Judge rules there is enough evidence to move STEM shooting suspect's case forward

Older suspect to be held without bond

Posted 9/25/19

Go now. Those are the words the older suspect in the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting sent via Snapchat to his co-defendant shortly before the first shots were fired. A Douglas County judge said …

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Judge rules there is enough evidence to move STEM shooting suspect's case forward

Older suspect to be held without bond

Posted

Go now.

Those are the words the older suspect in the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting sent via Snapchat to his co-defendant shortly before the first shots were fired. A Douglas County judge said Sept. 25 the evidence helps provide enough probable cause to proceed with the charges against him.

Devon Erickson, 18 at the time, wrote the message to Alec McKinney, 16, seconds before surveillance footage from the school shows students begin to sprint through the hallways.

The message raises questions, District Court Judge Theresa Slade said, particularly when Erickson says he was an unwilling participant who didn't want the May 7 shooting to happen. He also wrote the message allegedly knowing McKinney wanted to kill as many people as possible that day, Slade said.

Slade called it “the most persuasive information that was presented to the court by the people.”

Both Erickson and McKinney were arrested for their suspected roles in the shooting. Erickson told investigators that McKinney repeatedly threatened his life and the lives of his close friends if he didn't help carry out the attack.

That argument was met with sharp scrutiny from prosecutors during a two-day preliminary hearing for Erickson, now 19. His preliminary hearing began Sept. 24 and ended Sept. 25. Slade also ruled Erickson should be held without bond.

MORE: Extended coverage of the STEM School shooting

Erickson faces 44 felony charges plus misdemeanors in connection with the shooting that left 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo dead and eight other students injured.

The charges

Slade addressed most of the charges against him and why she believes there is probable cause to support them. Counts one and two are Class 1 felony murder charges.

In regard to a murder-after-deliberation charge, Slade said the prosecution showed there was a plan to carry out the shooting in place prior to the attack, which began shortly before 2 p.m. on May 7.

Erickson was a part of that plan, was tipped off to it the night before, and from at least noon on May 7, Erickson knew McKinney intended to murder people at STEM but continued to aid him without warning anyone, Slade said, whether or not he participated willingly.

McKinney told Erickson via Snapchat on May 6 not to go to school the next day, according to court documents. That's when Erickson says he first learned McKinney planned to attack the school.

He realized the plan was imminent around mid-day on May 7 when the two were at his home, according to the lead detective in the case. He told investigators McKinney forced him to help break into a safe using an ax and crowbar to steal guns used in the attack. He also consumed cocaine after the two retrieved the firearms, according to the lead detective.

Slade also considered the fact that Erickson's weapon was fired four times in the shooting. She noted he was well acquainted with firearms and that his father taught him not to point a gun at something he didn't want to kill.

For the second-first degree murder charge, regarding universal malice and extreme indifference for human life, Slade pointed to the number of times Erickson could have warned someone of the shooting but did not.

“He knew there was going to be a shooting in classroom 107, he knew that there were certain people that Mr. McKinney intended to kill,” Slade said.

Erickson's role in the attack was to guard the door so students could not escape, according to interviews the suspects offered investigators.

“He didn't just stand by the door, he pulled out a gun,” Slade said.

Erickson told investigators he warned specific friends to leave the classroom, according to testimony from the lead detective. Slade emphasized that Erickson says he warned people close to him but not all people in the class or others at school, despite believing McKinney wanted to kill as many people as possible.

As Slade spoke, Erickson occasionally nodded his head as he listened to her but did not appear to show emotion.

Evidence in the case

The September preliminary hearing offered a glimpse of evidence in the cases. That included text messages between Erickson and McKinney, Snapchat exchanges, school surveillance footage and excerpts from interviews with the suspects.

Eighteenth Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler gave the prosecution's closing statements Sept. 25 in which he continued efforts to dismantle Erickson's story. Prosecutors spent day one of the hearing working to poke holes in Erickson's claims he didn't want to help McKinney.

There is only one thing the two suspects could agree on, Brauchler said, and that was the existence of videos filmed in the hours prior to the attack. The Snapchat posts purport to show McKinney behind the camera filming Erickson as he forces him to snort cocaine and break into the gun safe.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Christopher Gallo asked the lead detective on the case, Brian Pereira of the Douglas County Sheriff's Office, if he could say whether the videos were legitimate or possibly staged.

Both the defense and prosecution asked Pereira in the two-day hearing if he considered McKinney to be yelling at Erickson, or if he perceived Erickson to be afraid of McKinney.

On the videos, McKinney is heard loudly telling Erickson to perform the tasks. Pereira said he did not know either suspect well enough to determine if their behaviors seemed genuine. Brauchler argued that immediately after each suspect was detained May 7, they told law enforcement officers about the videos, urging authorities to view them.

Brauchler said Erickson told investigators details of the Snapchat videos he could only know if he'd seen them.

The district attorney also showed excerpts of transcripts from the interviews in court to highlight what he called discrepancies in their interviews with detectives.

In one example, Erickson said McKinney never gave him the ax used to open the gun safe but threatened him with it. But McKinney told investigators that he did give Erickson the ax to use while smashing open the gun safe.

“They can't even agree on who has the ax,” Brauchler said.

Brauchler stated McKinney chose one of his targets because he believed the individual said negative things about him, but that Erickson was the person who told McKinney about the alleged comments, and that he told McKinney he shared a class with the student.

That class, an British literature course, was the site of the shooting.

Investigators found four rounds fired from the gun Erickson used, but Erickson said the weapon accidently fired once in a fight with other students. Erickson said he immediately surrendered the weapon when confronted by students, according to Pereira, but student Brenden Bialy told authorities he had to pry the weapon from Erickson's grasp.

Bialy was one of three students, including Kendrick Castillo, who rushed Erickson after they say he brandished a weapon. Bialy told detectives that Erickson tried to raise the gun to their heads with his finger on the trigger before they could disarm him, Pereira said.

Prosecutors argued Erickson had intimate knowledge of the weapons used in the attack. He'd been shooting with his father and told investigators exactly which weapons they took from his parents' safe.

“He doesn't just say 'guns,'” Brauchler said. “He knows the make, model and caliber of these weapons.”

McKinney told investigators he needed Erickson to show him how to load the weapon and he thought the nine-round revolver he emptied in the attack held a dozen bullets.

“This is at a minimum probable cause,” Brauchler said.

Moving forward

Defense attorney David Kaplan argued the prosecution hadn't provided enough probable cause to support attempted murder charges for each of the injured victims. He also stressed there were conflicting reports about what precisely led to the gunshot that killed Castillo and if the shot was intentionally fired.

Pereira could not confirm which suspect fired which shots, and said the FBI is still completing ballistic reports.

Once Slade offered her ruling, Kaplan said the court appeared to have drawn conclusions that aligned with the prosecution's theory but were not yet proven.

Before the hearing ended, Slade set Erickson's next appearance for December. He is expected to enter a plea at that time. Brauchler said that's a crucial step in moving the case to trial.

John Castillo, Kendrick's father, said he hopes to see the suspects punished to the extent of the law and that he was pleased with the hearing's outcome.

“I'm sorry I have to be here today,” he said.

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