The Wheeling-Raised Detective Who Became a True Crime Legend

Ann Rule is the undisputed leader of true crime books. Her rise to fame began with her 1980 book, The Stranger Beside Me, which told the facts of the Ted Bundy case. She made a career out of telling the complete and complex narratives of grisly cases. One such book was Small Sacrifices. This book unravels the mystery of a woman, Diane Downs, who showed up at an ER in Springfield, Oregon on May 19, 1983. In the backseat of her car are her three children, aged three, seven and eight, shot multiple times. Over the course of the next few days, doctors would work tirelessly to save the children. The wounds would leave one child injured, one paralyzed, and one dead. As the case made the news, people were horrified and sympathized with what the young mother was going through.

The police began a desperate search for the “bushy-haired stranger” who had committed this heinous act. As they looked though, a new story began to unfold.

One of the detectives leading the case was Richard Tracy, who went by the ironic-for-a-detective nickname of Dick Tracy. When Ann Rule met him, to interview him for the book, she described him as a “silver fox – white hair, ice blue eyes”.

So you might be wondering, what does this true crime story have to do with Wheeling? Well, Detective Tracey happens to have ties to the Friendly City. Although he was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1934, sometime around 1940, his mother, Alverta Tracy, moved her children to Wheeling. By 1947 she had remarried, Edison Barlow, and moved into the Warwood neighborhood. It was in this neighborhood in Wheeling where Tracy spent his formative years.

Wheeling News Register, 1950, with Tracy and his High School team.

Tracy attended Warwood High School, which was near his home on Richland Avenue. It was here that he played football, and became an All-City, All-State, All-Ohio-Valley champion. In his 1951 senior year on the team, the Wheeling News-Register stated that that “Warwood veteran with the comic strip name” would be playing guard.

In his time at Warwood High School, Tracy was his Junior class vice president, played football and basketball, ran track, and worked on the school paper. In his senior year, his yearbook stated his ambition was “to go to California” and that he “blushes easily.”

Following his time at Warwood High School, he received a scholarship to the University of Iowa but chose to join the Marines to fight in the Korean War. After his service, he made his way to Oregon. He had never planned on being a policeman, but by the time he was put on the Downs case, he’d been working in it for a quarter of a century.

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By the time he took on the Downs case, Tracy had cleared every homicide case he ever worked on. His presence on the case was, thus, welcomed. He became a key player as the case developed. He was one of the detectives involved in the search of Downs’s home, locating important evidence like Diane’s diary. Tracy, with his fellow detectives, began to unearth the truth. As they looked into Diane more and more, an unstable relationship with an on-again-off-again partner began to reveal itself. A partner, it would be revealed, who did not want children. Tracy, over a series of interviews with Diane, began noticing inconsistencies in her stories. Guns she did not tell them about, changing where the attacker stood almost every time she told the story. 

Diane Downs, the woman Tracy’s investigation helped convict.

Tracy, with his fellow detectives, eventually realized that the “bushy-haired stranger” was not real at all. Diane had concocted the whole story in an attempt to cover up the fact that she had attacked her own kids, to make it easier to be with her on-again-off-again partner. Diane was given life in prison for her crime.

By 1987, Tracy had retired from the Lane County Police Department, taking up a career as a private investigator. He came back to Wheeling for some time, before moving to Arkansas, where he passed in 2020. From the football fields of Warwood High School to the streets of Oregon, Tracy’s story reflects the resilient spirit he developed in Wheeling. His journey leaves a lasting mark in the world of crime-solving, showcasing the strength of character that originated right here in the Friendly City.

• Makayla Carney, a Wheeling native, is the 2023-2024 AmeriCorps member for Wheeling Heritage, where she will get to write all about the history and culture of her hometown. She has a B.F.A. in Film and Television from DePaul University in Chicago. She adores all kinds of art, a lavender latte, and the occasional performance on the Towngate Theatre stage.


Lazarus, Arnold. “Light Team May Overshadow Warwood’s Speed and Spirit.” Wheeling News Register, 1950.

Rule, Ann. Small Sacrifices. Penguin, 1987.

Stewer, Jim. “Ten Seniors on the 15th Annual Team, Two Are All-City Repeaters.” Wheeling News Register, 25 Nov. 1951.

U.S. Census Bureau, 1950 . Ohio County, West Virginia.

U.S. Census Bureau, 1940. Ohio County, West Virginia.

Warwood High School yearbook, 1951.