SEATTLE -- She was a Brownie troop leader, a room mother, a Sunday school teacher and almost the definition of a soccer mom -- until she shot her two small daughters to death in 1991 while they slept in their home in the Orange County, Calif., community of Laguna Niguel.
Kristine Cushing, then 39, said she was the victim of anti-depression medication, a debilitating heart condition and worry over the impending dissolution of her 17-year marriage to former Marine Corps fighter pilot John Cushing Jr. when she shot her daughters, ages 4 and 8, and then attempted to kill herself.
She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and spent four years in a mental hospital. In 2005, California authorities concluded that she posed no risk and granted her an unconditional release.
Fast forward to now: The Cushings are back together, living on Vashon Island in Washington state, and an Oregon woman who married John Cushing four years after the killings has temporarily lost her legal bid to prevent her own teenage sons from living with the couple.
In his ruling, King County Superior Court Judge William Downing said Trisha Conlon, who only recently discovered that Kristine Cushing was living in the home, has not proved that she poses an immediate threat to Conlon's two boys, ages 13 and 14, though he called for a full investigation to determine an appropriate final order.
John Cushing married Conlon in 1995, and the couple had two sons. But they divorced in 2005 and Cushing, unbeknownst to Conlon until recently, got back together with his first wife.
Conlon's elder son has been living with the Cushings full time during the school year; custody of the two boys is shared during summers and holidays.
Both boys until recently had been told by their father to refer to the woman who had effectively become their stepmother simply as "Mrs. M." After learning the truth, Conlon, who lives in Silverton, Ore., went immediately to court to try to modify the custody order to keep her boys away from Kristine Cushing.
John Cushing has argued in court that Kristine is fully recovered and has a good relationship with the boys. "She is busy, enjoys life and loves me and my sons," he wrote in a court declaration.
The court recognized that the elder boy has been thriving socially and academically under the Cushings' care. But Conlon was doubtful. Why, she wondered, had Kristine Cushing's therapist contacted Washington state's Child Protective Services in 2007, informing them that the children were living with his client, if there wasn't cause for some concern?
Court commissioner Leon Ponomarchuk ruled this summer that the current custody plan should remain in place, and Conlon was forced to drop off both boys with the Cushings at the beginning of August.
"It wasn't easy," she said in an interview with NBC's "Today Show." "It was gut-wrenching. I don't even have words to describe it."
Ponomarchuk acknowledged in his legal finding that there is no cause to remove the children from the Cushings' custody, but his personal inclination as a parent might be different.
"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."
The new ruling overturns the commissioner and says the parenting plan can be reviewed, but the judge found no reason to set it aside immediately, pending a thorough study by a court-appointed guardian over the next 90 days.
In the meantime, the judge ordered that John Cushing ensure that there are no firearms or other deadly weapons in the home, that he stop living with Kristine if she does not follow her doctors' recommendations, including those for medications, and that he comply with any "safety plan" imposed by state child protection workers.
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