STEM suspect had troubled upbringing, mental illness, attorneys say

The younger suspect is accused of planning shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch


Evidence made public for the first time Nov. 18 in court during hearings for the younger suspect in the fatal shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch offered a glimpse into the world of the teen accused of masterminding the attack.

Through a more than four-hour interview the day of the shooting, investigators gleaned details of his troubled upbringing, reported mental illness, history of self-harming and desire for revenge over feeling that students at STEM bullied him for being transgender.

Alec McKinney, 16, faces 48 charges in connection with the May 7 shooting, including first-degree murder. Senior Kendrick Castillo, 18, died and eight more students were injured.

District Court Judge Jeffrey Holmes in a Nov. 18 preliminary hearing determined there is probable cause to move the case toward trial and that McKinney should be held without bond.

The teen is charged as an adult, but a hearing to determine if his case should go back to juvenile court is still underway and no trial date has been set.

McKinney's codefendant, 19-year-old Devon Erickson, said McKinney forced him to carry out the shooting on the threat of his life and the lives of his close friends. Both prosecutors and McKinney's defense attorneys have worked to poke holes in that narrative.

Defense attorney Ara Ohanian said Erickson's goal was to “get off” for his role in the shooting while McKinney's plan was to die. Surveillance footage shown in court shows McKinney walking through the school halls after the shooting with a gun to his head.

He planned to kill himself but couldn't figure out the safety latch on the firearm, according to testimony in court, and was then detained by the school's private security guard.

McKinney told investigators he'd thought about attacking his school for weeks and began seriously planning it approximately two weeks beforehand.

“I would just sit in my room and think about it for hours on end,” he told investigators, according to an interview transcript 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler read in court.

McKinney targeted certain students and tried to lure some he wanted to kill to the classroom where the shooting unfolded, said Brian Pereira, the Douglas County Sheriff's Office's lead detective on the case.

McKinney said he was partially motivated by revenge but has had suicidal and homicidal thoughts since age 12, when he also says he began hearing voices, according to Pereira's testimony. The voices grew worse at night, and he was prescribed medication that made them go away, but he would stop taking it so that the voice would come back.

“So he wouldn't be alone,” Pereira said.

McKinney told investigators he would cut himself because it made him feel better. Photos displayed in court showed thin scars and fresh cuts tracing significant portions of his forearms. The pictures were taken by investigators after McKinney was detained on May 7.

The voices told him to cut himself deeper, that his school deserved to be shot up, that no one liked him or cared about him, that he was worthless and should die, McKinney told officers, according to Pereira's testimony.

McKinney described living in a constant state of fear as a child because of his volatile father. McKinney was scared every time his father came home, and when he got angry, Pereira said.

In one instance, McKinney said his father came home under the influence, threw his mother around their apartment and threatened her with a knife.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher Gallo emphasized that McKinney's father was deported in 2010 and the teen last saw him while in Mexico in 2013. McKinney hadn't lived with his abusive father for several years when he chose to attack STEM, Gallo said.

Investigators allowed McKinney to speak with his mother alone in an interview room before they questioned him on May 7, although their conversation was recorded.

McKinney told his mother his father wasn't the reason he attacked his school, but that he'd come to believe he was just as bad a person as his father. He told investigators his father had done terrible things.

Attorneys asked Pereira to read a transcript of McKinney's conversation with his mother, who sat in the front row during the hearing.

“You actually fired a gun,” she asked him. “I've taught you so much, what happened?”

“I have nothing for me,” he responded.

McKinney told investigators he left his previous school to attend STEM because he was self-harming and in a bad place. His mother also insisted he stop attending his previous school, but he described his time at STEM as “the worst experience.”

He felt surrounded by negative people who every day talked about killing themselves or told other people they should kill themselves, he said.

In his closing statements, Brauchler said McKinney was the principal planner and motivator of the two students who attacked the school.

Erickson was 18 when the shooting took place. He was the first to draw a gun in the school and was tasked with guarding a door to the classroom where the shooting took place, so that students could not escape, according to the lead detective's testimony.

McKinney told investigators he felt Erickson would be easy to manipulate. He told investigators he threatened Erickson with weapons in the hours leading up to the shooting, forced him to take cocaine and damage the Erickson family home.

In persuading Erickson to help him, McKinney told the older suspect he had a terrible life, that his mother was cruel to him and that people at school expected him to be a school shooter so he might as well prove them right, according to Brauchler's closing statements in the preliminary hearing. He also told Erickson he had nothing going for him except a girlfriend who was moving away anyway.

Although Brauchler said McKinney was the leader, prosecutors have fiercely disputed Erickson's account in which he describes himself as an unwilling participant.

Pereira said the overwhelming majority of evidence suggests otherwise — that Erickson aided McKinney and passed up numerous opportunities to warn someone of the looming attack.

McKinney is expected to be in court through Nov. 26 as defense attorneys work to transfer his case from adult court to juvenile court.

STEM School Highlands Ranch, Jessica Gibbs


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