Mother of Alleged Teenage STEM School Shooter: Our Home Was Abusive, Neglectful

David Zalubowski/AP Photo
A bouquet of flowers sits next to a row of candles outside the STEM School Highlands Ranch late Wednesday, May 8, 2019, in Highlands Ranch, Colo. A fatal shooting took place Tuesday at the charter school south of Denver.

An accused teenage conspirator in a Highlands Ranch school shooting came from a negligent and abusive home where violence, drug use and fear were the norm, his mother testified Wednesday.

Morgan McKinney is Alec McKinney’s mother — the teen is charged with 43 felony counts, including first degree murder, after he and his 18 year-old classmate, Devon Erickson, allegedly opened fire at the STEM school in May.

Nine people were shot, and one classmate, Kendrick Castillo, was killed.

McKinney’s defense attorneys are trying to get the case tried in juvenile court because McKinney was 16 at the time. Prosecutors, led by Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, are arguing he should stand trial as an adult.

If convicted of the charges, the difference would be significant for McKinney. As a juvenile, he’d be facing a sentence of four to seven years. As an adult, he could be imprisoned for decades before becoming eligible for parole.

Under Colorado law, those under 18 accused of a crime are treated differently from adults. But there are certain crimes, like murder, where a District Attorney can send a defendant 16 years or older directly to adult court. 

McKinney’s lawyers are fighting that decision through what’s called a reverse-transfer hearing. It’s like a mini-trial in which both sides lay out their case for where they believe McKinney should be tried. In making the decision, the judge is supposed to weigh several factors, including the seriousness of the offense, the age and maturity of the juvenile, including the juvenile’s home environment

Almost a dozen witnesses have testified the past three days — all called by defense attorneys. Psychologists, counselors, family members, family friends all say McKinney showed signs of trouble early — though no one specifically say he exhibited signs of homicidal behavior. 

They paint a picture of a child who was sexually abused and neglected. McKinney began cutting himself when he was 13 year-old and snuck booze. He asked for help several times and was hospitalized more than once.

McKinney’s father, Jose Quintana, was a coyote, leading undocumented immigrants from Mexico, and a drug mule. He also beat McKinney’s mother regularly, often in front of their children, according to testimony. 

“It got to the point where I didn’t want to go anywhere until the bruises healed,” Morgan McKinney said. 

When McKinney would see his dad beat his mother, he would always run to her and say, “Mommy, are you OK? Are you OK?” Morgan McKinney testified, tearfully. Alec McKinney wept during his mother’s testimony.

Quintana was deported in 2010. 

Despite the violence, McKinney’s mother took the three kids down to see their father in Chihuahua, Mexico every eight weeks for several years after the deportation. Alec McKinney told his mother recently that he was sexually abused during one of those trips, but it was unclear who did it.

McKinney is biologically a female and was given the name Maya. He is transgender and goes by Alec. 

Morgan McKinney said she didn’t notice her child’s behavioral changes and depression until 2010.

“(He) wasn’t as happy as I thought,” Morgan said, using she/her pronouns when talking about her child. 

State officials got involved after Quintana was arrested and Morgan was required to take her child to a counselor. The counselor diagnosed McKinney with adjustment disorder. 

Morgan McKinney testified on Tuesday that she didn’t remember the adjustment disorder diagnosis and then admitted that she wasn’t entirely paying attention to her children during many of these years. 

“I was in my own world,” she said.

When McKinney was 13 and still identifying as female, he wrote a letter to his mother and left it on her bed coming out a lesbian. The note said “Mom, please don’t be mad” at the top and “please don’t hate me” at the bottom.

Morgan McKinney said she tried to be supportive, but resisted when McKinney wanted to cut his hair to look like a boy and wear masculine clothes.

“I wasn’t there yet,” she said. 

In 2015, Alec McKinney told a therapist that he felt “overburdened.” McKinney also was cutting himself. Morgan McKinney said she knew about the cutting, but it took her two years to seek more professional help for her child.

At the time, Alec McKinney spent many evenings watching his two siblings in their Castle Rock apartment while his mother, now in a new relationship, stayed out until the early morning. She also did cocaine and drank heavily in the apartment with her boyfriend while the kids were home.

That relationship ended abruptly, which deeply upset Alec McKinney, his mother testified. 

In 2017, McKinney said she finally took Alec to regular visits with a therapist. The family at that time was living with Morgan’s parents, along with almost 10 other people.

His mother testified that he was hospitalized six times in 2018, mostly for self harm.

CPR's Andrea Dukakis contributed to this report.