Colorado STEM school shooter sentenced to life, but eligible for parole

“I will never repeat these actions ever again because the harm I caused is truly too much for anyone to bear,” Alec McKinney said.
Image: Shooting Reported At School In Highlands Ranch, Colorado
Students get off buses after being evacuated to the Recreation Center at Northridge after at least seven students were injured during a shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch in Highlands Ranch, Colorado on May 7, 2019.Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images

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By Phil Helsel

A Colorado teenager who opened fire at a Denver-area high school last year in what has been described as an ambush attack was sentenced Friday to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

It is not clear when Alec McKinney, now 17, could be eligible for parole. Because of a relatively new state law that deals with juveniles, it is possible he could eligible in around two decades, officials said.

Killed in the May 7, 2019, shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch was Kendrick Castillo, 18, who has been called a hero for acting with others to stop one of the two shooters.

McKinney apologized to the teen's parents and the other students wounded and traumatized by the attack.

“I will never repeat these actions ever again because the harm I caused is truly too much for anyone to bear,” McKinney said.

Castillo's father said that he could never forgive McKinney.

"I condemn you to hell. I will never forgive you. I hate you,” John Castillo said, according to NBC affiliate KUSA of Denver.

McKinney was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years on the murder charge, and 38 additional years on other counts. The judge had to include parole in the sentence because of his age, according to the station.

A recent state law allows juvenile defendants to apply for a program to be eligible for parole after serving 25 years, officials said.

If that program is used and if credits earned prison apply to that 25-year term, it's possible that McKinney could apply for that three-year program in as little as 18 years, the district attorney said.

McKinney was 16 at the time of the attack. Court documents filed in the case have portrayed him as the planner of the attack. He allegedly told police that he wanted others to suffer trauma like he had.

McKinney pleaded guilty in February to first-degree murder in the death of Castillo and other charges that include six counts of attempted murder. The mandatory minimum was life with the possibility of parole after 40 years minus earned time.

The attack at the school south of Denver was carried out by McKinney and another suspect. Devon Erickson, who was 18 at the time of the shooting, has also been charged.

He has pleaded not guilty, and a trial has been set for September. His lawyers have portrayed McKinney as the ringleader who pressured Erickson to participate.

Because Erickson was an adult at the time of the shooting, if convicted of murder, he will face a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office said.

Kendrick Castillo, 18, died while lunging at the shooter, according to a classmate at STEM School Highlands Ranch in a Denver suburb.Courtesy John Castillo

Six other people were shot by either McKinney or Erickson, and two others were mistakenly shot by a security guard responding to the shooting.

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said he wanted life without parole for McKinney, but he understands the law. "This was an ambush attack on these kids," he said.

George H. Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District, said that he respected the judge and how he approached the sentencing, but wishes more years would have been added to the life sentence.

"The message that I wanted sent to this community — and it's going to go far beyond this community — is that if you engage in the planning and execution of a mass shooting at a school, you should expect the system to try to take from you every single second of your freedom that you have," Brauchler said.

He said the program for juvenile defendants enacted by the state legislature weakened the sentencing structure for juvenile murderers.

"Make no mistake, Kendrick Castillo was murdered, but the goal was to murder everybody in that room," Brauchler said.

John Castillo, Kendrick's father, said after sentencing that he and his wife will dedicate their lives to activism "for helping other families, so that they don't end up where we're at," adding "we wish this on no one."

He said crimes like the ones committed at the high school should be treated as acts of domestic terrorism, and that people should support law enforcement and not defund police departments.

"Evil walked into that room that day, and Kendrick Castillo stepped up and stopped it," Castillo said.

"People are alive today because of his sacrifice," he said. "And Kendrick would not want his mother and I to wallow in sorrow and not take action, and that's what we plan to do."

The Associated Press contributed.