Travis Smith heard the gunshots that killed his father, Christopher Smith, on a cold, clear Thursday night in February. Travis, 5, was sitting...

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BUCKLEY, Pierce County — Travis Smith heard the gunshots that killed his father, Christopher Smith, on a cold, clear Thursday night in February.

Travis, 5, was sitting a few yards away, in the backseat of his mother’s truck, when she allegedly walked up to Smith and emptied a handgun into his body outside a tavern. It is believed to be the first homicide in this quiet town of 4,600 since the early 1900s.

With a dead father and his mother, Paula Marshall, in jail awaiting trial, Travis is at the center of a bitter custody dispute that has pitted the families of his parents against each other. Among the issues being weighed in determining custody is the level of trauma suffered by each family.

On one side are Charles and Brandi Marshall, of Puyallup, Travis’ aunt and uncle and the boy’s temporary guardians. Charles is Paula Marshall’s brother. A Pierce County judge, ruling that they were least affected by the tragedy, placed Travis in their care pending a custody trial.

On the other side are Alisha Newnom — Christopher Smith’s sister — and her fiancé, Robert Tazer. The couple, who share a home in Burien, say they have been involved with Travis since his birth and would have been her brother’s choice to raise the boy.

Both parties claim they are best suited to raise Travis and, in court filings, have questioned how suitable the other is to raise the boy.

Paula Marshall’s mother and stepfather, Diane and Jim Hickox, are also named as parties in the custody petition and hired a lawyer to help keep Travis with the Marshalls.

I’ve been around him his whole life,” Newnom said in a recent interview. “I’m ready to be a mom. I wouldn’t have wanted it to happen in this situation, but since it has, my calling is to take care of him now.”

The Marshalls, the Hickoxes and their lawyers declined to be interviewed for this article.

“The situation is ugly,” said Brandi Marshall in explaining her reluctance to speak with a reporter. “We don’t want to say anything wrong.”

Both couples are childless and have set up bedrooms for the boy. Both celebrated his birthday in July — the Newnoms with a pool party and the Marshalls with a trip to Alaska.

A judge will decide custody at trial in December.

While Travis’ situation may be unusual, experts say that, as a nonparental-custody case, it is typical in the legal system and highlights the difficulties of making a placement decision.

“The specific facts are probably somewhat unique,” said Jean Cotton, head of the Family Law Section of the Washington State Bar Association. “But I think you could change them slightly … and have almost the same fact pattern, other than the murder. There’s something horridly tragic that has happened, and this sort of thing happens all the time.”

This isn’t the first time Travis has been at the center of a custody dispute. After a turbulent breakup in spring 2006, Christopher Smith and Paula Marshall each sought custody of their son. In court filings, each accused the other of poor parenting and cited the frequent arguments they had in front of the boy.

A judge ruled in December that they should share parenting equally until a custody trial, for which no date was set.

Then, on Jan. 30, two nights before the killing, Paula Marshall drove to Smith’s house and allegedly kicked him, and he shoved her out the door, according to police. Then each independently called 911.

Pierce County sheriff’s deputies responded but made no arrests.

“If they had made the arrest, my son would still be alive on this day,” said Betty Newnom, Smith’s mother. “If they would have arrested somebody. I don’t care who.”

The Newnom family has filed a wrongful-death claim against Pierce County and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office for failing to make an arrest.

State law requires police to arrest somebody during a domestic-violence complaint when one of those involved is believed to be the aggressor.

But Ed Troyer, sheriff’s spokesman, said arresting someone would not have prevented the shooting. “If you arrest someone for domestic violence, they can bail out an hour later,” Troyer said.

Also, Troyer said the law didn’t apply in this case because the couple had separated and were no longer living together. He also said that it wasn’t clear who was at fault and that the situation had been resolved by the time deputies arrived.

The night of the murder, Smith had just walked out of the White Horse Tavern with his new girlfriend when Paula Marshall allegedly approached him without saying a word and shot him in the arm, chest, abdomen and back. She fired 15 shots until the gun ran out of bullets, police said, then repeatedly struck him with the handgun.

After the shooting, Paula Marshall took Travis to her mother and stepfather’s house. She was arrested there.

Travis stayed with his mother’s parents for five days and then moved in with Newnom, who filed for custody. Charles and Brandi Marshall then asked for custody.

After interviews with both families and Travis’ psychologist, the court-appointed guardian ad litem, Kelly LeBlanc, recommended in March that Travis be placed with the Marshalls, pending the custody trial. The ad litem wrote that at 22 Newnom was too young to care for a child and too saddened by her brother’s death to be a good parent. The Marshalls were 27.

“I am somewhat concerned about Ms. Newnom’s age; life experience; and present disposition regarding the loss her family has experienced. I am concerned about her present ability to maintain neutral balance for the child,” Leblanc wrote in a report.

LeBlanc found the Marshalls “probably the least affected by the ongoing tragedy associated with the parent’s situation and the most balanced in terms of assessing needs independent of their own.”

LeBlanc declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Newnom said she and her fiancé have full-time jobs, and she is experienced with children.

“We’re not average 22-year-olds. I do inside sales for a metal-foraging company,” Newnom said.

Regardless of who wins custody of Travis, his mental health will be an issue after the trauma of losing both parents in one violent night.

Alysa Ruddell, Travis’ psychologist, filed a report with the court in March about the trauma he has sustained. She said he will probably have a hard time articulating or understanding what happened the night of the slaying and encouraged members of both families to undergo counseling, to better help him heal.

“Travis’ maternal and paternal family members have been traumatized,” she concluded in a report. “They need to participate in professional treatment and counseling to deal with their grief and anger so that they do not jeopardize Travis’ psychological adjustment and well-being.”

At his birthday celebration in July, a balloon popped — and Travis covered his ears, Betty Newnom recalled.

“I just want Travis to get better,” she said. “It has nothing to with the Hickox or the Marshalls. I just want this little boy to get better so if he hears a bang he doesn’t have to cover his ears. Or thunder. Or a clap of a hand.”