STEM shooting victims' families take the stand, recounting day of panic, fear

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Yuritzia Ojeda-Ayala casually opened a text as she walked with a student in the elementary school where she served as an assistant principal, not knowing her life was about to change.

In the message, her eighth-grade daughter at STEM School Highlands Ranch said a shooting was underway at the school. She was safe, but Ojeda-Ayala had no idea if her son Gerardo Montoya-Ojeda, then a junior, was injured or alive.

She texted him. She called. No answer. Fear crept in as she called her husband to update him and then went back to calling her son. Finally, he picked up.

“He said, `Mom, I was shot in the head.' His voice was different,” she said while clutching a tissue. “I couldn't understand at first.”

Gerardo answered from inside an ambulance and couldn't talk more, she said. He passed the phone to another student, also injured and being transported with him. They couldn't tell her which hospital they were going to, so Ojeda-Ayala made her best guess and went to Littleton Adventist Hospital.

He wasn't there. As she left, still searching in the busy metro area, she received a call from a doctor saying her son was at Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree, stable, and lucky to be alive.

Hidden behavior

The mother's testimony closed the fifth day in a reverse transfer hearing for Alec McKinney, 16, who's suspected of planning and carrying out the May 7 shooting with his codefendant, Devon Erickson, now 19. In a reverse transfer hearing, attorneys debate whether the case should be sent back to juvenile court from adult court.

McKinney faces 43 charges, including first-degree murder. Kendrick Castillo, 18, died while rushing Erickson with two other students. One of them was Josh Jones, whose mother, Lorie Jones, also testified in the Nov. 22 hearing. Eight students — including Jones and Montoya-Ojeda — were injured in the tragedy.

While prosecutors called victims to the stand, defense attorneys brought in Ashley Williamson, a counselor who held 27 sessions with McKinney between September 2017 and April 2019. The family's goal was to improve his coping skills and address his cutting, she said.

In their time together, he told her about a number of personal problems, including his struggle with gender identity, feeling lonely, that he couldn't make friends and that he only got attention from his mother when he was in crisis.

The counselor knew he had suicidal thoughts, but McKinney said he had not formed a plan to kill himself, she said.

The counselor could recall McKinney and his mother mentioning he heard voices twice in her two years treating him, but she believed the voices were “negative self-talk” and not audible. McKinney did tell her in 2018 he “shared” his brain with someone else, that voices came from a man and a woman. The voices spoke to him every 15 minutes, whispering to him that he was “worthless,” she testified.

In April 2019, he told her he wanted to begin hormone treatment to transition from female to male but hadn't started yet.

Williamson said she thought she'd established rapport and trust with McKinney and believed his mother to be involved and supportive of him.

But Deputy District Attorney Kristine Rolfes walked Williamson through a lengthy list of things McKinney did or said in her time treating him, particularly in the months prior to the shooting, that Williamson confirmed she never knew about.

She wasn't aware he joked about killing people and bombing his school, or that he researched the Columbine massacre, she said in response to Rolfes' questions. She didn't know he talked about how easy it would be to take a gun into Douglas County High School or STEM, Rolfes said.

Williamson also didn't know he'd developed an addiction to Xanax, that allegedly he bought and sold drugs, used marijuana and cocaine, drank alcohol and failed drug tests in the months leading up to the shooting.

The teen's mother, Morgan McKinney, didn't tell the counselor she grounded McKinney multiple times while he sought counseling and found drugs and razors in his room, Williamson testified.

McKinney's friends begged him to get sober, Rolfes said, and he made fun of a friend who asked him to come to Narcotics Anonymous. McKinney mentioned being bullied twice in his two years of counseling, Williamson said, but she didn't believe it to be a significant issue in his life.

In her last session with him, April 16, 2019, they discussed empathy and taking responsibility for one's own behavior, she confirmed with Rolfes. The counselor, when asked by prosecutors, confirmed she can't treat a patient for issues she didn't know about.

'Mom, it was so scary'

In her testimony, Lorie Jones said her son Josh called her from his classroom on May 7 to tell her he was suffering from two gunshots.

“He was trying really hard not to scare me,” she said. “I could hear that he wanted his mom.”

He minimized his injuries, she said, telling her he was bleeding a little, but as the conversation went on, he began to hyperventilate and sounded more anxious. He tried not to move so he wouldn't bleed more, his mother recalled. Neither of them knew how seriously he was hurt, or if it was their last conversation.

Lorie Jones didn't know at the time her son was injured while rushing his classroom's attacker. Those were details she gathered after reaching him in the hospital, where he repeatedly asked if his classmate Kendrick was OK.

“Mom, it was so scary,” he said, not yet knowing Kendrick had died.

Like Ojeda-Ayala, Lorie Jones said the shooting has changed their family forever. Their children are more withdrawn, they said. Ojeda-Ayala's children are scared to go to school or leave the house, she said. Students who are still “so young” shouldn't need to live through such trauma, Lorie Jones said, or confront a school shooter.

“No mother wants to send her kid to school,” Lorie Jones said, “and have them run toward a shooter.”

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