Suspect In Killing Had Tragic History

Usually, charges filed against a suspect in an ax murder would be cause for a certain degree of self-congratulation down at the cop shop, especially when good police work played an important part in the case.

But there was no joy in homicide, say those close to the investigation, when charges were filed against James William Cushing, accusing him of aggravated first-degree murder in the ax slaying of Queen Anne resident Geneva McDonald.

Instead, even normally hard-bitten criminal-justice types wondered how the system could go so wrong as to think that a man who suffered from both mental illness and developmental disabilities could live on the streets.

``Instead of satisfaction, the mood was one of great sorrow,'' said one source close to the investigation.

``As a citizen, I'm kind of embarrassed that this is the best we can offer someone who has a bunch of problems and has had them his whole life,'' he added.

``Society's response has got to be better than what they were giving him - $9 or $10 a day and just setting him loose doesn't seem like the right way to do things,'' he said. ``For nobody to have taken note of what was going on in his life is unconscionable, in my opinion.''

Cushing pleaded not guilty today to charges of aggravated first-degree murder and five other felony charges in connection with the Queen Anne slaying and break-ins at other home in Seattle.

Some of the people who knew Cushing, a 36-year-old transient who has spent much of his life in state institutions and in group homes for the mentally disabled remember him as Jimmy Cushing, a likable 20-year-old resident of a Bellingham group home who took great satisfaction in learning basic skills but who grew profoundly disturbed when staff changes disrupted his sense of belonging.

``This kid should have never, ever been living on the streets,'' said Brian Burgett, who was a staff member in the group home, where Cushing lived in the mid-'70s.

``These people need a lifetime place to live, because if they don't get that, something bad's going to happen or somebody's going to take advantage of them,'' he said.

In the '60s, the state began reducing the size of large institutions for the mentally disabled, attempting to create community living situations. But money shortages left holes and some who needed help fell into them.

Of the 20 young people in the group home, only four or five would ever be capable of living on their own, estimated Bob Whitney, the former director. Now, he notes, all 20 are on their own. ``They just let them loose,'' he said.

Cushing, Whitney believes, also fell into the cracks. ``Jimmy is a victim of society and a victim of the state.''

James Cushing began his journey through the mental-health system at age 14, when he was sent to Rainier School at Buckley, a state school for the developmentally disabled. Seven years later, in 1974, he was transferred to Fircrest School, and then to the Bellingham group home, which housed 20 young people with mental damage.

Cushing was doing well at the Bellingham group home, said Whitney. ``Jimmy was one of my favorites. He and I would go down to Seattle and see a show,'' he recalled. ``He really had a nice personality; he was friendly. He had a kind of weird side to him, but he was likable.''

At the group home, Whitney said, Cushing learned skills such as personal hygiene and keeping his room clean, as well as respect for himself and others.

``He was smarter than most of the kids,'' remembered Burgett. ``He basically wanted people to be honest with him. He'd say, `I'll never be a businessman, will I? `Cuz I don't have it upstairs. Isn't that right?' ''

His mother and stepfather visited often, Whitney said. ``She was really an angel, really nice, really concerned about Jimmy,'' he said.

Cushing, like some of the other residents, grew very agitated when staff changed.

``All these . . . kids, they want a family situation,'' said Burgett. ``A changeover in staff was like losing a family member. I think he wanted stability in his life.''

Upset about some changes, Cushing set some small fires in abandoned sheds, said Whitney, who discovered the cause of Cushing's behavior through interviews with a psychologist.

But in 1975, the county coordinator sent him back to Rainier, Whitney recalls. ``We fought it. We had no control over it. We were quite upset about it; we knew what was troubling him and we had a psychologist set up to do something about it,'' he said. ``Jim had that one problem where he would lash out when things changed on him. He wanted something stable, somewhere he belonged.''

After a brief stay in Rainier, Cushing, who was then 21, was discharged to another group home in Port Blakely, according to state records. For the next several years, he would be in and out of group homes.

In 1987, he spent 90 days at Western State Hospital, said Frank Mendizabal, spokesman for the state Department of Social and Health Services.

He was also held there briefly in 1988, but was released. ``The fact that they let him out probably means they found no basis to keep him,'' Mendizabal said.

Cushing also became known at various downtown shelters for homeless men, impressing people mainly because of his habits of talking to himself, his fixation with inanimate objects - and because of his poor hygiene.

``He seemed disassociated with reality,'' said Emmit Glanz, spokesman for Union Gospel Mission. ``He was kind of out there somewhere. He was not unusual enough that you would stop and say, `Hey, we better watch this guy.' But he seemed to smile a lot. He wasn't angry, or hostile.''

According to state records, Cushing seemed to want to live on his own and exhibited ``mild anti-social behavior.''

Department of Social and Health Services officials note that Cushing could not be forced to live in an institution or even in a group home.

``You can't force developmentally disabled people to live in a group home. If they choose to live on their own, they do. We can offer them a shelter, try to get them a room, but if they choose not to accept that service, that's it,'' said Mendizabal.

One service Cushing did use was ARC of King County, a nonprofit center that provides support services to developmentally disabled people and their families.

Because he wasn't competent to handle money, he would bring his Supplemental Security Income check to ARC, which would act as a protective payee. Every day for the past six years, Cushing would come in and get money for food, said Judy Liddell, executive director of the service.

``Because he was so vulnerable, if we had given him money for several days, he would have been robbed,'' said Liddell.

But Cushing's mental retardation wasn't that disabling, Liddell said. Often, developmentally disabled people can live quite well in the community, as long as they have some support.

But Cushing's mental illness interfered with attempts to live in an apartment, Liddell said, despite training and support from her agency.

``We initially tried to help him in that way, but as his mental illness became more prevalent, there was a limit to what we could do,'' she said. ``I think his condition deteriorated.''

While the combination of developmental disabilities and mental illness is not unusual, Liddell says, in Cushing's case it seemed to make it difficult for him to find a place to live.

In the last few years, life appeared to be getting more difficult for James Cushing.

Two years ago, Burgett bumped into Cushing while walking toward the Kingdome with his wife and children to attend a baseball game. ``He was motionless, sitting in the doorway of an abandoned warehouse. He was staring at his shoes, like he was lost.''

Although Cushing looked terrible - filthy and disheveled - Burgett stopped to talk, and Cushing remembered him. ``He smiled. He was glad to see me,'' recalled Burgett, who left Cushing where he'd found him.

In August, Cushing was detained briefly after using a knife to menace a woman near Kinnear Park on Queen Anne, said Seattle Police Det. Bob Gebo. A neighbor intervened, and the woman fled, Gebo said.

In addition to the murder of McDonald, Cushing has been charged with attempted murder, two counts of burglary and one count of attempted burglary in other incidents, according to charges filed by the King County prosecutor earlier this week.

``Now that I know what happened, I wish I would have taken him to the ballgame. I don't really make a lot of money, but I wish I'd taken him to the ballgame and taken him home,'' Burgett said. ``He's not this vindictive person - he's just completely lost. He's a lost retarded kid.''