As a Nov. 20 hearing for the younger STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting suspect came to a close, individuals from all sides of the tragedy tried to stifle their tears. Parents of students present and injured in the shooting, loved ones of the suspect and one of his defense attorneys all blotted their eyes with tissues.
Veronica Albertoni left barely a dry eye in the courtroom as she spoke about her son Lucas, who was shot twice on May 7.
Lucas, 17 at the time, will live the rest of his life being slowly poisoned by lead-tipped bullets doctors determined they couldn't remove safely, Veronica said.
She worries about his health constantly, and she thinks about the STEM shooting daily. That includes when she drops off her two younger children, who also attend the school.
“I pass the corner where Lucas was bleeding and waiting for help to arrive,” she said.
Throughout her testimony, Alec McKinney sat with a screen in front of him displaying Lucas' photo. His tear-stained face crumpled listening to the mother of one of the victims speak.
It was day three of a reverse-transfer hearing for McKinney, in which defense attorneys are arguing his case should be sent back to juvenile court from adult court. The 16-year-old is accused of attacking the school with his then 18-year-old codefendant Devon Erickson.
Veronica Albertoni's testimony concluded an emotion-packed day as attorneys called not only her but McKinney's mother, Morgan McKinney, to the stand.
In her approximate four-hour testimony, she detailed years of grisly abuse she said she experienced at the hands of Alec's father, Jose Quintana — abuse her children witnessed repeatedly, she said.
A troubled past
A judge determined on Nov. 18 there is enough probable cause to support 43 charges against Alec, including first-degree murder for the death of Kendrick Castillo, 18, who died rushing Erickson. Eight more students were injured.
The week's court proceedings marked a rare display of emotion from McKinney, who is accused of masterminding the shooting and persuading Erickson to help him. In most appearances, he has remained calm and composed.
That's not been lost on John Castillo, Kendrick's father.
Castillo said the teen suspect's emotion seems disingenuous and only directed toward his mother's abuse, not toward the victims he's accused of trying to kill.
“I'm not empathetic to it,” he said, criticizing the use of McKinney's past in the hearing.
People suffer domestic abuse frequently and often come out as better parents, he said, also noting McKinney is not accused of a small crime.
“This is homicide,” he said. “Mass-planned murder.”
Morgan McKinney said her children were typically present for violent altercations between she and their father. She said she did not break off her relationship with him for years — despite his alleged abuse and that her three children witnessed his violent behavior.
She also testified that Alec McKinney told her a few weeks ago he was sexually assaulted at age 7 while on a trip to Mexico with the family. As she spoke of the incident, she paused to bury her face in her hands and wept.
She was not aware of physical abuse toward Alec until that time, she said, except for one instance in 2006 when she suspected his father spanked him with a belt. His mother said she couldn't say for sure if Alec's father struck him because she did not check him for injuries, explaining she didn't want to believe his father would abuse him too.
Morgan McKinney testified Quintana eventually worked as a coyote helping people enter the country illegally. He also did “drug work” she knew was illegal, she told attorneys.
Quintana would sometimes bring the immigrants he was transporting into their home around the children, she said. Both she and Quintana used drugs, including cocaine, while their children were in the home, she said.
Morgan McKinney said Quintana isolated her from her family, refused to let her own a cell phone and didn't want her to keep friends. The beatings she received throughout most of Alec's life involved “full-fist punching” to her head, back, and everywhere she could think of, she said.
“To the point where I didn't want to go anywhere until my bruises healed,” she said.
In one instance, she said her children's father threw her to the ground where she struck her head on a concrete ledge. All three of her children witnessed the incident, she said, including Alec, who ran to her crying, “Mommy, are you OK? Mommy are you OK?”
Morgan McKinney said Alec frequently consoled her when she was abused and was protective of his mother. She did not report the abuse, she said, even when it placed her in the hospital.
Morgan McKinney did not end her relationship with the children's father until 2008, she said. That year, Quintana was arrested after a domestic disturbance in which he threatened her with a knife, she said.
She had she refused to restart a relationship with him, she said. He then forced her and all three of their children into a car, she said. Morgan McKinney said she didn't know where he planned to take them or if he would harm them.
She was able to slip away, telling him she was getting a “security blanket” for a then 5-year-old Alec, but secretly use a phone her mother snuck her previously to call 911.
As the family drove from their Castle Rock apartment, Morgan McKinney noticed an officer parked in the lot and reached across Quintana to honk the horn, she testified in court.
Quintana then attempted to flee law enforcement with the children crying in the backseat but crashed and was arrested. He'd later serve 17-months in a correctional facility for the domestic disturbance, she said.
The 2008 incident drew the attention of the Douglas County Department of Human Services, which opened a child neglect investigation, Alec's defense attorney said. Morgan McKinney was required to get her and Alec counseling and did through AllHealth Network, but canceled seven of his appointments, public defender Nicole Savino said.
The case also resulted in a protection order barring the children from seeing their father, Morgan McKinney said, but the parents disobeyed the court order and still visited each other with the children.
The children's father was deported in 2010, prosecutors and Morgan McKinney said in court. Still, the family made repeated trips to Mexico to see him between 2010 and 2013, the timeframe during which Alec said he was sexually assaulted.
In 2015, Alec became depressed, Morgan said. She was alerted by his school that he was self-harming, and after checking his arms found cuts and scars. Alec was often left to care for his siblings alone, sometimes until midnight or later, she testified.
He grew overwhelmed and that possibly led to cutting, according to testimony from a Douglas County Department of Human Services employee who supervised neglect investigations into the family.
Morgan McKinney did not take Alec to a counselor specializing in self-harm for two years, she said. She also said she paid little attention when Alec was diagnosed with an “adjustment disorder.”
At age 13, Alec came out to his mother as a lesbian through a hand-written note he left on her bed. The note, displayed in court, read “Mom (Please don't be mad).” In 2017, Alec came out as transgender. Until age 13, Alec went by his legal name of Maya.
Waking in tears
Prosecutor Chris Wilcox emphasized in his cross-examination of Morgan McKinney that Alec was not physically abused minus the sexual assault she learned of only recently.
He also noted child services concluded more than one investigation into the family and determined the children were fed, clothed, provided clean shelter and bonded with their mother. Alec has not lived with his father since 2009, the prosecutor confirmed with his mother.
Castillo said he was surprised by the depth of testimony on Nov. 20. He didn't expect as much would be shared about the suspect's upbringing and was shocked by the culture of drug use and violence.
Still, he'll be devastated if the suspect's case is transferred back to juvenile court, he said, calling the shooting terrorism. Castillo's eyes brimmed with tears as he called Veronica Albertoni's testimony heartbreaking. He and his wife also think of the shooting every day, he said.
“My daily routine is waking up in tears, making coffee,” he said. “Listening to my wife get up and talk to a picture, hug it, like he's still with us.”
His plans for the evening were to stop at Kendrick's grave with his wife, he said, like they have every day since Kendrick died.
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