Jessica Gibbs, a Colorado Community Media reporter since 2016, was part of the CCM team that covered the 2019 STEM School Highlands Ranch tragedy.
By April 24, John Castillo had begun struggling to sleep. May 7 was approaching — the day he and his wife, Maria, lost their only child. With each passing day, anxiety built up a little more.
“I didn’t know what my emotional realm would be,” he said by Zoom interview that afternoon.
John began thinking about his son, 18-year-old Kendrick, more and more as the one-year mark of Kendrick’s death drew near.
Kendrick was fatally shot May 7, 2019 while he and fellow students Brendan Bialy and Josh Jones rushed a student who is set to face trial for his alleged role in the shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch last year.
A second shooter pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing. Eight students were injured in the attack.
Kendrick, Brendan and Josh are credited with saving lives that day.
Kendrick is remembered as a hero.
One year later, John and Maria tearfully reflected on a tumultuous 12 months. John hopes his words will help people and keep Kendrick’s memory alive.
As time goes on, he fears people’s memories of his son will fade. Or, that they will think less often of STEM, particularly now as a global pandemic consumes the world’s attention.
That’s why he still tells his story, difficult as it is.
“Everywhere you turn, everything in life is different after an event like this. Nothing is as easy as it was before,” John said.
‘One of a kind’
On April 30, John and Maria sat in front of Kendrick’s grave, as they do every afternoon. The couple has not missed a day visiting Kendrick since his death. The only exceptions were a couple out-of-state trips for speaking engagements. For those, Maria packed pictures of Kendrick to take along.
When they returned, they drove straight from the airport to see Kendrick, as they put it.
Maria gently tended to the roses by his headstone and straightened little gifts left for him. A small cow, for Kendrick’s favorite, Chick-fil-A, where he loved to eat with friends. A columbine flower left by a survivor of the Columbine High School mass shooting. Tools from technology students Kendrick mentored.
May 7, then one week away, now had John reflecting on the days leading up to the shooting. If he could have known what his son would face that day, maybe he could have helped. He could have kept him home from school, he thought.
The Castillos quietly looked at Kendrick’s grave as the sun hung over Douglas County’s foothills, shining across Kendrick’s headstone. Birds sang nearby, bringing a lighter mood to the scene. The soothing sound of running water from nearby fountains filtered around them.
Sometimes, deer gather by the cemetery and eye them, John said. The deer enjoy munching on roses they bring Kendrick, particularly in the winter. John and Maria come back to find only stems, he said, chuckling.
The botanical-gardens cemetery in Douglas County where Kendrick rests, Seven Stones, focuses on healing through nature, director of customer care Becky Holm said. She quickly became friends of the Castillos, having seen them nearly every day this past year. The couple brought “a sense of peace to the gardens,” she said.
Sometimes John and Maria see someone they know at the cemetery, which is near Chatfield State Park. Other times people recognize them while visiting. Either way, the Castillos are open with everyone, she said.
“Last week another family lost their son too young to cancer, and they prayed with them after the service,” Holm said. “That’s a very common occurrence, that the Castillos will pray with other families that have just lost their loved ones, and it’s very welcome all around.”
Not far from Kendrick’s grave is the resting place of Zackari Parrish, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office deputy fatally shot on Dec. 31, 2017, while trying to assist a mentally ill man from Highlands Ranch. The Castillos’ victim’s advocate was a friend of Parrish, John said, who told them about Seven Stones.
Holm said it did not take the Castillos long to find the perfect spot for Kendrick — right next to a trio of column sculptures made of Colorado basalt. The memorial reminded John and Maria of their family of three.
Being in Kendrick’s presence while surrounded by nature is comforting, John said. The shift to springtime brought an added sense of peace as the world came to life. Plants began to grow. He liked listening to the birds chirp.
When people get too busy, they do not always notice the changing of the seasons, John said. Going to Seven Stones gave him a renewed appreciation for that. Maria thinks Seven Stones is less scary than other cemeteries, John said as she smiled.
John remembers Kendrick as a calming presence in his life.
Kendrick never hated or got angry, he said. If John got upset at a driver on the road, Kendrick was the one to talk him down. When Kendrick was a child, he once put himself in timeout after his parents scolded him.
Kendrick was not afraid to show his faith. He quietly prayed over a Taco Bell meal when eating out, and never did it so people would see him, John said. That was “just his demeanor. He was brave that way.”
Kendrick loved the outdoors, space and robotics. He set goals and worked toward them. When friends fought, he tried to bring them together. He stood up for what was right, and ultimately died living by that standard, John said.
“He truly was one of a kind,” John said.
Up and ready for one of the most difficult days of my life. Reliving our worst nightmare on May 7th when we found out Kendrick was murdered while saving other classmates.— John Castillo (@69bronco) May 7, 2020
Up and ready for one of the most difficult days of my life. Reliving our worst nightmare on May 7th when we found out Kendrick was murdered while saving other classmates.
Pain persists amid new crisis
The family’s grief and anxiety has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. John, a diabetic, is at risk for the pneumonia-like disease that is more lethal for people with underlying conditions.
The pandemic also prompted many governments, including Colorado, to ban gatherings and issue a stay-at-home order that recently expired in Douglas County, creating more challenges in the Castillos’ grief process.
“The support that we probably normally would have isn’t there right now. That’s been a very difficult thing,” John said when the order was in place. “There is a big distraction. We know that they’re concerned for their families.”
COVID-19 spurred a painful drawing out of the open case against the older suspect, who pleaded not guilty in January. The suspect’s trial was rescheduled from May to September. The second teenager is scheduled to be sentenced in May, but it’s possible the pandemic will delay that hearing as well.
John worries trial jurors will feel uncomfortable serving during the pandemic and won’t focus.
“It’s been difficult. The COVID-19 situation has thrown an interesting twist on a lot of things that we just, I guess, never thought of before,” John said. “From a survivor standpoint, it does play heavy on our minds, what justice will look like going forward with this new twist of a pandemic.”
COVID-19 also ruined original plans to honor Kendrick on May 7.
John wanted to hold a candlelight vigil to speak about his faith and the importance of family values. The pandemic rendered that impossible. Instead, he and Maria will have a small gathering of friends and family at Seven Stones with a prayer service and bagpipes.
When there, he and Maria read kind notes left at Kendrick’s grave by friends. That uplifts them. They think of his friends around the one-year mark, too.
“It also hurts our hearts that they’re suffering the loss that we are. They are suffering the pain as well,” John said. “We think and wonder about those kids every day and how they are making it through.”
John and Maria thought seriously about moving closer to Kendrick. There are too many memories in their Denver home, he said, which sits 17 miles from Seven Stones. The couple looked at some properties before COVID-19 geared up and made selling their home, in their view, impossible. For now, they are working on home improvement projects to make their property more sellable.
The pandemic changed their work plans, too.
Maria, a chef, and John, an engineer in the hotel industry, are both on sabbatical and have been since May 7, 2019. John expected his employer to reevaluate his work status in June or July before COVID-19 hit but doubts he can return to work under the pandemic.
The couple’s grief symptoms worsened as they weathered both crises.
After losing their son, John and Maria battled sleep deprivation. During the pandemic that grew worse. They stay up, restless, until 12:30 a.m., 1 a.m., 2 a.m., and wake up by 4:30 or 5 a.m.
Each morning John puts on coffee. They drink their cups next to a wall covered in photos of Kendrick — prom photos, senior photos and one signed by his senior class — while thinking about ways to occupy their time. John does yardwork, waters plants and grows vegetables.
John and Maria typically visit Kendrick in the afternoons. On especially hard days, the Castillos skip coffee at home, grab a Starbucks and drive to Seven Stones, where they sit in the gardens. They often return again on those days to spend more time with him.
An added challenge during the pandemic was losing the ability to leave the house. Like most people, John said, the couple is limiting time away from home, only getting groceries every three to four weeks.
They mostly leave to fuel their vehicle at Costco so they can go to and from the cemetery, which feels safe because they are often alone there. Before COVID, John spent time at the state Capitol, but work under the dome came to “a screeching halt.”
“I will say that it doesn’t matter what we’re involved in,” John said. “There always comes a point at the end of the day when we’re having dinner. There is just a calm, empty time where we eat, we think about Kendrick, and it’s difficult, extremely difficult, for about an hour.”
This experience has tested them in many ways they didn’t expect, John said.
Significantly, it tested their faith.
The couple wanted 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler to pursue the death penalty in the older suspect’s case, but they are devout Catholics and John knows capital punishment is against their doctrine, he said.
Brauchler announced through court documents filed in March he would not seek the death penalty, noting jurors would have to consider the 19-year-old suspect’s age and lack of serious prior offenses.
John said at the time he believes justice for Kendrick means the suspect giving up his life. John hopes people will not judge him and Maria for their stance on the death penalty. No one could understand unless also in their place, he said.
“It pits our loss against our spiritual beliefs,” John said.
The experience also sharpened his views on the importance of strong family systems, and the need to be informed community members. He urged people to understand local laws and get involved in shaping policy.
If people want to support survivors of mass violence, they should pay attention to how the criminal justice system works, he said. He stressed victim impact statements in the STEM case will have influence years into the future if the convicted shooter seeks parole.
John is eager for solutions to school safety and believes it starts with strong families. Court hearings revealed the younger suspect grew up amid abuse and neglect, and is accused of masterminding the shooting, then coercing the older suspect into aiding him.
Washington Post reporter Robert Klemko tweeted that March 2020 was the first March without a school shooting in the U.S. since 2002. John called that profound.
“I thought, how ironic,” he said. “Is this what it takes to end the cycle of terror and violence that takes place in our schools?”
Talking about Kendrick often overwhelms Maria.
For most of the past year, she let John take the lead during news interviews at court hearings and serve as their spokesman in other situations. She’s never far from John’s side, though, usually listening with a tear-stricken face and quiet sobs.
When she does speak, Maria moves people deeply. She left a packed courtroom weeping in November 2019 after she testified during a hearing that decided the 16-year-old suspect would be tried as an adult, not a juvenile, if his case had progressed to trial.
Kendrick, she said, was her life.
As John spoke on April 24, Maria sat nearby listening and overcome with emotion. She later wrote her thoughts down in an email, describing the past year as a personal hell. She is angry and in pain. She usually stays home, sometimes sitting at her computer searching for answers and information.
“Even going to church is extremely difficult, seeing other families together,” she said, “and mine is not complete anymore.”
Maria misses Kendrick’s hugs, “his beautiful smile,” his jokes and everything they used to do together, all stolen “by one evil day.” She would trade places with him if she could. Kendrick had too much to live for, she said.
“He was not only my only child, he was my best friend, my life, everything that we did was for him and with him,” Maria said.
John said time failed to lessen their pain.
“I wish I could say that things have gotten better, or seem like we have, but honestly, it doesn’t feel much different than this time last year. I guess the only difference is there’s a sense of clarity now,” John said.
That clarity makes the grief stronger. For months after the tragedy, John and Maria felt a sense of denial. They lived in a fog. Now, the shock and disbelief of Kendrick’s death has worn off. His loss feels more real.
“I never knew a person could be in shock for many months,” John said.
‘A really bad nightmare’
The Castillos frequently close down Seven Stones.
Holm, the director of customer care, doesn’t mind if they come in late at night, such as after a long court hearing, or leave after she does. John and Maria fasten the gate when they leave and make sure the grounds are locked up.
“They can come and go as they please, whatever they need,” Holm said. “They’re family. There’s no other way to describe it. We’re sad that they have to be there, but we love having them.”
John said Holm is special. He and Maria will keep seeing her around as they visit Kendrick, taking each day as it comes.
“It seems like just a really bad nightmare that you’re never going to wake up from,” he said. “We made it through one year. What’s the next year going to be like?”
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