DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. – The adult suspect in the May 7 shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch told authorities he’d been forced into the shooting by his alleged co-conspirator, but the lead detective in the investigation testified Tuesday that there were few signs that was the case.
Devon Erickson, 19, faced the first day of a preliminary hearing Tuesday, during which prosecutors will argue why they believe the 44 felony counts against Erickson should proceed to a possible trial.
Erickson appeared in the Douglas County courtroom Tuesday wearing a red jumpsuit and shackles. The pink-and-black shaggy hair he wore at his initial court appearance was still shaggy Tuesday but was its natural light brown. His family took up two rows of seats in the courtroom.
Many of the other people there to witness the first day of the preliminary hearing were STEM School families, including that of 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo, who was the lone person killed in the shooting. His parents wept quietly as a detective described how officers tried to render aid to their son after the shooting, but he was already dead.
Douglas County Sheriff’s Detective Brian Pereira, the lead detective on the case, was the first person called to testify Tuesday.
He described Erickson and Alec McKinney as good friends who talked frequently and worked to detail what happened between the two that led them to allegedly commit the shooting. An affidavit for Erickson’s arrest showed that Erickson tried to claim he was forced into the shooting by McKinney.
Erickson had received a Snapchat from McKinney they day before the shooting in which he was told not to come to the school that day. McKinney had been upset with another student at the school.
Pereira said that Erickson claimed in two interviews after the shooting that he went to school the day of the shooting, then left and returned again before going to pick up McKinney and going to his own home.
Erickson told investigators that he had been “forced” by McKinney to snort cocaine, drink alcohol and use a crowbar and ax to break into his parents’ gun safe, Pereira said. Erickson claimed McKinney threatened him with the ax in order to open the safe and held a gun to his head in order to do the cocaine, which he claimed was his first time doing the illicit drug.
Snapchat videos showed Erickson and McKinney prying open the safe and Erickson snorting cocaine while McKinney tells him to “just f---ing do it.” But Pereira said that friends of Erickson’s and some fellow students told them it was not his first time doing cocaine.
After they stole $2,300 worth of weapons, according to Pereira, they allegedly tossed furniture all over the kitchen, wrote “the voices win” in red on the wall of the closet in which the gun safe sat, spray-painted one of Erickson’s parents’ cars and tried to light it on fire.
On cross-examination, the defense asked Pereira more about the incident. He said McKinney told officers that he tore up the kitchen while looking for a key to Erickson’s parents’ gun safe.
At one point shortly before the shooting, Erickson went to the nurse’s office along with another student but did not inform anyone of the impending shooting.
At 1:31 p.m. on May 7 – less than 30 minutes before the shooting began – McKinney texted Erickson and said he was not going to do to the shooting alone and that he would “f--- [Erickson] up” if he didn’t go along with him in the shooting. Detectives said that was the only proof of any threats made by McKinney to Erickson, despite Erickson’s claims that he was trying to save as many people as possible when he first entered the school.
The court was told that Erickson did text one of his friends and went to the friend’s classroom in an attempt to warn him to leave the classroom. But after Erickson and McKinney Snapchatted one another while Erickson was in the nurse’s office – with McKinney allegedly threatening to shoot up the office while Erickson was in it if he did not take part in the shooting – Erickson left the nurse’s office with McKinney and the shooting began, investigators said.
Castillo, Joshua Jones and Brendan Bialy were in their British Literature class in Room 107 watching The Princess Bride when the shooting occurred. The classroom had two doors and each alleged shooter entered through separate doors. Pereira said that the doorjamb on the door McKinney entered through had been tampered with and that McKinney claimed that Erickson had removed a magnetic strip that prevented the door from locking.
On cross-examination, however, Pereira said McKinney is the only person who claimed Erickson tampered with the door. Others told police that both Erickson and McKinney knocked on the classroom doors and were let in. Castillo was the person who opened the door for Erickson, a student told police.
Erickson claimed to authorities that he gave his gun up willingly to Castillo, Jones and Bialy when they rushed him and that the gun accidentally went off and hit Castillo. But investigators disputed that Tuesday, noting that other students at the scene said there was a fight for the gun, that one of the students punched Erickson several times and had to pry the gun from his hand. The other witnesses said that Erickson was aiming at students’ heads and trying to shoot them.
Castillo was fatally shot in the chest during the struggle and Jones was shot in the hip and calf.
Erickson told authorities that he only fired his .45-caliber handgun once in the classroom, but investigators found four rounds from the gun close to where Erickson was pinned down, Pereira said.
Pereira testified during cross-examination that there were different accounts of the struggle between Erickson and the three other boys and how the gun went off and struck Castillo.
Pereira said that during some of Erickson’s conversations with investigators, he expressed racist views toward black, Hispanic and Jewish people at times and said several witnesses, friends and acquaintances contradicted many of the narratives Erickson told them during interviews. He also said that McKinney was interested in the Columbine shooting and Sol Pais.
There were also disagreements between the defense and prosecutors regarding surveillance video that was shown during the hearing, which prosecutors said was contained in the discovery evidence but defense attorneys said they were not formally notified of. But video showed McKinney and Erickson moving through the school, at the nurse’s office, and some of the events that took place during the shooting. Body camera video was also played during court.
Pereira was the only witness prosecutors called on Monday and the only witness who was cross-examined by the defense, who did not call any witnesses.
The first day of the hearing, which is scheduled for up to three days, wrapped up around 5 p.m. Tuesday and will begin again on Wednesday at 9 a.m.
McKinney is set for a status hearing on Sept. 30, a preliminary hearing on Nov. 18 and a reverse transfer hearing, which would determine whether to send the case back to juvenile court, is set for Nov. 19-26.
Neither of the suspects has entered a plea in the case and both are being held without bond.