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The felony murder trial of Devon Erickson, accused in the 2019 STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting that left one student dead and eight others injured, opened Thursday with prosecutors saying he was as calculated and determined to kill as his accomplice.
Defense lawyers instead painted a picture of a troubled and fearful teen who was easily manipulated into his schizophrenic co-defendant’s plot for revenge against fellow students who bullied him for being transgender.
Despite Erickson’s assertions that he was coerced and forced to participate in the shooting by his younger co-defendant, Chief Deputy District Attorney George Brauchler said the teen spent more than 15 minutes apart from fellow shooter Alec McKinney in which he never alerted any adult about what was coming.
“In this room, two people came with evil in their heart and a plan to escape accountability on their mind,” Brauchler told jurors in his opening statements while a video screen displayed the entrance to classroom 107, where the shooting occurred. “Their plan is as diabolical as it is deadly; unbelievable as it is unconscionable.”
Prosecutors for the first time said Erickson alone killed classmate Kendrick Castillo with a handgun that he brought to the school hidden in a guitar case and shot two others before he was disarmed by students.
Had it not been for Castillo and other students tackling the two shooters, there likely would have been more casualties, said Brauchler, who, as the 18th Judicial District’s elected district attorney at the time of the shooting, filed the original charges. He has remained on the new DA’s staff to prosecute the Erickson case.
“It’s because of Kendrick this didn’t turn into something far more worse than it was,” Brauchler said.
The plan was for Erickson to be the victim-hero, prosecutors said.
“At the end of this, Alec McKinney is either going to die by suicide, or the defendant will kill Alec and look like the hero,” Brauchler said. “This was the story they concocted.”
Erickson, 20, faces 48 criminal charges including two for first-degree felony murder in the death of Castillo. Erickson, who was 18 at the time of the May 2019 shooting, faces life in prison without the possibility for parole if convicted.
McKinney, 18, is serving a life sentence plus 38 years after pleading guilty in February to 15 criminal charges, including first-degree murder. Because he was 16 at the time of the shooting, he is eligible by law for parole after 40 years.
The 12-person jury with four alternates was empaneled Thursday from a pool of about 600 in a process that began three days earlier. The trial in Douglas County District Court is expected to last four weeks before District Judge Theresa Slade.
The first of dozens of witnesses that range from student victims of the shooting to doctors who examined Erickson is expected to testify Friday.
Defense points to co-defendant
Defense attorney Julia Stancil said it was a controlling McKinney who took advantage of Erickson at a time when Erickson was at his most vulnerable.
“This is a case about mental health, about manipulation, about Erickson’s home life that came undone at a critical time in his life,” Stancil said. “Serious drug abuse, sleep deprivation and weight loss.”
She called McKinney a “homicidal, schizophrenic sick kid” who knew “Devon was an idiot.” McKinney was “a puppet-master” who admittedly avoided mental hospitals by conceding suicidal thoughts rather than homicidal ones.
Witnesses during a hearing in November 2019 to decide whether McKinney should be tried as an adult described him as manipulative and a leader in his peer group. He publicized his homicidal thoughts on social media and found a partner in Erickson, whose attorneys say was bullied into taking part in the attack.
A school counselor interviewed the day of the shooting said McKinney was a manipulative bully who preyed on vulnerable students.
Erickson has argued he accidentally fired a .45-caliber handgun he brought into the school a single time and only after other students, including Castillo, attempted to disarm him. Investigators, however, said they found four spent casings that matched the weapon.
McKinney and Erickson went to the school after they had broken into a gun case at Erickson’s home earlier that day and hid three handguns and a rifle in a backpack and guitar case. They entered the school via an unmonitored entrance.
Erickson went to a first-floor classroom where he was to attend a class on British literature but was sent to the school nurse when he complained of illness. After 10 minutes at the nurse station, where McKinney waited outside the door, Erickson went back to the classroom and was let in by Castillo, according to testimony at Erickson’s preliminary hearing.
Brauchler said Erickson could have pushed a red panic button while in a bathroom in the nurse’s station or could have told an adult, but didn’t. Stancil said Erickson’s brain “wasn’t able to figure it out” and obsessed over how he could stop the shooting from happening.
Inside classroom 107
Once inside, Erickson texted McKinney to “Go now,” which prosecutors say is proof Erickson was not a passive participant as he has claimed. He drew the handgun and told classmates not to move.
Castillo immediately slammed him against a whiteboard and two other students also struggled with Erickson, one of them punching the alleged attacker multiple times in the face trying to pry the gun away. Brauchler said Erickson fired the gun at Castillo before the two tussled. Stancil said the gun fired accidentally after the struggle and it was McKinney who calmly fired a gun from the other side of the room.
McKinney’s effort at suicide failed, Brauchler said, when his gun malfunctioned and he was arrested.
John Castillo, Kendrick’s father, was frustrated over how COVID-19 restrictions on the number of people allowed in the courtroom prevented him from personally witnessing the jury-selection process. He said Erickson’s courtroom appearance was troubling.
“Of course he was wearing a suit,” Castillo said in a video posted to a Facebook page honoring his son. “He looked like a 12-year-old kid, dressed up in a white shirt, clean-cut hair. It’s amazing how you can make somebody look, and try to portray innocence. … When he was captured … the purple crazy hair, just looking like a totally different person.”
Erickson, dressed in a blue blazer and tie, fidgeted nearly the entire time Thursday with a pen, frequently staring down to the ground.