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