School Shooting Colorado

In this May 8, 2019 file photo bouquets of flowers sit on the sign outside the STEM School Highlands Ranch in Highlands Ranch, Colo. Security procedures at the STEM School Highlands Ranch are under scrutiny amid talks about its charter agreement with a Colorado school district. The contract expires Saturday, June 29.

Judge Theresa Slade sentenced Devon Erickson on Friday to life in prison plus 1,282.5 years for his role in the May 7, 2019 murder of Kendrick Castillo at STEM School Highlands Ranch and the attempted murders of others.

A Douglas County jury convicted Erickson in June on nearly four dozen counts after a three-week trial that saw approximately 60 witnesses testify, including classmates and teachers. By law, Erickson was subject to lifetime imprisonment without parole, and the judge said wanted to send a message of deterrence. 

"There’s nothing that I can do and no sentence that I can impose that will achieve the things that I want to do," Slade said. "The human being in me…would like to take back May 7. That’s the only way to turn back this clock and make folks walking out of here better. We can’t do that."

The judge mentioned that she had received a nearly 600-page presentencing report, along with a thumb drive containing hundreds of victim impact statements, plus 10 additional statements the morning before sentencing. Some statements were from survivors of the numerous prior mass shootings in the United States who were reliving their suffering, she said.

Then came the personal appeals in the courtroom from students, teachers and parents who described the trauma they experience to this day, and their desire for Erickson to never see the world outside of prison again.

Aiden Morrison told Slade he was an eighth grade student in Room 103 when he heard gunshots and yelling. He texted his mom that there was an active shooter.

"I thought that might be the last time I ever talk to her. I thought I might die," Morrison said. He added that he spends his nights trying to avoid sleep in order to suppress nightmares about May 7.

"Devon’s a monster and a failure. Somehow I’ll overcome my PTSD and be able to go out in public with my family again," he told the judge. "But I hope Devon can’t."

Nyki Giasolli read a letter from her daughter, Nui Silberstein. “I’ve spent the last two-and-a-half years trying to piece together some easier way to describe my feelings and emotions when coming to this event," Giasolli read, holding back tears. "Explaining to staff members at my job why they couldn’t pop the air bags near me because it caused flashbacks and anxiety attacks. Having to notify staff members at my college why I needed to visit classrooms before class started so I can find all the exits." 

The other perpetrator of the STEM School murder, Alec McKinney, pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole. McKinney was 16 years old and Erickson was 18 at the time they killed Castillo and wounded eight others. Erickson will turn 21 on Tuesday.

Ethan Kutulas, a student in Room 107 at the time of the shooting, described during the trial Erickson's actions as his class was watching "The Princess Bride" on May 7.

"He was standing at the door closest to me, kind of slightly away from it, and pointed up a gun up and said, 'Nobody f—ing move.' Then Kendrick Castillo slammed him against the wall and I fell to the ground," Kutulas said.

At sentencing, the teacher in Room 107, Lauren Harper, paused before her statement to make prolonged eye contact with Erickson at the defense table. She, too, asked for the maximum punishment.

"I have become afraid of my students," she told Slade. "Students who I never would have second guessed before now scare me."

The sentencing guidelines, said prosecutor and former elected district attorney George Brauchler, ranged from life without the possibility of parole plus 400 years on the low end to life without parole plus 1,276 years on the high end. (Brauchler clarified after sentencing that the upper limit was actually higher.)

The number matters, he argued, given that the STEM School massacre was "the biggest, most horrible act in the history of this county” and that could have resulted in the deaths of many others at the K-12 school.

Erickson's defense attorney said that his client was, in fact, remorseful. Other friends and family members explained that "the Devon I know" was different from the person who committed the STEM School offenses. Erickson's father tearfully said his son was loved unconditionally, and he believed Erickson could be rehabilitated. Erickson's mother blamed her own illness for her inability to be attentive to her son's needs.

However, Slade noted that Erickson himself had made minimal and even "manipulative" statements. "Today is the first day that I've seen you show any kind of emotion," the judge said, when hearing his family talk about what Erickson had lost in his life through his crimes.

She laid the trauma that people feel today — of the dark from being locked in a closet during the shooting, or of rooms with only one exit — at Erickson's feet.

Numerous speakers addressed Erickson directly, condemning his actions as immature, cowardly, arrogant and evil. Some vented their anger about how Erickson and McKinney's actions needlessly and recklessly inflicted pain on the community.

"I hate that your choice, not ours, is why we’re all different and why we're all hurting and broken," said parent Kalissa Braga.

In the same manner that people showed contempt for Erickson, they also praised Castillo, who charged the gunmen, as a hero. Alison Thompson said Castillo was her best friend, and they were both anticipating her entry into the U.S. Airforce Academy's basic training after the school year.

"May 18, 2019, I was supposed to graduate with my best friend," she said of Castillo. "On school breaks, I should've been coming home and making fond memories with my friends, not avoiding my hometown at all costs."

The parents of Castillo, John and Maria Castillo, both spoke, and both termed Erickson a "domestic terrorist."

"If I could trade places with Kendrick, I would," said Maria Castillo. "The pain of living without Kendrick is unbearable. A life without Kendrick is not a life."

Slade noted all of the positive testimony about Kendrick Castillo, and took it one step further.

"He seemed like the kind of kid to me that if you had confided in him that you were struggling in school, Mr. Erickson, he probably would have canceled his own plans to help you," she said. "If you confided you were struggling at home, he probably would have brought you home with him."

Slade added: "Mr. Erickson, I don't believe it makes a difference to you."

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