Prosecutors attempt to poke holes in STEM suspect's story

The older suspect says he was forced into the shooting, but prosecutors say it doesn't add up

By Jessica Gibbs and Elliott Wenzler
Posted 9/24/19

So far in the investigation into the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting, the older of the two suspects has described himself as an unwilling participant. But in a Sept. 24 preliminary hearing, …

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Prosecutors attempt to poke holes in STEM suspect's story

The older suspect says he was forced into the shooting, but prosecutors say it doesn't add up

Posted

So far in the investigation into the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting, the older of the two suspects has described himself as an unwilling participant, forced to partake when the younger suspect threatened his and his close friends' lives.

In a Sept. 24 preliminary hearing, prosecutors worked to poke holes in that narrative while defense attorneys highlighted evidence they say reinforces the suspect's account.

Devon Erickson, now 19, told investigators the younger suspect, Alec McKinney, masterminded the attack and threatened him repeatedly if he did not help.

MORE: Juvenile STEM suspect to be tried as an adult

John Castillo, father of the sole fatality in the shooting, 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo, called the argument a legal strategy. He believes the defense's intent is to shift blame on the juvenile defendant to lessen charges against the adult. McKinney was 16 at the time of the incident.

“All lies,” Castillo said in response to Erickson's story.

MORE: Castillo was "the perfect son"

Immediately following the attack, which left eight students injured, McKinney told arresting officers he planned the shooting and forced Erickson to cooperate. McKinney repeated that information in interviews with investigators later that day.

The teen called Erickson an idiot and characterized him as someone who would jump on the bandwagon or go along with what other people said.

In court on Sept. 24, defense attorneys played a recording of a school counselor who spoke to officers May 7 and knew both suspects. She said McKinney gravitated toward vulnerable people, and when directly asked by law enforcement who might have led the attack, she suggested McKinney was most likely the planner.

Erickson and McKinney told investigators they obtained their weapons by breaking into a safe in Erickson's parent's bedroom closet using an ax and crowbar.

The STEM students left school together before the afternoon attack and went to Erickson's house, according to court documents. Once there, McKinney ransacked the home looking for a key to the safe, where he knew there were weapons.

McKinney told investigators he'd planned to get the guns “whether (Erickson) was going to help me or not.” When he couldn't find a key he went to the garage and found the tools. Images shown in court show a mangled case, torn apart by the ax and crowbar.

The suspects loaded four weapons from the safe into a backpack and guitar case and set Erickson's mother's car on fire in the garage before leaving for STEM, documents state. Once at school, they took the guns to classroom 107 where a British literature class was watching “The Princess Bride.”

In the hearing, prosecutors pointed to multiple points in time in which Erickson could have warned someone of the looming attack but failed to do so. They said he visited a nurse's office shortly beforehand where he encountered at least three adults but said nothing about a potential shooting, or, the fact that firearms were already present in the building. They also said he left the nurse's office, he walked past an emergency button but did not use it.

A detective testified that Erickson was familiar with firearms, that he'd shot guns with his father and was photographed with guns not used in the attack.

Prosecutors also noted discrepancies between witness accounts and Erickson's statements.

The only person to testify Sept. 24 was the lead detective, Brian Pereira, of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. According to Pereira, one of the students who detained Erickson, Brenden Bialy, described a starkly different scenario than Erickson did.

Erickson told authorities that three students rushed him when he brandished a weapon. Kendrick Castillo slammed Erickson into a whiteboard, according to witness statements. Bialy threw punches. Erickson claims his gun accidentally fired once in the skirmish.

Erickson also described immediately surrendering that weapon to the boys confronting him.

But Bialy told detectives that he and the two other students struggled to disarm Erickson. Bialy recalled punching Erickson several times before he could gain control of the gun, according to the detective.

“He was able to finally pry the weapon from Mr. Erickson,” Pereira said of Bialy.

By the time the students could detain Erickson, Castillo was fatally wounded with a gunshot wound to the chest. The FBI is still completing ballistic reports to determine who victims were shot by — Erickson, McKinney or both.

Defense attorney Julia Stancil said Erickson repeatedly stated he was sorry as students tackled him, that he didn't mean to harm anyone and warned students McKinney was armed.

McKinney emptied a nine-round revolver in the classroom but had entered through a separate door and began firing after Erickson did. Stancil said it is possible witnesses nearest Erickson didn't see McKinney and mistakenly attributed shots fired by McKinney to Erickson.

Bialy reported Erickson pointed his gun at people's heads before students took him down. Other witnesses said he did not target anyone in particular but scanned the room with his firearm.

McKinney told investigators Erickson locked one of the two classroom doors so that it could not be opened from outside the room. Stancil argued the door was typically locked when the class screened movies and confirmed with Pereira the only evidence Erickson locked the door was McKinney's claim.

Pereira said Erickson was known to have joked about shooting the school, as was McKinney, and owned a Snapchat account with the username Devonkillz.

When Erickson was in the nurse's office, video shows McKinney arrive outside the office doors and stood there for several minutes, staring and waiting. Stancil said Erickson knew from a message that McKinney followed him there and feared McKinney would start shooting if he told school staff about the plan.

But Pereira and prosecutors said during this time he also sent a Snapchat message to McKinney saying “Go now” after McKinney wrote to Erickson saying, “We have it all planned out.”

Stancil walked through witness reports from people who spoke with Erickson that morning or were close to him and seemed shocked by his involvement. They didn't report feeling he could become violent or that he seemed angry before meeting up with McKinney, she said.

Counselors and teachers described him as looking unusually pale and sickly prior to the attack. Erickson said cocaine use affected his mindset during the incident.

Snapchat videos taken in Erickson's home prior to the shooting and played in court show McKinney ordering Erickson to pry open the safe and do a line of cocaine.

In the videos, which appear to be taken by McKinney, the 16-year-old loudly tells Erickson to “(expletive) open it,” while Erickson attempts to break into his father's safe.

In the second video, McKinney again shouts at Erickson to “(expletive) do it” while Erickson snorts what appears to be a line of cocaine.

Stancil leaned on the drug use when characterizing Erickson's frame of mind during the attack. He considered telling someone, pulling the fire alarm, running and shooting McKinney, she said.

“He was asked why he didn't shoot McKinney,” Pereira confirmed when asked by Stancil.

Stancil said Erickson worried pulling the fire alarm could result in more casualties if students crowded the hallways. If he fired at McKinney, people would think he was the shooter, she said.

A video taken of Erickson handcuffed and sitting on the classroom floor shows him telling officers his house might be on fire, that McKinney set his mother's car ablaze and his pets were inside.

MORE: STEM says thank you to officers

The hearing that began Sept. 24 was scheduled to last up to three days. Defense attorney David Kaplan said he no longer expects to need that much time.

A preliminary hearing is when the judge determines probable cause in a case. Erickson faces 48 charges for his role in the attack. McKinney returns to court in November for a preliminary hearing.

John and Maria Castillo sat front row in the courtroom, not far from the family of Erickson. Prior to the hearing, John Castillo posted calls for justice to a Facebook page created in Kendrick's memory.

“For those of you who are believers, please pray for justice on Tuesday, September 24 at about 10 a.m.,” he wrote on Sept. 21. “As we prepare to hear excuses and twisted perception of truth. Let true intervention be the light as they try to wipe the blood from their hands.”

Erickson said he learned of plans for the attack one day prior to it in a Snapchat message from McKinney, telling him not to go to school the next day, Pereira said.

Pictures displayed in the courtroom Tuesday showed chaos and disarray in classroom 107 at STEM, where the shooting unfolded. Tables and chairs lay overturned, students' belongings were strewn throughout the room and blood stained the carpet near the guitar case Erickson is suspected of using to sneak guns into the school.

After investigators interviewed Erickson the day of the shooting, they told him to change clothes and discovered the word “God” written on his chest.

A photo showing a gaunt Erickson with the writing on his chest and his hair dyed half black and half pink prompted an emotional response from his loved ones seated in the rows behind him. A young woman sitting next to Erickson's parents began crying and visibly shook throughout the hearing.

In an attempt to describe McKinney and Erickson's relationship, prosecutors asked Pereira to tell the court about what investigators had learned through a year of text message history between the pair.

Throughout the messages, investigators found both suspects expressing hatred for individuals at the school, along with minority groups such as black, Hispanic and Jewish people, Pereira said.

The hearing continues Sept. 25. It's not clear how long proceedings will last.

 

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