With their mother dead and their father in jail, the children of Rick and Cookie Birnel already face an uncertain future.
Now the youngest four daughters may become the subject of a custody battle between the two sides of their family.
Mary “Cookie” Birnel suffered 33 cuts, including a fatal knife wound to the left side of her chest, during a struggle early Thursday with her estranged husband.
Thomas “Rick” Birnel, 39, was charged with second-degree murder after authorities found him at her Spokane Valley house with blood on his hands and clothes. When deputies arrived, Birnel said, “I did it,” according to authorities.
Since his arrest, three of the five children have moved in with Rick Birnel’s sister. The oldest and youngest daughters, a 17-year-old and 1-year-old, are staying with friends.
“They believe it was an accident,” Rick Birnel’s sister said of the fatal struggle. “They fell and tripped and it happened.”
The sister spoke on the condition that her name not be printed because she feared harming her brother’s case. His attorneys have advised the family not to comment, she said.
Cookie Birnel’s mother, Mary MacInnes, 64, arrived in Spokane from Vancouver, British Columbia, and said she wants to gain custody of the youngest four children. She said the 17-year-old is planning to get married soon.
“What I’m worried about is what’s going to happen to the children,” MacInnes said. “I don’t want any of the rest of the family to have them.”
Rick Birnel’s sister is equally adamant, saying, “as far as I’m concerned the kids are staying with me and my family.”
Rick Birnel, who is being held on $200,000 bond at the Spokane County Jail, refused a request for an interview Monday.
MacInnes spoke with some of the children Monday, including the 10-year-old who witnessed the fight.
“She said Rick slipped and the knife went through her heart,” MacInnes said. “A 10-year-old child is going to stick up for her father.”
She said she’s trying to understand the children’s thinking.
“It’s weird,” MacInnes said. “I think what it is is they know their mother’s gone, but Rick’s here so they’re sticking up for him.”
MacInnes wants custody of the children because she believes she is the family member closest to them. She said she doesn’t have any anger toward Rick Birnel’s family.
“It’s not their fault,” she said. “I’m upset with Rick. Who wouldn’t be? But I’m not upset with anybody else.”
Investigators said Rick Birnel had been baby-sitting the couple’s five daughters and three other children Wednesday night while Cookie Birnel was out.
When she returned - sometime around 3 or 4 a.m. - deputies said she flew into a rage because their 10-year-old daughter was still awake and Birnel started accusing her of being on drugs.
Rick Birnel told deputies that she grabbed a large knife and went after him. During the ensuing struggle, she was fatally stabbed.
MacInnes is staying at the East Farms home where her daughter died on the living room floor.
“I don’t mind being here at all,” she said. “I feel like I’m close to Cookie here.”