STEM School Highlands Ranch shooter sentenced to life in prison, parole after 40 years

McKinney: 'I do not deserve leniency or forgiveness'

Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 7/24/20

Numerous students, teachers and community members gave tear-stricken statements during Friday's sentencing hearing for Alec McKinney at a Castle Rock courtroom.

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STEM School Highlands Ranch shooter sentenced to life in prison, parole after 40 years

McKinney: 'I do not deserve leniency or forgiveness'

Posted
Sitting in her literature class on May 7, 2019, Nui Giasolli noticed her friend Alec McKinney standing just behind her.
 
McKinney was not enrolled in that class and was supposed to be in the classroom next door. But because she considered McKinney one of her best friends, his presence did not raise alarms for her.
 
She learned later through court hearings and statements McKinney made to investigators that McKinney targeted her that day, she said, as he helped carry out a shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch.
 
“He had a gun aimed at the back of my head and he was ready to shoot me knowing full well that I didn't consider him a threat,” she said.
 
Giasolli was one of numerous students, teachers and community members who gave tear-stricken victim impact statements during a Friday sentencing hearing for McKinney at a Castle Rock courtroom.
 
McKinney was accused of planning the shooting that left one dead and eight students injured.
 
18th Judicial District Judge Jeffrey Holmes Friday sentenced him to life in prison plus 38 years, with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
 
McKinney pleaded guilty in February to numerous felony charges, including first-degree murder for the death of Kendrick Castillo, 18. Six students were shot by the efendants in the case and two were injured by gunfire from an armed guard responding to the incident.
 
McKinney was 16 at the time of the attack, so under law he was not eligible for a death penalty, but he was charged as an adult. He is now 17.
 
A co-defendant Devon Erickson, 18 at the time of the shooting, will face trial in September. Erickson has argued he was an unwilling participant in the attack, forced to cooperate on the threat of death from McKinney.
 
Prosecutors have sharply scrutinized that narrative and McKinney also alleged July 24 he acted under pressure from Erickson.
 
Judge Holmes noted in his closing remark's McKinney's age, his history with mental illness and major depressive disorder, and his drug use leading up to the attack. Holmes also said McKinney took responsibility for his actions in the case by pleading guilty.
 
“He has not tried to excuse his behavior today and I sincerely hope, based on the statements that he made, that he has come to a recognition of the harm his wrong decision has caused,” Holmes said.
 

'Biggest crime in the history of Douglas County'

Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler said a juvenile offender program available to McKinney could significantly shorten the time McKinney ends up serving.
 
Brauchler was critical of a juvenile offender system that might allow someone who attempted mass murder to be free in roughly 20 years.
 
Like victims, Brauchler called on Holmes to issue the maximum sentence of life in prison plus 407-1/2 years. McKinney and Erickson had planned to kill as many people as possible on May 7, he said, and might have succeeded had teachers and students not stopped the attack.
 
Kendrick died while rushing Erickson with two other students. A teacher and a student also confronted McKinney.
 
The maximum would send a clear message “about what happens when you do this here in our community,” Brauchler said.
 
“This is the biggest crime in the history of Douglas County. What will we say about it?” Brauchler said.
 
Public defender Ara Ohanian said McKinney requested he not recommend a sentence, which he agreed to honor despite it going “against everything I have been taught.”
 
Ohanian said the Alec McKinney he knows is nothing like the person who carried out the attacks and refuted Brauchler's stance that the maximum sentence would send the right message.
 
“School shootings are not going to go away by sending messages. We must deal with the root of these problems which is mental illness and access to these kinds of weapons,” Ohanian said.
 
The hearing was an hours-long outpouring of anger, pain, grief, and moments of grace for McKinney, as victims recounted how the shooting affected them. The ramifications of McKinney's actions for most those involved will be life-long, victims said.
 
Accounts from victims culminated with gut-wrenching testimony from John and Maria Castillo, Kendrick's parents.
 
John and Maria said they will never forgive McKinney for their son's death and vowed to remain life-long activists in the fight to end school shootings.
 
The Castillos also lambasted McKinney for not attending the hearing in-person, but rather remotely.
 
The court proceeding was conducted both remotely and in-person amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A limited number of victims were allowed to sit in the courtroom. Two additional rooms were set up with chairs spaced 6 feet apart and court proceedings displayed on screens.
 
Everyone was required to wear masks except for victims when they gave their impact statements. The podium was wiped down in-between every speaker.
 
McKinney participated remotely from the Marvin W. Foote Youth Services Center in Centennial where he is detained. One of his public defenders was in the courtroom in Castle Rock while another and his guardian ad litem participated from the Foote center with McKinney.
 
John Castillo recounted having breakfast with his “perfect family” the morning of the shooting. As Kendrick drove away, John took video of his Jeep because it needed new tires, he said. He didn't know that would be the last time he saw his son alive.
 
Castillo heard through a friend later that day there was an active shooter at his son's school. He went to the recreation center where students were reunited with family. He saw other parents picking up their children and began searching for his son, he said.
 
Then Castillo got a text telling him Kendrick rushed a shooter and sped to the hospital with Maria, thinking Kendrick was injured but not yet realizing his son was dead.
He remembers people staring at them as they arrived. He remembers the officer who whispered in a nurse's ear, and then being pulled aside and asked if they could identify Kendrick's body.
 
Castillo called McKinney's display of emotion in court rehearsed and fake. Castillo's last words to McKinney in the hearing were telling him to “wipe that smirk off your face. Those crocodile tears. You disgust me.”
 
Maria Castillo said he took away her chance to have grandchildren, and her only child. Kendrick was her best friend and her purpose in life, she said.
 
As Kendrick sat in class, three days from graduation and planning for his future, “this domestic terrorist was using drugs and planning a shooting. Why? Why,” she yelled.
“Coward. You can't even face us,” she said.
 
Maria Castillo closed her remarks by vowing to do everything in her power to hold McKinney accountable.
 
“I will never forgive you. Evil killer,” she said.
 

Betraying those who cared

Several victims said McKinney showed a total disregard for human life on May 7, noting he told authorities he wanted to make people know trauma.
 
Some grew fraught with anger and grief while others said there is still hope McKinney could use the remainder of his life for good.
 
Most urged the judge to hand down the maximum sentence possible.
 
Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said he spoke July 24 on behalf of the community and the 1,000 officers and EMS professionals who responded to the shooting. He called on the judge to keep McKinney in the Department of Corrections “for that individual's natural life.”
 
The impact of the shooting affected the entire county, Spurlock said, but also the state and country.
 
“The eyes of the nation were on STEM School,” Spurlock said.
 
Teachers said McKinney was well cared for by school staff and had a support system in place. They recounted helping him with his mental health struggles and schoolwork.
Previous court hearings revealed McKinney grew up amid abuse and neglect.
 
Lauren Harper was the teacher in classroom 107, where the shooting unfolded.
“The images of violence, the screams, the blood of my students, are etched into every inch of my being,” she said.
 
Harper said the shooters refused to see people in their life cared for them and instead chose to deceive those same individuals “in order to kill.” She struggles with fear and betrayal, she said.
 
She asked McKinney to study the life of Kendrick, who is hailed as a hero, and to “choose a path of healing instead of terror.”
 
“They still have an opportunity and a chance to live their life for good,” she said as McKinney nodded his head.
 

'Alec was one of my favorite students'

 
Gabriela Leddy was teaching in the classroom next door when the shooting broke out.
“I distinctly remember the split second of stillness before I heard scuffling next door,” she said.
 
Then bullets flew through the walls. The smell of drywall still makes her vomit almost instantly, she said.
 
As bullets narrowly whizzed past her, Leddy screamed for her students to get down. She remembers them scared, and holding each other, but also their bravery, she said.
She texted her husband a goodbye and wondered if her young daughter would remember her if she died that day.
 
After police entered the room and told everyone to run, she passed by classroom 107.
What she saw, she said, was an image she'll never forget — tables overturned, blood on the walls and pooled on the ground.
 
The morning after the shooting, Leddy read McKinney's name in the news, shocked to find he was a suspect. She hadn't known her student was in the room next door, let alone that he was one of the perpetrators, she said.
 
McKinney was a student she had cared for diligently and deeply, she said, and worked to protect as he transitioned from female to male. She advocated for school policy changed to make sure transgender students did not need to use their "dead name," she said.
 
Her husband told her she looked as though she left her body as she processed that news, she said, recalling feeling as though she were adrift at sea.
 
Her mind raced through every interaction she had with McKinney, remembering how they talked about music and funny things on the internet. She searched for ways he might have manipulated her, but that soon felt fruitless, she said.
 
“Alec was one of my favorite students. I found him funny, charming, witty and always friendly toward me. He would cheekily call me 'Doc' when he came into class,” she said.
 
The attack felt personal, she said. Alec knew she was in the next room and could have been shot in the attack.
 
“I cared for Alec and showed it in so many ways that year,” she said.

'My kids are broken'

Aiden Morrison, 15, will be a sophomore at STEM School Highlands Ranch in the fall. He didn't know McKinney, he told the judge, but he “the event that he put into motion still haunts me to this day.”
 
The teen struggled to stay composed as he recounted the first thing he saw as he was able to evacuate his classroom on May 7 — McKinney lying on the ground with officers looming over him, and bullets from McKinney's pockets strewn on the floor.
 
As he turned the corner, Morrison had to hop over a puddle of blood to avoid staining his shoes. He now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.
 
“At night, I wake up after a nightmare and I can't move because I don't know if you are outside the door waiting with a gun,” he said. “You should be ashamed of yourself. Not only did you damage me and countless others, but you murdered Kendrick.”
Kalissa Braga went to STEM on May 7 to volunteer during Teacher Appreciation Week.
 
She was setting up food in the teacher's lounge — her 5-year-old child sitting on a table and an 11-month-old infant she was babysitting strapped in a stroller — when the shooting began.
 
Staff helped her rush the children into a one-room bathroom. She huddled the children between the sink and the toilet to shield them, and then waited.
 
Outside, her husband waited, too, his entire family trapped in the building. The couple's two older children were students in STEM's elementary school and in class at the time of the shooting.
 
Police smashed the bathroom door in two when they arrived, Braga said. The first thing she saw was a large gun pointed in her 5-year-old's face. A SWAT officer then picked up the infant and took off running, Braga said.
 
She and her 5-year-old ran with other officers, pausing intermittently to take cover, as they fled for their lives, she said.
 
Outside she hugged children she didn't know. She wiped tears from the faces of students taller than her. She sent pictures of students she knew to their parents, to assure them their children were alive.
 
She and her children still cope with the trauma of May 7. Counselors have warned that years from now her 5-year-old will better understand what happened, she said.
Braga said her family was not impacted by the shooting as directly as other victims, but she urged the judge to consider the stories of people like them.
 
“My kids are broken. My family is broken. We aren't the same. And we won't be ever,” she said.
 

Pleading for leniency

Morgan McKinney, Alec's mother, pleaded with the judge to show leniency in his sentencing. Her son had showed remorse, she said, and worked hard in the past 14 months to take his mental health treatment seriously.
 
She asked Holmes to consider Alec's age in the sentencing, adding she knew it was not an excuse for his actions.
 
Morgan McKinney apologized to the Castillos, who left the courtroom when both Morgan and Alec spoke.
 
“I want to say how deeply sorry my family and I are for your loss. I can only imagine, of course, what you and your loved ones have been going through. I never thought in a million years this would ever happen,” she said. “I know my apologies might not mean much to you.”
 
Morgan McKinney said she felt as though she lost her child through the shooting as well, telling the Castillos she knew “it's quite different” from their loss.
 
“Me and my family, us on our side in our little corner (of the courtroom), whether you think of it or not, we have scars, too. We are here too,” Morgan McKinney said.
 
Kendrick would always be a hero, Morgan McKinney said, along with every shooting victim. She admired them, she said, and prays one day they find forgiveness in their hearts, citing the Bible verse Matthew 6:14 about forgiving those who sin against you.
“I would give absolutely anything to take this all back, take it away from all of you, from all of our community and all of our families,” Morgan McKinney said.
 
Speaking to Alec, Morgan said she did not understand how the family “ended up where we are at.” She still saw her “sweet, funny, loving and kind son.” She promised to be by his side so long as continued taking steps to right his wrongs.
 
“I love you always. I love you more,” she said.
 
Holmes gave McKinney time to address the court before issuing his sentence.
McKinney spoke to each student shot in the tragedy individually, promising he would never commit such a crime again. He “ripped away” the innocence of children at the school, he said, and hadn't considered how deeply his actions would impact the community.
 
“I don't know how to describe the sorrow I feel when I think of the victims,” he said. “I do not deserve leniency or forgiveness. I don't want a lighter sentence.”
 
McKinney also said he was angry about having received “fan mail” and called anyone who idolizes him “stupid.” He spoke directly to anyone thinking of carrying out a school shooting.
 
“Get help now. The amount of pain it causes to everyone,” he said, “outweighs anything you are going through right now. Don't be a coward and hide behind a gun. Be brave and learn how to get help. Face what you are feeling.”

'The violence has to stop'

Before issuing the sentence, Holmes said he had reviewed 500 pages of victim impact statements in addition to reports and court statements. He'd seen much good in how the community responded, both on the day of the shooting and after, he said.
 
He was struck by teachers who comforted their students as armed officers marched them from the building, by a first responder who wrote about seeing children care for one another on May 7, and by another young person who wrote about division among students at STEM as students returned to school.
 
“And all I can think is it was because of the pain,” the young person wrote to Holmes.
The judge said the entire community must be involved in addressing the root problems behind mass shootings. He commended the community for doing many acts of good in the shooting's wake and said that sort of response will help prevent similar crises.
 
He pointed to comments Harper made, where she said the shooting made her love her students more and strive to be an “instrument of healing” in her community.
 
“We as a country have a very sad history now of school shootings and mass shootings in public places. Colorado has had more than its fair share,” Holmes said. “The violence has to stop.”

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