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Video: Bizarre custody fight: Stepmom killed her own children

  1. Transcript of: Bizarre custody fight: Stepmom killed her own children

    MIGUEL ALMAGUER reporting: Matt , good morning to you. When Trisha Conlon married Matt Cushing Jr . in 1995 , she knew of her husband 's tragic past. His two daughters had died when they were shot by his ex-wife. Well, Conlon and Cushing divorced and he is now living in the Pacific Northwest with Conlon 's two teenage sons. Vashon Island is known for its quaint downtown, beautiful landscapes and large secluded properties. It's down the driveway of one of those properties where Trisha Conlon says she's scared history might repeat itself.

    Ms. TRISHA CONLON: I came to realize that my ex- husband 's first wife was back in the home. And so that caused concern for me due to the fact that she killed their two children .

    ALMAGUER: Conlon shares custody of her two teenage sons with her ex- husband , John Cushing Jr . The kids spend part of the year at Cushing 's home with his first wife, the woman who shot his two daughters. In 1991 , John and Kristine Cushing lived in Southern California with their two daughters, eight-year-old Amy and four-year-old Stephanie . Neighbors called Kristine super mom, but close friends knew she struggled with a heart condition, took Prozac for depression and was filing for a divorce from John . Kristine shot and killed her daughters in their home.

    Mr. JIM AVANT: It was probably one of the worst calls that I've handled in my career.

    ALMAGUER: Jim Avant was one of the first officers to respond the night of the shootings.

    Mr. AVANT: She really kind of just was a zombie. She wasn't there. She wasn't in that -- in that place at that time.

    ALMAGUER: Kristine plead not guilty by reason of insanity . Prosecutors agreed to the plea saying up until the shooting Kristine was the perfect mother. Four years later, John Cushing married Trisha Conlon and they raised two sons until their divorce in 2005 . Meanwhile, Kristine spent four years in a mental institution and after a decade of psychiatric monitoring, she received an unconditional release from the state of California in 2005 when authorities determined she posed no risk. That same year, despite the death of their children , she remarried John Cushing , Trisha 's ex- husband .

    Ms. CONLON: I just learned that he had been in contact with her throughout our marriage.

    ALMAGUER: Conlon says when she realized Kristine was spending time with her sons she asked for a change in the couple's custody agreement, but the request was denied. The commissioner saying, "Despite the serious history in this case, there is no presentation of a current threat to the children ."

    Ms. CONLON: I'm not willing to risk my kids' lives on speculation. When a person's capable, they're capable.

    ALMAGUER: John and Kristine Cushing have not responded to our request for an interview, but in court documents, John has said Kristine 's sanity has, quote, "been restored and she is enjoying life again." Matt :

    LAUER: All right. Miguel Almaguer , thank you very much . Trisha Conlon is with us now exclusively, along with her attorney, Todd Devallance . Good morning to both of you.

    Ms. CONLON: Good morning, Matt.

    Mr. TODD DEVALLANCE (Trisha Conlon's Attorney): Good morning.

    LAUER: Let's make it clear. As you are sitting in this studio right now, your two sons, age 14 and 13, are staying with your ex- husband and Kristine , correct?

    Ms. CONLON: That's correct.

    LAUER: What was it like to drop them off this time?

    Ms. CONLON: It wasn't easy. It was gut wrenching. You know, it was -- I don't even have words to describe it, I guess, is what it comes down to .

    LAUER: These boys are old enough to know what's going on.

    Ms. CONLON: Mm-hmm.

    LAUER: Have they expressed concerns to you? Are they worried about their safety? Have they ever talked about Kristine doing anything in their presence that makes them worry?

    Ms. CONLON: You know, I'm trying as much as I can to keep them out of this, away from this. This should be an easy custody battle between adults and I would rather not talk about what their thoughts are.

    LAUER: After Kristine was released from the mental institution where she received treatment for four years, she and your ex- husband , her ex- husband as well...

    Ms. CONLON: Right.

    LAUER: ...got back together. Is it true that when she moved back into his home, John lied to you about it or at least hid the truth about it?

    Ms. CONLON: Yes, that is true.

    LAUER: Did he also instruct your boys when they would come to visit to call Kristine by another name and lie to you about it?

    Ms. CONLON: Yes.

    LAUER: And when you presented that evidence to a family court , I guess, what was the response to that? Because you wanted an immediate change to the parenting plan .

    Ms. CONLON: That's correct, that's correct.

    LAUER: And what did the court say to you?

    Ms. CONLON: What was said was that there hasn't been -- she hasn't hurt anybody since 2008 . And so they didn't allow a change in the plan at this point.

    LAUER: The commissioner -- the commissioner said despite the serious history in the case, meaning back to 1991 ...

    Ms. CONLON: Mm-hmm.

    LAUER: ...there's no presentation of a current threat to the children . Why do you think there is a current threat to the children , to your children ?

    Ms. CONLON: Well, in 2007 her psychiatrist reported her to Child Protective Services in Washington state and Child Protective Services investigated the case and felt that there was very substantial that her psychiatrist felt that there was a need to report this situation. And so it is -- there is recency, there is currency here. It's not something that just happened 20 years ago.

    LAUER: Todd , if I'm an advocate for Kristine or if I'm an advocate for mental health in general, I would have to say, wait a second. This woman was said to be temporarily insane when she killed her own daughters. She has received extensive professional treatment. She's been monitored for a long period of time, absent that one incident that Trisha just talked about, and she has posed no threat to these two boys in the last three years. She is not guilty in the eyes of the law. Why shouldn't she be given a second chance because mental illness is a disease. How do you respond to that?

    Mr. DEVALLANCE: Absolutely. Well, first of all, this is not a criminal case . This is a family law matter. And what Trish is asking the court to do is to make sure her children are safe and that is to impose adequate safeguards, limitations and restrictions in the existing parenting plan . But what you need to know is the commissioner actually dismissed Trisha 's case saying that Trisha 's case had no merit. She had no merit to bring this case for a modification of the parenting plan , she had no merit to have a parenting evaluator look at the case.

    LAUER: Well, what he said, also, 'I have to look at this dispassionately. Would I ever want my children around her? I would say no. But this -- that is an emotional reaction coming from a parent.'

    Mr. DEVALLANCE: The other thing, this is not an allegation. These are facts. They're undisputed facts in the record that this woman has harmed children in the past. She has killed children in the past.

    LAUER: Trisha , your husband clearly loves your two sons. So you have to also ask the question, why would he put them in harm's way if he truly felt there was a threat present from Kristine ? Have you thought about that?

    Ms. CONLON: I have. I've spoken with it to folks, even folks in the mental health profession and the words guilt and denial come up, you know, to believe that she's OK, to believe that it was the fault of Prozac and the fault of medical events coming together, I'm sure helps, you know, his -- helps him to deal with it as well.

    LAUER: I mentioned the two boys are with them right now. What's the next legal step? Real quickly if you will, Todd .

    Mr. DEVALLANCE: Real quick, we're -- we have a hearing set for August 25th and we're hopeful and we're optimistic that the judge will overturn the ruling.

    LAUER: Trisha Conlon and Todd Devallance , thank you very much . I appreciate your time. We'll follow the story.

By
TODAY contributor
updated 8/2/2011 9:39:27 AM ET 2011-08-02T13:39:27

Twenty years ago, Kristine Cushing shot and killed her two daughters in their sleep.

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Cushing was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, but her action 20 years ago has Trish Conlon fearing the safety of her two teenage sons today. Conlon is the ex-wife of former Marine fighter pilot Lt. Col. John P. Cushing Jr., who was married to Kristine Cushing when she killed their daughters — and who is remarried to her today.

Accompanied by her attorney, Todd DeVallance, Trisha Conlon spoke exclusively with TODAY’s Matt Lauer on Tuesday about her worries concerning her sons living with a woman who once shot and killed her own daughters.

“I am not willing to risk my kids’ lives on speculation,’’ Conlon told NBC News. “When a person is capable, they’re capable.’’

A convoluted custody dispute has resulted in the two boys living with the Cushings at their home on Vashon Island, south of Seattle. They were dropped off on Sunday after a court ruled against Conlon attaining full custody of her boys. Another hearing is set for Aug. 25.

“It wasn’t easy,’’ Conlon, who lives in Silverton, Ore., told Lauer about dropping the boys off at the Cushings’ home. “It was gut-wrenching. I don’t even have words to describe it.’’

Two deaths
In 1991, Kristine Cushing used a .38-caliber handgun to shoot and kill her two daughters, ages 4 and 8. The killings stunned the affluent community of Laguna Niguel, Calif., where neighbors thought of Kristine as a “super-mom,’’ who shepherded her daughters to various activities while her husband was overseas on tours of duty. The killings were blamed on the convergence of Cushing’s use of the antidepressant Prozac, a debilitating heart condition, and the impending dissolution of her 17-year marriage to John.

TODAY
Kristine Cushing shot and killed her two daughters in 1991. She was found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

Kristine was ruled not guilty by reason of temporary insanity and spent four years in a mental institution, followed by a decade of psychiatric monitoring before authorities in California determined she posed no risk. In 2005, she received an unconditional release.

Trisha Conlon married John in 1995, four years after the killings. Conlon divorced him in 2004, and he is now back together with Kristine, whom he remarried in 2005.

TODAY
Trish Conlon married John Cushing in 1995. After they divorced in 2004, Cushing remarried his first wife, Kristine, who killed their two daughters in 1991.

Once Conlon determined in 2007 that Kristine had returned to her ex-husband’s home, she immediately went to court to try to alter the parenting plan regarding the two sons she had with John. The boys are currently 13 and 14.

“I came to realize that my ex-husband’s first wife was back in the home, so that caused concern for me due to the fact that she killed their two children,’’ Conlon told NBC News.

“This is not an allegation,’’ Conlon’s lawyer, Todd DeVallance told Lauer Tuesday. “These are facts. They are undisputed facts from the record. This woman has harmed children in the past. She has killed children in the past.’’

The Cushings did not respond to NBC’s interview requests for this story. In court documents, John has said that Kristine’s sanity has been “restored” and that “she is busy, enjoys life and loves me and my sons."

John Cushing initially indicated that Kristine was divorcing him for a second time and moving out, but the divorce was never finalized. Kristine moved back in 2008, according to a court declaration by Conlon.

Bizarre case
For three years, Conlon said, she was unaware that Kristine was living with her boys. The boys were instructed to use a false name for Kristine and lie to Conlon about her presence in the home, Conlon told Lauer. Conlon and DeVallance hired a private investigator who determined that Kristine was back living in John’s home.

Conlon went to court in mid-June and was awarded full custody of her sons for 30 days. However, in a recent hearing about whether the parenting plan should be modified, the court ruled against Conlon.

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“What was said was that [Kristine] hasn’t hurt anybody since 2008, and so they didn’t allow a change in the plan at this point,’’ Conlon told Lauer.

Commissioner Leonid Ponomarchuk ruled that since the boys had been spending time with Kristine for three years without incident, even though it was unbeknownst to Conlon, she did not pose a threat that warranted a change in the parenting plan.

“Despite the serious history in this case, there is no presentation of a current threat to the children,’’ Ponomarchuk stated.

However, Ponomarchuk also acknowledged the bizarre nature of the case.

"I have to look at this dispassionately," Ponomarchuk said. "Would I ever want my children around her? I would say no. But that is an emotional reaction coming from a parent."

TODAY
Kristine Cushing spent four years in a mental institution. After a subsequent decade of psychiatric monitoring, it was determined that she posed no risk.

“First of all, this is not a criminal case, this is a family law matter,’’ DeVallance told Lauer Tuesday. “What Trish is asking the court to do is make sure her children are safe. That is, to impose adequate safeguards, limitations and restrictions in the existing parenting plan. The commissioner actually dismissed Trish’s case, saying Trish’s case had no merit.’’

In 2007, Conlon was contacted by a Washington state Child Protective Services worker who informed her that Kristine’s therapist had contacted CPS to inform them that Kristine was living with children again. The fact that the situation was reported by CPS indicates more recent behavior that is cause for concern, according to Conlon.

“Her psychiatrist felt that there was a need to report this situation, and so there is recency, there is currency,’’ Conlon told Lauer. “It’s not something that just happened 20 years ago.’’

As for her children, 14-year-old Stephen and 13-year-old Sam, Conlon is hoping to shield them from being caught up in the public nature of the custody fight.

Video: Bizarre custody fight: Stepmom killed her own children (on this page)

“I’m trying as much as I can to keep them out of this, away from this,’’ she said. “This should be an easy custody battle between adults, and I’d rather not talk about what their thoughts are.’’

Conlon was also asked by Lauer about whether her ex-husband would allow the current parenting situation if he believed it was unsafe because of Kristine’s history.

“I’ve spoken with it to folks, even folks in the mental health profession,,’’ Conlon said. “The words ‘guilt’ and ‘denial’ come up. To believe that she’s OK, to believe that it was the fault of Prozac and the fault of medical events coming together — I’m sure helps him to deal with it as well.’’

Conlon and DeVallance are now looking for a more favorable ruling regarding alteration of the parenting plan in the hearing on Aug. 25.

“We’re hopeful, we’re optimistic the judge will overturn the ruling,’’ DeVallance said.

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