by Allison Sherry
Original Article appeared on CPR News, June 15, 2021
A jury has found Devon Erickson guilty of first degree murder for the shooting of classmate Kendrick Castillo during an attack on STEM School Highlands Ranch two years ago.
The verdict carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. The jury deliberated for less than a day before reaching its conclusion.
In total, the jury convicted Erickson on 46 criminal charges related to his role in the shooting, including more than 30 attempted murder charges for all of the students in the classroom at the time — even those who were uninjured. Two additional charges were filed as sentence enhancers and will come to play during the September sentencing hearing.
Besides Castillo, a popular kid on the school’s robotics team who was heading to college that fall, eight other students were shot and injured during the attack on a literature classroom. Many of them were among the 63 people to testify in the 13-day trial.
Erickson did not testify, nor did any of his family members.
After the verdict, Kendrick Castillo’s father spoke to reporters, saying he felt blessed the jury returned guilty verdicts.
“We’ve had tears of sorrow, anger through the years,” John Castillo said, at a press conference broadcast by KMGH-7. “Today we had tears of joy… It was a release. It is truly a blessing to hear justice was served.”
He said he believed his son was “with” the jurors as they deliberated.
“I’m sure he was looking down today. We get signs from him, I believe. He was with the jurors making the decision,” said Castillo. “We will never quit honoring him. This day is justice for him.”
Mitchell Kraus, who was shot during the attack, said the group of students in that classroom has stuck together over the past two years. But, he said, he’s ready to move on with his life.
“We’re all a part of a family we didn’t want to be a part of,” he said.
When asked what he will say during Erickson’s sentencing hearing in September, Kraus laughed and said, “’Sayonara.’”
A trial that hinged on questions of will and complicity
According to investigators, Erickson, who was an 18-year-old senior at the time, and his co-defendant, Alec McKinney, a 16-year-old sophomore, had only been friends for a few months in the spring of 2019 when Erickson became enamored with McKinney, who testified he was both suicidal and homicidal at the time.
Erickson, according to his lawyers, was going through a rough patch. His mother was in Arizona for treatment and his father was consumed by worry for her. Erickson, too, was worried about his mother. He was also deeply into illegal drugs and gulping cough syrup. He wasn’t sleeping, they said. His weight fell down to 90 pounds.
Fast friends, Erickson and McKinney often joked about school shootings and idolized Sol Pais, a Florida woman who traveled to Colorado because of a fascination with the Columbine High School attack. Her online posts led officials to shut down hundreds of schools before authorities found that she had committed suicide.
McKinney, who pleaded guilty last year for his role in the attack and is already serving his sentence, testified that he and Erickson had a “bucket list” desire to get away with murder and they finally settled in on a school shooting just weeks before the end of the school year.
On the day of the attack, the two did lines of cocaine and tried to set Erickson’s mom’s car on fire. They also broke into Erickson’s father’s gun safe with an ax before heading back to the STEM School, each armed with two weapons, as well as additional ammunition.
In a cell phone video the two made at the house before they left, McKinney can be heard menacingly barking at Erickson to do what he said. Erickson’s lawyers argued he was under duress and felt threatened by McKinney, who was more hellbent on the shooting than Erickson was.
But McKinney’s testimony refuted that defense.
In the trial, McKinney said it was all faked and the two had a plan to make Erickson look like a hero by killing McKinney after they both shot students in the classroom. It was Erickson’s literature class and some of those students were specifically targeted, according to cell phone messages, because he didn’t like them.
Security cameras show that after the two split up when they got in the building on campus.
Erickson headed to class, where he told his teacher he felt ill and needed to go to the nurse’s office. Inside the office, he laid down in the dark for a few minutes and was communicating with McKinney via messages. He told the nurse he felt better and returned to class.
At one point, McKinney messaged, “I’m not doing this without you.”
And right before the shooting started, Erickson wrote back, “Go now.”
In the classroom, according testimony from numerous students, teachers and law enforcement officials, Erickson removed the magnetic strip from the door, essentially locking it from the outside, took out a gun from a guitar case and yelled, “nobody f—— move!” He was pointing the gun towards the ceiling.
Erickson’s attorneys, Julia Stancil and David Kaplan, argued that this was as far as Erickson wanted it to go.
The lights were off in the room for a movie and some students were disoriented, but three students, led by Castillo, lunged for Erickson. His gun fired, hitting Castillo in the chest. Erickson then pulled the trigger three more times, injuring two other students.
Castillo was aided by a teacher, but he died of his wounds.
One of the other students who tried to subdue Erickson, Joshua Jones, was shot in the leg. He testified that as he tried to pry the gun from Erickson’s hands, Erickson resisted and tried to fight him. He also pointed the barrel at Jones’ head.
At the same time, on the other side of the room, McKinney entered in through a different door and began shooting at people.
Eventually, the students got a hold of Erickson’s gun and McKinney ran out of ammunition.
McKinney pulled the other gun out of his case and put it towards his own head, but it did not fire. A security guard found him in the hallway and he surrendered.
McKinney testified that the two both shared responsibility for what happened that day. He faces less time in prison because he was a juvenile at the time of the shooting.
“I believe we share equal responsibility for everything that happened,” McKinney said. “No one tried to stop anyone, no one forced anyone into this. We were both mutually agreeing.”