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Midnight Meditations: A Visit with the Frederickson FamilyDr. Thomas Arthur Billings
Part two in Dr. Billings' in-depth review of the Diane Downs Murder Case in Oregon.
(EUGENE, OR) - After the last graduate class for the quarter during which we viewed STEELTOWN, the Canadian Film Board’s excellent commentary on the catastrophe of industrial civilization, a few students met me at Stenello’s Restaurant in Old Fairhaven for Greek pizza and a beer. Big Steve was there with his two friends Jean and Gina.
Big Steve is a former Los Angeles police officer, wounded and disabled and on a pension. Both he and Gina had read my first essay on Diane and we talked about the tragedy as we ate. We conjectured about the possibility of getting a “hearing” for Diane before a judicial panel – far removed from Springfield, Oregon.
I told them I wanted to work at the possibility “procedurally,” not “politically” that I had no desire whatever to hurt anyone or cause political waves – that there had been too much of that already.
I said that if, after my weekend visit with the Frederickson family, I still had doubts about Diane’s guilt, and if I found the family to be candid and forthcoming, I would begin to explore procedural possibilities through friends of mine in the legal and judicial systems. I said I was proceeding as Citizen Tom Billings. As we talked, Christmas carols circulated over us: WHAT CHILD IS THIS? – O COME ALL YE FAITHFUL – SILENT NIGHT, HOLY NIGHT
At noon on Friday, December 15, I picked up Collette a student who shares my interest in the tragedy and we drove to Leaburg to spend the weekend with my brother and to prepare for the conference with the Frederickson family schedule for Saturday and with an old friend of mine of thirty years ago who presently works in the court system in Lane County, Oregon.
The McKenzie Valley, my ancestral home, was a phantasmagoria of blinking lights as we drove toward my brother’s home – a garish, tawdry, nearly obscene display of the “Christmas Spirit”.
I asked why do people do this? Are they trying to fight the darkness in which they live, or are they trying to attract in the “spirits” or the “angels” or both? Is this a “cargo cult” in the McKenzie Valley, or is this obscene cosmetic display on an old whore who is no longer capable of either FAITH or LOVE, but who goes on pretending?
My brother inquired about my conference with the Frederickson’s and said he thought my interests were “wrong-headed” and unnecessary, and that I would smash my head into a stonewall if I persisted. My brother is my oldest and best friend and his heart is strong and good, but he has no tolerance for ambiguity.
As an engineer and construction worker, his world is black and white, long and short, right and wrong, fit and unfit. He has no patience with shades of meaning, and he becomes quickly exasperated with confusion and ambiguity. His temper mounts, pumping high octane fuels into his thought processes and before you can stand clear, he’s solving the ambiguity with verbal dynamite, asking God to damn to hell everything in sight.
He came dangerously close to damning me to hell for my suggestion that Diane might be innocent. There is a vast irony in this, too, for my brother (God bless him) is more skeptical of human institutions and human nature than I am, especially courts and policemen and lawyers and politician and media personalities and celebrities.
We have both survived six decades of life and we’ve learned that things are not always – or often – what they seem to be.
My brother wants the whole ugly tragedy to go away. “But, what if she’s innocent of the crime? What if her sexual misconduct made her an easy target for misrepresentation and distortion? What if she’s only an arrogant and promiscuous woman? Do we sentence all such women to life in prison? If so, who will pay for the prisons we’ll have to build to house them?”
He didn’t want to talk about it. “Nothing can be done about it now,” he said. “If an injustice was done, it is now a fait accompli. Let’s just stop talking about it.”
“No,” I said. “That’s how injustices compound themselves until we’re all buried alive in them! I’m not ready to stop talking about it. I sense something terribly wrong with Diane’s trial here in Eugene, and until I am satisfied that she wasn’t railroaded for crimes she didn’t commit, I will continue to fret and talk about it.”
“You’re going to get yourself in trouble,” he said.
“But if an injustice has been done, it will be Good Trouble. If you were to be accused and convicted of crimes you didn’t commit, wouldn’t you be glad there was somebody like me around to argue your innocence?”
My brother grudgingly conceded.
Saturday morning, Colette asked if she could accompany me for the visit with the Frederickson. I told her that I didn’t know whether her presence would inhibit or enhance the conversation, but if she wanted to go, she was welcome.
We drove to the Frederickson’s home, located on Marcola Road in Springfield, only a few miles from the scene of the tragedy and a few block away from where I lived while I taught U.S. History and Literature at Springfield High School in the early fifties. It was here that I worked with Ken Kesey’s mother on P.T.A matters, and where little Jimmy Hatch killed himself on the motorcycle I had encouraged him to buy, and where six of my children were born. Memories! How powerful and enduring they are!
Willadene answered the door and I said, “Willadene I am Tom Billings and this is a student/friend of mine, Colette.” Willadene said, “Good morning. Please come in.”
Wes Frederickson was on the phone. The room was warm with pictures of the Frederickson children placed here and there, an especially pretty picture of Diane and her children, Cheryl Christie and Danny, at the left of the entrance. Now off the phone, Wes introduced us to each of the pictures and asked if we’d like to sit around the kitchen table as we talked.
I said, “Yes, the kitchen table is the best place in a home.” Willadene served coffee and small Danish cookies. “Wes has a sweet tooth,” she said.
Three hours later, exhausted, we had relived the tragedy in all its dark permutations – the emotional intensity in the room nearly unbearable occasionally. You could feel the tides of emotion nearly washing the house away – those deep, grieving emotions that have nowhere to go – unspeakable in their depth. “A woe so deep it has no voice.”
We reviewed the trial: Prosecutor Hugi, detectives Tracy and Pond, Diane’s attorney, Jim Jagger, Judge Gregory Foote, Drs. Peterson and Suckow, Paula Krogdahl, Susan Staffel, Brenda Slavens and the Slavens family, the missing weapon, detective Tracy’s tampering with evidence, the slipshod way in which detective Pond eliminated suspects, the hatching of the plot to frame Diane for the crime, the denial of visiting right to Diane and the Frederickson family, the brutal interrogation of Christie and her subsequent isolation and “therapy.”
All these matters are dealt with extensively in both Diane’s book: DIANE DOWNS; BEST KEPT SECRETS and in Ann Rule’s SMALL SACRIFICES.
A few new facts emerged during the morning:
The Frederickson family had retained Melvin Belli for Diane’s defense attorney. Phillip Gallagher, Belli’s assistant, came to Eugene to review the case. After reviewing it, he said to Prosecutor Hugi, “You have no evidence to support an indictment, much less a conviction,” to which Prosecutor Hugi allegedly replied, “We don’t need evidence. We have Diane.” What the prosecutor may have meant was: “We have Diane’s Children.”
Throughout the morning with the Frederickson’s the cruciality of Christie’s dubious testimony became increasingly clear. Without it, there is not case against Diane, whatever. In fact, all the physical evidence is in her favor. This fact is corroborated in Ann Rule’s book. (See pages 278-279 in SMALL SACRIFICES.) For instance, Diane had brought suit against the district attorney and the sheriff’s office for keeping her from her children. “Fred Hugi suspected that the REAL reason Jim Jagger (Diane’s attorney) had gone along with Diane’s civil suit was to force the State’s hand, to perhaps outrage the public so much that the State would have no option but to go to trial – BEFORE CHRISTIE COULD REMEMBER.”
“Christie Downs was a pawn in a human chess game she could not begin to understand. If there was a way to bring charges against her mother without placing Christie on the witness stand, Fred Hugi would have leapt at the change. But until the murder gun was found, there was no way.” (Anne Rule, SMALL SACRIFICES, page 283.)
The weapon (”murder gun”) Diane supposedly had with her when she left Arizona, and the weapon for which the sheriff’s department spend of one thousand hours searching, did finally surface, in a drug raid in California, months after Diane had been convicted and sent to prison. And here the second most unlikely tale begins to unfold. (See chapter 48, pages 451-452, Anne Rule’s SMALL SACRIFICES.)
The State is now attempting to harass and close Danmark Press – owned and operated by Wes and Willadene Frederickson. It’s this press that published DIANE DOWNS: BEST KEPT SECRETS – the families attempt to counteract the distortions and misrepresentations in Anne Rules’s SMALL SACRIFICES. Large, retail book stores and suppliers are reluctant to carry the book, reminiscent of the experience Salman Rushbie had with the Ayatollah Khomeini over the publication of STANIC VERSES a few year ago.
Colette and I drove back to my brother’s home. Silently. Emotionally charged but exhausted. We had shared the pain and grief and anger of Wes and Willa Frederickson. Encounters of this kind leave a permanent residue of sorrow.
Saturday evening, we met with an old friend of mine who works in the Lane County judicial establishment. I assured him that I would ask no questions about the case which might compromise or embarrass him and that his identity would remain a secret. All I wanted from him, I said, were impressions and general observations. They were as follows:
Fred Hugi? "An unknowable man.” “A loner.” “Aloof.” “Nobody knows Fred Hugi.”
Judge Foote? “An ambitious man.” To the question, “Why did Judge Foote deny Melvin Belli the two week postponement he needed to prepare for trial?” The response was: “Well, Tom, he was afraid a big league player might pin his bush league ears back.” In short, Judge Foote was afraid Belli might expose the rinky-dink conduct of the trial and embarrass an “ambitious man”
Diane Downs? “Can’t say.” “The people who lined up each day to sit in on the trial turned it into a circus.” To the question: Do you think she was guilty? He replied, “I honestly don’t know. You know lawyers and juries as well as I do. Do you trust lawyer’s honesty? Or a jury’s judgments?”
The Media? “Constant stuff. It was impossible to tell what to believe. They all seemed to be lying and playing games.”
The Frederickson Family? “I don’t know them, but I can imagine what they have gone through. Nobody felt good about the trial. Nobody
Colette and I returned to my brother’s home. He had made a blueberry pie in our absence and invited us to share it with him before we retired for the night. He assured us that yogart on blueberry pie is vastly superior to ice cream.
My brother has never taken Plato’s maxim seriously: “In matters of taste, there can be no argument.” Knowing this about his, I ate yogart on my blueberry pie and didn’t tell him I preferred ice-cream.
Sunday morning, we returned to Bellingham. Neither Colette nor I spoke much. We listened to Christmas carols on the tape deck as we moved along through the December fogs and mists. I kept recalling the embrace Colette and Willadene exchanged as we left the Frederickson home, and their tears.
I listened to O COME ALL YE FAITHFUL and HARK THE HEARALD ANGELS SING. The days move along toward Christmas. I told the Frederickson’s that I would write a second “meditation” as soon as I could collect my thoughts and impressions gathered from my week-end visit and that I would send them a copy as soon as the essay said exactly what I wanted it to say.
Now, what is it that I want it to say? At least this:
1. I am convinced that Elizabeth Diane Downs did not get a fair and impartial trial in the Lane County Court
2. I do not know whether she is guilty or not, but my doubts about her guilt have grown after visiting with the parents and reviewing the evidence in the tragedy.
3. All my instincts and intuitions tell me something is terribly amiss in the handling of little Christie Downs by the Lane County Court and the District Attorney’s office. Since Dr. Peterson had Christie remembering the specifics of her arrival at McKenzie/Willamette Hospital even though she was absolutely comatose, all of Christie’s memory is utterly suspect. Any honest psychologist and psychiatrist, anywhere on earth, would affirm this. Yet, Prosecutor Hugi’s case rests entirely with this single element in the case! He knows that. Anne Rule knows that. Judge Foote knows that. The jury knows that. Yet, they convicted Diane Downs on this extremely dubious piece of testimony! All other evidence – the weapon, powder residues on Diane’s hands (no evidence was found that she had held a gun), blood spatters, trajectory of bullets, time between attack and arrival at the hospital, sightings of “shaggy haired stranger” in the area by dozens of people, lie detector results (when asked “Did you shoot your children?” Diane answered “No.” and the machine indicated, “She is telling the truth.”) all this evidence confirms Diane’s account of the tragedy on the Old Mohawk Road, May 19, 1983.
4. Certainly she deserves a review of her trial and conviction by a judicial tribunal far from Lane County, Oregon. And the character and professional competence of Susan Staffel, Paula Krogdahl, and detectives Welch, Tracy and Pond should be examined. (As I understand it, detective Tracy retired from the police force on the day “the weapon” was found in California and joined a “reincarnation cult” in New Zealand.)
5. Anne Rule should continue to write FICTION but she should refrain from peddling is as fact or TRUTH. She is a “false witness” and that is a sin against the Laws of Moses and an affront to common decency, no matter how much money she’s paid for it.
6. Fred Hugi should come out of the shadows. There is something peculiar (and sinister) about Anne Rules’ description of Mr. Hugi that first night of the tragedy:
“The two men stood quietly at the end of Christie Downs’ bed. It was well-nigh impossible to see Christie herself through all the tubes, monitor, leads and bandages. A clear oxygen mask was clamped over the lower half of her face: only her thick gold-brown hair, her eyes, and her eyebrows were visible. Her left hand was heavily bandages, and so was her chest. Above the transparent mask, she watches them. They could see that she was conscious and alert.”
“But she looked very small and lost, as if the odds were all against her survival. She was alone, except for doctors and nurses; there were no family members waiting to see her.”
“And then Christie’s eyes caught Fred Hugi’s and locked there.”
“Paul Alton glanced over at Hugi, started to say something, and paused, astounded. He had never seen Hugi show any emotion beyond irritation and impatience. There were tears rolling down Hugi’s cheeks.”
“Alton looked twice to be sure. He was not mistaken.”
“’It was that simple,’ Alton remembered. ‘In that moment, Fred “adopted” Christie. Nobody was going to hurt her anymore – not unless they went through Fred first.’”
“The bonding was as immediate as it was surprising. Fred Hugi – the man who gave too much of himself to his career to have anything left for kids was caught unaware. Christie and Danny Downs became, in a heartbeat, his to protect. His to avenge.”
Is it possible this “loner,” this unknowable man, is a pathetically lonely man? Is it possible his “workaholic” is a mask for desperate emotional loneliness and on that crucial night, his pathetic loneliness stirred in him, and he fancied this tragic little girl lying in her bed of pain was an angel sent to Fred Hugi by the Fates to give meaning to his otherwise barren and desolate life? Did Fred Hugi lose his objectivity, his impartiality, his good sense and judgment at that moment? And does the case against Diane grow from this malignant imprinting and bonding to a little wounded youngster lying in a hospital bed?
It is clear, from that moment on; Fred Hugi stalked Diane with a singleness of purpose and passion that seems dark and sinister. Just doing his job as assistant district attorney?
If you believe that, you haven’t read SMALL SACRIFICES or DIANE DOWNS: BEST KEPT SECRETS.
_________________________________________Past Salem-News.com reports about Diane Downs:
Dr. Thomas Arthur Billings, 66, died quietly Saturday, May 27, 1995 on his Farm in Washington State. Dr Billings gained his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Oregon. After 3 years of teaching at Sacramento State College he moved to Washington DC to became the second National Directory of the Upward Bound and Community Action Programs in the Office of Economic Opportunity in the late 1960's where he received an Accolade Extraordinaire for his Upward Bound leadership.
Among his most cherished achievements are Outstanding Teacher of The Year awards from both Sacramento State College and Western Washington University where he taught until his retirement in 1993. He also won countless Blue Ribbons at the Northwest Washington Fair, under his beloved pseudonym Chester P. Lampe, for his vegetables and his bagels, the latter of which were genuinely tasty.
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