STEM School shooting suspect Alec McKinney pleads guilty to murder, other charges

STEM School shooting suspect Alec McKinney pleads guilty to murder, other charges

A 16-year-old who shot multiple students inside STEM School Highlands Ranch, killing one classmate, pleaded guilty Friday to first-degree murder and 16 other charges, though he may spend less than 30 years in prison.

Alec McKinney faces a minimum sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 40 years and a maximum penalty that would add 408 additional years to the life sentence. Because he was 16 at the time of the shooting, McKinney cannot be sentenced to death or to life without parole. McKinney entered the guilty plea Friday during an arraignment in Douglas County District Court.

Along with first-degree murder, the other charges McKinney pleaded to are:

  • conspiracy to commit first-degree murder after deliberation
  • six counts of attempted murder after deliberation
  • attempted murder extreme indifference
  • second-degree assault
  • conspiracy to commit arson
  • conspiracy to commit burglary
  • conspiracy to commit criminal mischief
  • possession of a weapon on school grounds
  • possession of a handgun by a juvenile
  • two crime of violence sentence enhancers.

Thirty other charges were dismissed as part of the deal.

Although the potential sentences include life imprisonment, there’s a chance McKinney could be released on parole in as few as 20 years, 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler said at a news conference after the hearing. A 2016 change to state law allows juveniles convicted of first-degree murder in adult court to apply for a “specialized program” after serving at least 20 years of their sentence. The Colorado Department of Corrections then decides whether to accept the person. If the inmate is accepted and successfully completes the program — which must last at least three years — they can be released on parole early.

Brauchler said McKinney’s guilty plea could help his application into the program since one of the criteria for admittance is taking responsibility for the crime committed. McKinney would have been eligible for the program regardless of whether McKinney pleaded guilty or was convicted at trial, he said.

“We’re inching toward just here,” Brauchler said. “We’re inching toward closure.”

McKinney did not speak in court other than to answer Judge Jeffrey Holmes’ questions in a monotone voice. He had short hair and wore a baggy grey sweatshirt over a collared shirt. As he left the courtroom after entering his pleas, McKinney turned to look back at the courtroom with tears in his eyes. His mother sat in the front row behind him and cried as McKinney pleaded guilty to each count.

Less than 10 feet away, the parents of Kendrick Castillo watched McKinney enter his pleas. Castillo died in the May 7 shooting after tackling the other suspect, 18-year-old Devon Erickson. Eight other teenagers were shot and wounded in the school, including one student whose head was grazed by a bullet.

John Castillo, Kendrick’s father, said after the hearing that he was pleased with the plea deal. John Castillo said he was glad he wouldn’t have to sit through a trial in McKinney’s case, but the pain of losing his son remains. He misses Kendrick every day, he said.

“At the end of the day, no matter what happens in the courtroom, the results are still the same,” Castillo said. “Nobody’s a winner in this.”

Brauchler said that his office has not had any meetings with Erickson’s attorneys to talk about a plea deal. Erickson entered a plea of not guilty at his January arraignment. His case is scheduled for trial on May 26 and because he was 18 years old at the time of the crime he could face a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

McKinney told investigators after his arrest that he bullied Erickson into participating in the shooting, which he had thought about for weeks. He said he wanted to specifically kill three students who had bullied him for being transgender, but that he also wanted to make all the students in the school suffer like he had.

The two teenagers broke into Erickson’s parents’ gun safe and stole firearms, they told investigators. They then set a car on fire in Erickson’s garage before driving to the school, carrying the guns in a backpack and a guitar case. They then brought the guns into an English class and opened fire, according to their arrest affidavits.

McKinney said he had suicidal and homicidal thoughts since he was 12 years old. His mother told investigators that McKinney had been diagnosed with PTSD and depression with psychotic features, according to McKinney’s arrest affidavit. At a previous court hearing, his mother described a broken home life where McKinney witnessed his father beat his mother and often was tasked with caring for his two younger siblings.

Before the hearing Friday, Holmes denied motions from news outlets to allow cameras inside the courtroom. Brauchler argued that the cameras should be allowed, but Holmes ruled against the cameras because the defense objected, as did at least one victim.

Holmes will sentence McKinney at a hearing on May 18, ten days after STEM School Highlands Ranch ends its school year. Victims and their families will have a chance to speak at the hearing, as will McKinney.

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