch the full story on "20/20" THIS FRIDAY, March 22 at 9 p.m. ET

At around 10 p.m. that May night, police said Diane Downs pulled over to the side of a country road near Springfield and shot her three small children multiple times at close range. A 27-year-old divorced postal service worker, Downs claimed a bushy-haired stranger had shot them and maintains her innocence to this day.

PHOTO: Elizabeth Diane Downs, the convicted childkiller who escaped July 11, 1987 from the women's prison in Salem, Ore., is escorted out of state police headquarters in Salem following  her capture July 21, 1987.
Elizabeth Diane Downs, the convicted childkiller who escaped July 11, 1987 from the women's prison in Salem, Ore., is escorted out of state police headquarters in Salem following her capture July 21, 1987.
Suzanne Vlamis/AP, FILE

Wilhite immediately jumped back into his car and raced to McKenzie-Williamette Medical Center as fast as he could.

“It was suspected I hit over 100 miles an hour coming down the freeway,” he said. “I've never been so hyped in my life.”

“When I hear about three children being shot, I thought, ‘How am I going take care of three people?’ Because I wasn't afraid of what I needed to do. I was afraid of how am I going to handle all this?” he added.

By the time Wilhite arrived, Downs had driven her blood-soaked car to the emergency room. She had been shot in the left forearm, though her wound was not life-threatening.

Hospital employees determined that then-7-year-old Cheryl was already dead and that then-8-year-old Christie and then-3-year-old Danny were clinging to life.

Wilhite said he was immediately directed to start working to save Christie while another surgeon took Danny.

“When I looked at Christie I thought she was dead,” he said. “Her pupils were dilated. Her blood pressure was non-existent or very low. She was white… She was not breathing. I mean, she is so close to death, it's unbelievable.”

He worked quickly and eventually was able to revive Christie. Wilhite said Christie's blood pressure had been so low that she suffered a stroke. Her brother Danny was permanently paralyzed from the waist down but both survived.

When Wilhite went to go update Downs on her daughter’s condition, he said he was surprised by her reaction.

“Not one tear. You know, she just asked, ‘How is she doing?’ Not one emotional reaction,” he said.

“She says things to me like, ‘Boy, this has really spoiled my vacation,’ and she also says, ‘That really ruined my new car. I got blood all over the back of it,’… I knew within 30 minutes of talking with that woman that she was guilty.”

And then, Wilhite said, even more shocking to him was when Downs told him that she knew Christie was “brain dead” and told him, “I want you to pull the plug.”

“In other words, let her die,” Wilhite said. “And I said to her, ‘We don't know that. She's doing well. And I'm not going to pull the plug’ ... I was very stern with her."

Wilhite said he then found a judge who issued an order making him and another doctor Christie’s guardians.

“And-- so with that, then we were free to treat her as need be. And … Christie's mother, Diane, could-- say whatever she wanted. We just ignored it,” Wilhite said.

Wilhite said he also noticed that when Downs went to visit Christie in the recovery room, her stats would spike.

“When she [Downs] showed up, her [Christie’s] pulse rate went up high and you could see terror on her face,” Wilihite said. “She was afraid of her mother. This is the person who's supposed to be on my side. And she's not. And Christie knew that.”

Convicted child killer Diane Downs is seen on a video as the Oregon parole board unanimously rules that she remains dangerous and must stay in prison during a hearing at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Ore., Dec. 10, 2010.
Danielle Peterson/Statesman Journal via AP

The stroke Christie Downs suffered impaired her speech and initially prevented her from telling police what she had seen.

On Feb. 28, 1984, nine months after the shootings, Downs was arrested and charged with one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder. When Downs went on trial in May of that year, she was pregnant again.

After months of physical and mental therapy, Christie Downs was able to take the stand and tell what happened to her that horrible night.

When then-prosecutor Fred Hugi asked Christie if she remembered who shot her, Christie Downs replied, "My mom."

After Downs’ trial, Christie and Danny were adopted by Hugi and his wife. They have maintained private lives since and have never spoken publically about their birth mother.

Downs was found guilty in June 1984, and sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years.

Prior to being sentenced, Downs gave birth to a girl she named Amy Elizabeth. The baby was taken by the state and delivered to adoptive parents. The girl was later renamed Rebecca Babcock.

Wilhite said he and the hospital staff who worked on the Downs kids on that horrific May night were not surprised by the outcome of the case.

“There's very few cases quite like this one,” he said.