CASTLE ROCK, Colo. (CBS4) – Parents of students attending STEM School Highlands Ranch on the day of a shooting in May testified in a reverse transfer hearing Thursday for one of the suspects. Staff working at the school also took the witness stand sharing their interactions with Alec McKinney in the months leading up to the shooting.
“I think about every one of those students in that school every day,” said Jennifer Kraus. “It will be with me for the rest of my life.”
Kraus’s son Mitchell was one of the students shot that day. The prosecution called her as one of their witnesses to share her family’s experience since the shooting and how much their lives have changed since then.
The hearing will determine if McKinney should be tried as an adult or a juvenile.
“He lost his friend and they wanted it to be him instead,” she explained about her son’s thinking since that shooting. “He has this horrible guilt.”
Kraus said her son was such a happy child before the shooting. He loved attending classes at STEM School. The family knew it was a great fit for him. Not only was he more involved in school, he met students that “spoke his language” and became good friends.
She shared the horror of getting a call from her son saying he had been shot and rushing to find him and see how badly he was injured. Kraus remembers her son asked about his friend Kendrick Castillo, the student killed in the shooting. He still lives with a great fear, the family later learned the shooters had considered coming to their home. Kraus’s son was on the list of students the shooters were targeting, part of the guilt he feels because Castillo was not one of them.
Jane Gregory also took the stand on Thursday. Her son Jackson was also shot that day at STEM School. Gregory shared a similar experience about sending her son to that school, realizing it was a better fit for him. She believed he would be challenged more by their curriculum. Before the shooting, he was excited about his future, looking at colleges. It was a happy time for their family.
“’I knew I had to take him out,’” she recalled her son saying about tackling one of the shooters.
Her son told his mother that he remembered that the students hiding under desks during Columbine got shot so he knew he had to take action. After the shooting, their family got a lot of attention they did not seek out. She remembers more than 40 students showing up in her living room one day.
“I didn’t want to answer the door,” Gregory said.
Since the shooting, she says her son has become even more serious. He visits home every weekend from college. He feels guilty he didn’t do more that day. As a parent, she and her husband have trouble sleeping and say it was tough for them to send back their other son to school. As someone employed by a school, she shared the practice drills they routinely complete on campus are tough.
“It’s hard to go to work,” she said.
Before the parents testified, the prosecution also called the school counselor working at STEM School the same academic year of the shooting. She would later work for another school but shared her interactions with McKinney in the semesters before and during the shooting.
“There was always somebody that could speak with one of our students,” Julie Wright said from the witness stand.
Wright explained that there were organizations for students that not only helped them deal with suicide but also supported members of the LGBTQ community. She also shared that in November of 2018, six months before the shooting there was a Safe2Tell report about McKinney. Someone said he joked about cutting himself and committing suicide.
McKinney spoke to the counselor about having a bad day but she noted he appeared to be suicidal and he commented that he would do it if it could be done. Wright notified the sheriff’s office and they filed a report about the incident. McKinney was transferred to a hospital on a mental health hold but released and returned to school the next day. She testified that was unusual because usually that hold last 72 hours.
Prosecutors also asked her about how she had previously said he was a manipulator. She explained that he appeared to be a leader in his peer groups and was always the one in the middle talking to others. Wright also said that McKinney knew how to get out of situations and could be caught roaming the halls when he was supposed to be in class.
She went on to say she had not seen any signs he was being bullied and McKinney never said anything to her about the shooting.
“I, one hundred percent had no clue,” Wright testified.
The counselor shared that she had discussed her concerns about McKinney’s grades with his mother and reported signs of suicidal thoughts to the school, and that there were cuts on his arms. She added that he said to her once that he did not feel any affection from others.
“He felt worthless, no one could love him,” she said.
The prosecution also called an English teacher from STEM School who also served as a staff adviser to the LGBTQ support. group on campus.
“He knew he had a staff member on his side and accepted him completely,” Dr. Gabriela Leddy testified.
Leddy taught 10th grade world literature and saw McKinney multiple times a week because of that class. She said he had to be flagged for his truancy but she considered him a smart student and connected with him more than most of her 160 students that year. They bonded over their love of Nirvana.
She said that he struggled to interact with his classmates at first, but when the seating chart changed it got better. She also gave him extensions to help him get the assignments done so he could pass her class. As a staff member involved in the Gender and Sexuality Alliance or GSA, she helped him get a new email address and talked to IT to find a way to support trans students needing a new email.
“I was trying to protect him,” Leddy said.
The defense also called McKinney’s primary care provider to the stand. She talked about their appointments between early 2017 and the middle of 2018. McKinney and the physician’s assistant discussed depression, anxiety, gender identity issues, and medications. They did discuss his cutting habits but she never got a clear indication on suicidal thoughts. The medical provider also said he never discussed homicide or using guns.
Multiple deputies from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office working the night of the shooting were called by the prosecution to share their interactions with McKinney, explaining the defendant was calm while in their custody. A manger from Jersey Mike’s was also called to the stand by the prosecution to share that McKinney was a reliable employee. But when asked by the defense, his employer conceded he did not know McKinney very well.
Both sides spent much of the morning learning about the different options for juvenile offenders from testimony related to both the Division of Youth Services and Youthful Offender System. Witnesses talked about how they handle high profile inmates who are sentenced to serious crimes like murder in the first degree. They also covered interaction with the community and their ability to leave secure facilities. Security and escape rates, as well as the likelihood to re-offend were also discussed. Both also explained that sentencing would be impacted once the offender would become an adult, often handled at the discretion of the court.
On Monday, a detective testified that Devon Erickson, the second suspect in the school shooting, wrote “the voices win” in red nail polish on a closet wall in Erickson’s house when Erickson and McKinney were there just hours before the shooting.
The detective said Erickson told investigators McKinney was the leader of the plans for the shooting, and said he only participated in the shooting, because he was scared McKinney would hurt him. However, the detective said Erickson had plenty of chances to call for help, and he didn’t act on those opportunities, explaining there were also emergency buttons in the school that Erickson saw, and could have pushed, moments before the shooting. Detectives believe both McKinney and Erickson were willing, and not coerced, participants.
Both sides informed the judge they had more witnesses to call into the next week. Proceedings are expected to continue through Tuesday, Nov. 26, in Douglas County District Court.