Custody dispute brings Vashon family's tragic past to light
August 10, 2011 · Updated 4:25 PM
By LESLIE BROWN and NATALIE JOHNSON
A Vashon family has been thrust into the national spotlight after news that the mother killed her two young daughters 20 years ago during a psychotic breakdown resurfaced due to a bitter and complex custody dispute.
Kristine Cushing, at the time a young mother struggling with mental health issues and a painful divorce, was acquitted in the 1991 shooting deaths of her two daughters, then 4 and 8, after she was found innocent by reason of temporary insanity. The incident, which garnered widespread media attention at the time, took place in the posh southern-California community of Laguna Niguel.
Kristine Cushing spent nearly four years in a state mental institution and, after several years of monitoring, received an unconditional release from the State of California, according to the Associated Press.
She now lives a quiet life on the wooded south end of Vashon Island with her husband John Cushing, a retired Marine fighter pilot who works for Boeing. A resident since 2005, Kristine Cushing is a painter who has had shows on Vashon, sells her cards at various retail outlets and is an active member of St. John Vianney Church. Those who know her say she’s a decent and kind woman.
“She is a very sweet, quiet, gentle person,” said Laura Wishik, who has known the family for a number of years and is a fellow parishioner at St. John Vianney.
News of the horrific incident, however, has resurfaced and is again capturing headlines because of a convoluted custody dispute involving two children who are currently living with the Cushings but are from John Cushing’s previous marriage.
John Cushing, Kristine’s husband at the time of the murder and the father of the two girls, divorced her while she was in a mental institution. He married Trisha Conlon in 1995. The couple had two sons and, according to King County records, purchased a home together on Vashon before divorcing in 2004.
Conlon briefly lived on Vashon. Under the split custody agreement Conlon and John Cushing agreed to in 2004, one of the boys, now 13, lives primarily on Vashon with Cushing, and the other, 14, lives primarily with Conlon; both visit the other parent during various holidays.
The situation turned upside down, when Conlon, who now lives in Silverton, Ore., learned in June that John and Kristine Cushing were back together again, a discovery Conlon made after she became suspicious and hired a private investigator, according to her Seattle-based lawyer, Todd DeVallance.
Conlon knew that the Cushings had remarried, but when she pressed her ex-husband about it in 2007, he said they were again divorcing. The Cushings’ second marriage ended in divorce in 2008, court documents show; unbeknownst to Conlon, however, the couple reunited one month after that second divorce was finalized, DeVallance said.
In mid-June, armed with the information that Kristine and John Cushing were back together and that her ex-husband had not been truthful with her, Conlon went to King County Superior Court in an effort to get a change in the parenting plan, arguing that her two boys should not live in the Cushings’ home in light of Kristine Cushing’s history.
Family Law Commissioner Leonid Ponomarchuk granted Conlon full custody of the boys for 30 days — with the caveat that Conlon had to appear in court again to prove that a permanent change in the parenting plan was in order. That hearing took place in Seattle on July 25, when the commissioner ruled against Conlon, noting the boys had spent time with Kristine Cushing since 2008 without any problems. Two weeks ago, Conlon had to return the boys to the Cushings on Vashon — one of whom is visiting for the summer and the other of whom lives there.
Since then, Conlon has made her concerns public, including an interview with the Associated Press, which broke the story on July 29, and an appearance on the Today Show on Aug. 2 — a lengthy piece that contained video footage of Vashon. Media reports, meanwhile, have spread rapidly and across the country and beyond, with some in the press and the blogosphere using harsh language to describe both Kristine and John Cushing.
In an emailed statement to The Beachcomber, Conlon said she’s not trying to persecute the Cushings and that her concerns center solely on the safety of her two children, one of whom is a star math student at McMurray Middle School.
“I have no ill will towards Kristine and I agree 100 percent that people should act with compassion towards her, but as a mother I believe that my children are not safe living in the same home as her,” she said in the statement, which was sent to The Beachcomber by her lawyer. “It should be noted that Kristine was a model citizen and considered by her neighbors in Laguna Niguel, Orange County, as a ‘super mom’ in 1991 before she killed her two beautiful daughters in their sleep. My only objective is to ensure that my children are safe and that history does not repeat itself.”
The state’s Child Protective Services stepped into the situation a few years ago after Kristine Cushing’s therapist “had a concern and reported to CPS,” DeVallance added. CPS also put together a safety plan, the terms of which are sealed, he said. According to Conlon’s statement to the Beachcomber, Cushing has violated that CPS safety plan.
Conlon is appealing the commissioner’s decision. A hearing before a King County Superior Court judge is scheduled for Aug. 25. “Our goal is just to make sure there’s adequate safeguards for the kids,” DeVallance told The Beachcomber.
But some Islanders take issue with the media frenzy that has put Kristine Cushing’s shocking past into the spotlight, especially since she was acquitted and is not considered a murderer in the eyes of the law.
Indeed, according to Allen Ressler, a criminal defense lawyer who lives on Vashon and practices in Seattle, an acquittal due to insanity — especially if a prosecutor contests such an outcome — is exceedingly rare. In Cushing’s case, prosecutors initially charged her with first-degree murder, but, in what the Los Angeles Times in a February 1992 story called “an unusual move,” changed their minds, agreeing with her defense lawyer that they should accept an insanity plea.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeoffrey L. Robinson said at the time that the shooting of the two children by Cushing was a “tragic” act and that “it would be an injustice to find her sane” and send her to prison.
Ressler said he feels for Kristine Cushing, a woman he does not personally know. “After that long a period of time to have to confront it once again is probably pretty devastating on her and her family. And it doesn’t serve the best interests of her two (step) children. ... To thrust them into this in this kind of way does them no good,” he said.
Wishik, who also is an attorney but specializes in environmental law, said those who rush to judge Kristine Cushing simply don’t understand mental illness.
“Kris has had an enormous amount of treatment and care and monitoring,” she said. “There is no reason to be fearful of her.”
Wishik was disappointed to see what she called hateful media coverage of the situation.
“To me it shows that our culture is obsessed with sensationalism,” she said. “I hope our community is better than that. I think people need to be compassionate and recognize that Kris has been a victim, too.”
Other friends have also stepped forward to voice their support of the family. Cece Nelson, who attends St. John Vianney’s women’s group with Kristine, called her “gentle and well-mannered, ... calm and reasonable.” And like Wishik, she urged Islanders to suspend judgment.
“She has to live with it the rest of her life, but we don’t have to hang her for it the rest of her life,” Nelson said.
Kathy Jones, another parishioner and a mother with a son the same age as one of the Cushing boys, said she, too, has every reason to believe Kristine Cushing has turned her life around.
“She’s worked through it. She’s gotten treatment. And I’ve got confidence in them and in her,” Jones said.
“They’ve started a new life together,” she added. “Let’s leave them alone.”
But Trisha Conlon, in her statement, said the fact that Kristine Cushing was acquitted in a criminal court has no bearing on a civil, family-law matter.
What’s more, she said, Cushing has not released her psychiatric records, “and the status of her current mental health remains largely unknown. ... All I am asking, at a minimum, is that the court evaluate the current situation and implement adequate safeguards to protect my children.”
The Cushings, meanwhile, have declined to comment to the media. A bright yellow sign on the back of a truck parked at the family’s spacious home in the woods near Spring Beach warns that trespassers will be criminally prosecuted.