CASTLE ROCK, Colo. (CN) – A 16-year-old Colorado student accused of orchestrating a mass shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch last May made his final plea Wednesday to be charged as a minor in the case.
On behalf of suspected shooter Alec McKinney, public defender Ara Ohanian promised his client would plead guilty to all charges if Judge Jeffrey J. Holmes allows him to begin his sentence in the juvenile justice system, rather than be charged as an adult.
District Attorney George Brauchler formally charged 16-year-old Alec McKinney as an adult a week after the May 7 attack, though his case remains sealed to the public.
Prosecutors say that McKinney and suspected co-conspirator Devon Erickson entered a British literature class at 1:51 p.m. on May 7, as the students watched the movie “The Princess Bride.” Armed with a Glock 21, a Beretta M9, a Ruger 10/22 rifle, and a Taurus revolver, Erickson ordered his classmates not to move.
But Kendrick Castillo, 18, and others charged McKinney and Erickson to protect the class and Castillo was shot and killed.
Before closing arguments, Brauchler called one last witness to the stand: Kendrick’s mother Maria Castillo, who along with her husband John has attended every court hearing in both suspects’ cases.
“Before May 7, I have the perfect family,” Castillo said, still dressed in mourning black. “Kendrick was the best son that I could ever ask for, an amazing person. He was a good friend. He was a good student.”
Between pangs of raw grief, Castillo recounted the day her son died. Tears filled eyes throughout the courtroom. Even McKinney, dressed in grey sweats, squeezed his eyes, and started to quietly sob.
Before Kendrick left for school that day Castillo said, “I hugged him and I told him that I love him, like every single day.”
When she saw news of the shooting, Maria Castillo said she and John drove to a hospital in shock. A detective met them and delivered the news.
“They told me ‘I’m sorry,’ and I asked him why he was sorry, and he said because [Kendrick’s] dead. I never saw him again until his funeral, and his beautiful smile was gone,” Castillo said.
On behalf of McKinney, Ohanian said no court sentence could make the community forget the tragedy that unfolded at STEM School Highlands Ranch. Ohanian recounted McKinney’s abusive upbringing and struggles with substance abuse. Ohanian also emphasized that co-conspirator Devon Erickson provided the guns and named the intended victims.
“Alec kept saying if he had a way to die it would be done. There is no question Devon wanted to get away with it, Alec wanted to die. There was no homicidal ideation until Devon entered the picture,” Ohanian said.
Ohanian also emphasized that McKinney’s brain is still developing and if treatment is to be effective, it must happen now.
“His brain is plastic. Send him to Department of Youth Services for the structure and treatment he needs. Then send him to Department of Corrections for the punishment he deserves,” Ohanian said.
If sentenced as a juvenile, McKinney would face a second hearing before his 21st birthday to decide whether to change his sentence, move him into the adult prison system or consider release.
As a juvenile, Ohanian estimated McKinney faces up to 137 years in prison, but Brauchler cast doubt on these numbers.
“The juvenile court has never issued a sentence that long before. Department of Youth Services has never housed a mass shooter before, that is a unicorn,” Brauchler said. He estimated that if McKinney is charged as a minor, he could be released by his 44th birthday.
Pausing over a picture Kendrick Castillo took in the grey suit he wore to prom – the same suit he was later buried in – Brauchler reminded the court, “Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. It will be the first Thanksgiving for the rest of their lives where there will be an empty plate at the table.”
Judge Holmes said he will decide whether to send McKinney’s case to juvenile court or allow it to proceed in the adult criminal justice system by noon Dec. 4. Though McKinney’s case remains sealed to the public, Holmes promised to make his order public.
McKinney will be arraigned Dec. 16.
Co-defendant Erickson is scheduled to appear for arraignment before Judge Therese Slade on Dec. 6. He faces charges of first-degree murder, conspiracy and two dozen counts of attempted murder.