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Crime and Courts

STEM School Highlands Ranch shooter sentenced to life in prison after emotional, day-long hearing

Alec McKinney, who will be eligible for parole after 40 years, spoke publicly for the first time since the attack, apologizing individually to his victims. “I don't deserve leniency nor forgiveness,” he said. “I don't want a lighter sentence.”

Erin Triplett, right, hugs her daughter, who is an eighth grader at STEM Highlands Ranch School after the girl was escorted from the school after two students allegedly shot at least eight other kids there on Tuesday, May 7, 2019, in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Betrayal. Lasting fear. Anger. 

A community forever shattered.

Victims of last year’s deadly shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, including students who barely escaped death, spoke of still-raw wounds as 17-year-old Alec McKinney, one of the two shooters responsible for the attack, was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years.

The sentence is the mandatory penalty for juveniles convicted of first-degree murder. McKinney was also sentenced to serve an additional 38 years for crimes he committed during the attack, prosecutors say.

McKinney, appearing at the sentencing remotely because of the pandemic, sobbed as fellow students described their dismay at how he had turned on them. One peer called him a “bottom-of-the-barrel waste of space.”

“He made himself the judge, the jury and the executioner in room 107,” Nui Giasolli, another student, said in recounting the May 7, 2019, attack. She was referring to the classroom where the shooting unfolded.

A combined SWAT team waits outside the middle school entrance at STEM School Highlands Ranch after a shooting that killed one and wounded eight students. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Giasolli said she had considered McKinney one of her best friends before the attack. She was horrified to find out that she had apparently been targeted, a gun pointed at the back of her head.  

“He’s not crying because he truly regrets it,” Giasolli said. “He’s crying because he got caught.”

McKinney spoke for the first time publicly since the shooting, giving remarks for about 20 minutes. He apologized individually to victims and said he’d never forgive himself — and that he never expects to be forgiven.

“I don’t deserve leniency nor forgiveness,” he tearfully said. “I don’t want a lighter sentence.”

McKinney also sent a message to anyone thinking about committing a similar act: “Get help now. The amount of pain it causes to everyone who ever cared about you and innocent people outweigh anything you are going through right now.” 

18th Judicial District Judge Jeffrey K. Holmes noted McKinney’s drug use, mental health struggles and history of familial abuse in handing down his sentence.

“He has taken responsibility in this case,” the judge noted. “He has not tried to excuse his behavior today.”

Holmes could have sentenced McKinney to more than 400 additional years in prison for crimes he committed during the attack on top of first-degree murder, according to prosecutors. Instead, Holmes tacked on 38 more years in prison to the life sentence, the district attorney’s office said.

At the same time, Holmes highlighted the heinous nature of McKinney’s crimes. “The level of seriousness of the crimes here is excessive. It is an unimaginable series of violations of individuals’ physical, emotional purity,” he said.

Students from STEM School Highlands Ranch walk from their school entrance, with their hands on their heads, after a shooting that killed one student and wounded eight others on May 7, 2019, in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

McKinney’s alleged accomplice, Devon Erickson, is scheduled to stand trial in September. Erickson was 18 when the attack happened. He faces the possibility of being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. 

McKinney was 16 years old at the time of the shooting, but was charged in the case as an adult. He told investigators that he planned to die by suicide after the shooting but didn’t know how to release a safety mechanism on the handgun he fled the shooting with.

After McKinney’s attorneys failed in their efforts to return the case to the juvenile system, the teen pleaded guilty to 17 counts in February.

According to arrest documents, McKinney — who was born a girl and transitioned before the shooting — told investigators that he had specific targets at the school in mind, but “wanted everyone in that school to suffer from trauma like he has in his life and to realize that the world is a bad place.”

The shooting left one student, 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo, dead and eight others wounded. Castillo died after rushing one of the shooters in an attempt to disarm and stop him. 

Kendrick Castillo. (Colorado State Patrol handout)

Authorities say McKinney and Erickson snuck guns into STEM School Highlands Ranch and opened fire on a classroom full of students watching the movie “The Princess Bride.” It was just a few days before the end of the school year and graduation.

Some of the most wrenching testimony on Friday came from Kendrick’s parents, John and Maria. 

“We never got to see Kendrick until almost a week later, when the coroner was done with the investigation,” John Castillo testified, recounting the day he learned that his son had been killed. He said he could barely recognize Kendrick when he was finally able to see his son’s body. 

Castillo called McKinney “a monster” and, addressing him, said “I condemn you to hell.”

He added: “Your plan didn’t work. You’re pure evil and you were met by good. You weren’t counting on Kendrick Castillo. Remember that name. Remember that face. I hope it haunts you every day of your life.”

MORE: Kendrick Castillo didn’t hesitate when a gunman burst into his high school classroom. “He went down as a hero.”

Maria Castillo, speaking through sobs, said McKinney took away her best friend.

“This evil killer took him from me five days before Mother’s Day,” she said.

After the sentence was handed down, John Castillo dismissed McKinney’s apology. He said McKinney was shedding “crocodile tears.”

18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler said a long sentence was needed to “send a clear message” to anyone thinking of following McKinney’s path.

“This is, without a doubt, one of the biggest crimes in the history of Douglas County,” Brauchler said. “And it was intended to be much, much worse.”

Brauchler said he was “bummed” that McKinney’s sentence wasn’t longer. However, regardless of how long the sentence could have been, McKinney would still have been eligible for parole much earlier, he said.

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, whose agency responded to the shooting, asked that McKinney be given the maximum possible sentence. He said that would show “that good prevails.”

MORE: A slain deputy. A political brawl. A school shooting: How Sheriff Tony Spurlock is handling years of turmoil

Morgan McKinney, Alec’s mother, asked Holmes to take into consideration her son’s age and grant him some leniency. She said she, too, lost a child the day of the shooting. 

“I understand that he must pay the consequences of his crime,” Morgan McKinney said. 

She addressed Alec during the hearing: “I don’t understand how we ended up where we’re at.”

Rising Sun