DENVER – In opening statements in the trial for the second alleged STEM School shooter, prosecutors argued Devon Erickson planned out the school shooting with Alec McKinney, while his defense counsel argued that his alleged actions were a product of drug use, family trouble and manipulation at the hands of McKinney.
Prosecutor George Brauchler, now the chief deputy district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, was the first to address the court and jury Thursday afternoon in the trial, which is scheduled to last until June 25, after a jury was seated.
He started off by playing the 911 recording of a teacher, Erin Christian, calling in to report the shooting from the room next door.
“I think he’s in the room next to me,” she tells the dispatcher, who in return tells her: “Erin, I want you to do exactly what you’ve been trained to do.”
Brauchler walked the jury and Judge Theresa Slade through the next moments at STEM School Highlands Ranch – the prosecution’s outline of how Erickson, now age 20 and who faces 48 counts at the trial including first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder, allegedly helped plan and execute the shooting at the school on May 7, 2019.
Brauchler sad that McKinney – “angry, hateful” – had brought Erickson in to “concoct a plan” about a mass shooting at the school. He called their plan a “victim-hero story” that they worked to put together as reasoning for the shooting and how Erickson would claim he was manipulated by McKinney.
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“He says he was threatened, scared, trying to save everyone,” Brauchler said of Erickson’s interview with detectives roughly an hour after he was arrested.
Brauchler said that throughout the day on May 7 – when Erickson went back to his house with a different friend and they used cocaine, when he met up with his girlfriend, and when him and McKinney broke into his father’s gun safe and took the guns that would be used in the shooting, and after he went to the nurse’s office at the school after they had allegedly brought the guns inside in a guitar case – Erickson had ample opportunities to alert an adult or call 911 about what was going to happen, but did not.
“He tells no one; he does nothing,” Brauchler said, adding that Erickson had only unsuccessfully tried to alert a friend of his to leave classroom 107, where the shooting occurred.
Brauchler said that after all those hours, the last message Erickson received from McKinney was one saying, “We have it all planned out,” and said that he then left the nurse’s office and that the shooting began shortly afterward when Erickson allegedly texted back, “Go now.”
Brauchler walked through Kendrick Castillo’s rush of Erickson that ended with him being fatally shot before two other students in the classroom successfully rushed Erickson and fought him when his gun jammed, though Erickson told detectives that the shootings were accidental discharges that occurred during the fight.
Brauchler argued that Castillo was shot well before he was in a scuffle with Erickson, noting that the medical examiner found no soot or stippling that would be found with a contact-range gunshot and that the other students who rushed Erickson – Brendan Bialy and Joshua Jones – allegedly told investigators that Castillo was shot before he could reach Erickson.
Brauchler described how simultaneously, McKinney started shooting other people in the room – many of whom did not realize they had been shot or that McKinney was also shooting because they were focused on Erickson, the prosecutor said.
Brauchler argued that Erickson would have kept shooting and emptied his magazine after the fourth fired shot had the weapon not jammed, and that as soon as he was subdued, he started his claims about the victim-hero story.
“Only when finally subdued, only then does he say, ‘Alec made me do it,’” Brauchler argued.
Castillo’s parents – John and Maria Castillo – were in court and appeared visibly shaken and were in tears several times. Erickson appeared in a blue suit with short, natural colored hair.
The defense argued that Erickson’s case was one about mental health and manipulation.
“It’s a case about how Devon Erickson’s home life came undone, leaving him neglected at a critical time at the end of high school – it’s about how rapidly a young person’s rationality deteriorates after a few months of drug use, weight loss and a lack of sleep,” said defense attorney Julia Stancil.
She said that Erickson’s debilitated state and involvement in the shooting were the product of McKinney, whom she called a “puppet master.”
“It’s about how a vulnerable kid gets roped into a psychotic cult play by a schizophrenic, homicidal, sick kid named Alec McKinney,” Stancil said.
She called Erickson not evil, but rather “a funny, witty, sarcastic kid” who grew up with long-term friends, girlfriends and hobbies. But she said that a surgery that went poorly for his mother caused him to spiral downward in the final months of his senior year, leading to neglect from his father and leaving him prone to manipulation from others – a space filled by McKinney.
She painted McKinney as someone who “had been consumed by schizophrenia for many years” and explained how he had prior admissions to mental health facilities for suicidal and hidden homicidal thoughts.
Stancil said that Erickson had maybe only used marijuana prior to meeting McKinney but that he introduced Erickson to much harder drugs – including cocaine, Xanax, methamphetamine and cough syrup – which she said contributed to a downward spiral in Erickson’s mental and physical health that she argued allowed him to be manipulated and not to be thinking clearly on the day of and in the days leading up to the shooting.
“He’s not a monster; he’s not a demon and he’s not evil,” she said. “He’s a confused, adolescent kid.”
Both the prosecution and defense played Snapchat videos – with Brauchler arguing they were staged to fit the hero-victim narrative, but which Stancil argued showed how controlling McKinney was over Erickson.
Stancil said the defense would call witnesses who could talk about their experiences with both students, as well as experts in psychology, physiology and kinesiology that would discuss how the family troubles, lack of sleep and drug use could have contributed to the state of Erickson’s mental health.
She also said that prosecutors would likely rely on McKinney – who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and other charges last year and was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole because he was a juvenile when the shooting happened – in their case against Erickson.
“He is a puppet master. A puppet, puppet master. That is what [a counselor] said, and that is the thing the government did nothing to look into,” Stancil argued. “It is a tragic, tragic story of what happened that day and no one is going to say Devon Erickson did nothing wrong, that he didn’t make a series of horrible decisions with horrible repercussions. But it’s a story of human emotion – what he was going to do, intended to do and why.”
Two of the 48 counts Erickson faces are sentence enhancers if he is convicted. Forty-three of the remaining 46 criminal charges are felonies. Erickson has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Jurors are expected to report for duty by 9 a.m. Friday to resume witness testimony, which can be watched live throughout the trial on a Webex feed from the courtroom that can be found by clicking here.
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