Seconds before shots rang out in Room 107 at STEM School Highlands Ranch on May 7, 2019, an armed Devon Erickson sent a message to his friend, who also had guns in his bag.
“Go now,” he wrote, according to phone records.
The prosecution in the case against Erickson focused on that message along with physical evidence, eyewitness testimonies and other messages between the two alleged gunmen during their closing argument June 14.
“On May 7, 2019, the defendant … along with his suicidal friend, made war on a class full of students and a couple teachers,” said former District Attorney George Brauchler, who stayed with the office to finish out the case, during the closing argument.
After 10 days of testimony, both the prosecution and defense have rested their cases and given closing statements. Now, it’s up to the jury to determine Erickson’s fate.
Erickson pleaded not guilty to 46 charges in January of 2020, including first-degree murder and 31 counts of attempted first-degree murder.
During closing arguments, David Kaplan, one of the private attorneys representing Erickson, focused on breaking down the prosecution’s narrative that there was a grand scheme for the shooting.
“There was no plan,” he said. “There was no great design.”
Kaplan acknowledged in his closing argument that Erickson does hold some responsibility for what happened that day but asked the jury to consider if it was truly the defendant’s intent to kill students.
Brauchler called for the jury to find Erickson guilty of all charges.
“The defendant knew exactly what he was doing,” Brauchler said. “Hold this guy accountable for what he did.”
Another message that the prosecution focused on was from Erickson in the weeks before the shooting. In it, he appeared to be threatening one of the students in Room 107.
“I’m gonna send a final response to (redacted) and then block her on literally everything including life via a Glock 21 .45 caliber semi automatic pistol,” Erickson wrote, according to the phone record.
A Glock .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol was the firearm Erickson used during the attack.
Over the course of the trial, the jury heard from 63 witnesses total, only two of whom were called by the defense. Those who testified for the prosecution include STEM students and teachers, doctors, forensic experts, first responders and others.
Other gunman testified
Alec McKinney, who pleaded guilty to similar charges and has admitted to being one of the shooters that day, also testified against Erickson.
The defense has focused their case on the idea that Erickson didn’t mean to participate in the attack but was bullied into it by McKinney. They’ve claimed that amidst a vortex of drugs and a long term lack of sleep, Erickson was too impaired to know how to stop the shooting.
“Devon Erickson succumbed to the Alec McKinney madness,” Kaplan said. “Alec McKinney (was) out of control and Devon Erickson (didn’t) know how to stop it.”
During cross examinations of eye witnesses from May 7, the defense has repeatedly asked about specific details from that day, including whether the witness saw the gun go off before or after he was rammed by students attempting to disarm him.
They’ve also focused on Erickson’s statements after being apprehended that they say show he was trying to help stop McKinney. McKinney also said at the time that he’d forced Erickson to participate.
McKinney later testified that those earlier statements were untrue. It was Erickson, he said, who had pushed the plan forward.
Over the course of the trial the jury has heard testimony that shows four bullets came from Erickson’s gun, striking three students, one of whom, Kendrick Castillo, was killed. Nine bullets came from McKinney’s gun, according to the physical evidence. His shots injured four people.
Bruahcler said that because of the laws around complicity, Erickson is not only responsible for his own actions, but also for those of McKinney.
“They created a kill box, no one was going to get out alive,” Brauchler said. “It was an ambush.”
For several hours over two days of the trial, McKinney walked the jury through what he says really happened. He claimed that he and Erickson’s plan was to kill everyone in the room. Then, Erickson was going to shoot McKinney so he could “come off as the hero,” McKinney said.
The defense has called into question the validity of McKinney’s testimony, arguing that he made a deal with the prosecution in hopes of getting a reduced sentence.
After McKinney’s testimony, prosecutors played the full 90-minute interview between Erickson and law enforcement from the day of the shooting. In the interview, Erickson told investigators that he had been an unwilling participant and that he was actually trying to save everyone.
“I just want you guys to get him,” Erickson said of McKinney, according to the taped interview.
As investigators asked him why he hadn’t alerted an adult or shot McKinney, Erickson spoke over and over again about the threats he was facing from McKinney and fears about looking like the “crazy kid.”
Each time Erickson mentioned that McKinney had sent him a text threatening to kill him or others, the prosecutor would pause the interview and ask a lead investigator with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, Detective Brian Pereira, if he’d found any corroborating evidence in Erickson’s phone or in the social media records he reviewed. For many of those alleged messages and threats, there were no records, Pereira said.
Both of the witnesses who testified on behalf of the defense were experts, rather than eye witnesses. The first, Roger Enoka, who has a PhD in kinesiology, spoke about involuntary muscle contractions as they relate to unintentional firearm discharges. Enoka said that it’s possible that Erickson had an involuntary muscle reaction from either being surprised or being thrown off balance, causing him to unintentionally shoot the gun.
The prosecution challenged this idea, pointing out that the physical evidence showed the gun had been fired four times.
The other defense witness, Wanda Guidry, has a PhD in physiology. Guidry, admitted by the court as an expert in toxicology and physiology, spoke about the impacts of long term cocaine use and how combined with severe lack of sleep, it could have caused cloudy thinking for Erickson on the day of the attack.
Erickson chose not to testify.
Throughout the entirety of the trial, Kendrick Catillo’s parents, John and Maria Castillo, have sat in the front row, watching the testimonies play out. Students who were in Room 107, students who were shot and parents of those students have also watched from the courtroom, occasionally shedding tears and comforting one another. Erickson’s family has also sat in the courtroom throughout the trial.
Before the closing arguments from each side were given, the judge read the jury their instructions for deliberations, which were specific to this case and took more than two hours to read.
Erickson is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, both for causing the death of Kendrick Castillo. One count is for first-degree murder after deliberation, meaning that he “after deliberation and with the intent to cause the death of a person other than himself, caused the death of Kendrick Castillo.”
The other count alleges that he showed “universal malice manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life generally” and “engaged in conduct which created a grave risk of death to persons other than himself and thereby caused the death of Kendrick Castillo.”
Brauchler said in his closing statement that Erickson is guilty of both charges.
The jury must come to a unanimous decision about what they believe Erickson was guilty of doing.
If the jury doesn’t believe he’s guilty of each element of those charges, they can find him guilty of lesser charges, including second-degree murder, reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, according to the jury instructions read by Judge Theresa Slade June 14.
To find Erickson guilty of each charge, the jury must believe beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed every part of his alleged crime.
In their strategy, the defense seeked to introduce that reasonable doubt into the juror’s minds by suggesting that Erickson hadn’t intended to kill anyone and that he wasn’t in a stable frame of mind because of his intoxication.
If Erickson is found guilty of first-degree murder, the mandatory sentence is life in prison with no chance of parole.