A year after STEM shooting, parents find comfort at grave

Gun Rights

LITTLETON, Colo. (AP) — Every day, John and Maria Castillo drive to the Seven Stones Botanical Gardens Cemetery in Littleton to be with their only child, Kendrick.

Maria cannot kiss her son anymore, so she kisses his smiling, bespectacled prom picture perched atop his grave. John Castillo plants a kiss on the grave stone, which is adorned with all of Kendrick’s favorite things: a Chick-fil-A cow, a miniature Jeep, a can of Coke. It is their daily routine ever since their son, an 18-year-old high school senior, was killed last May when he leapt from his seat in English class to take down an armed classmate.

The Castillos sometimes bring over Adirondack chairs, a cooler of water, some fresh Columbine flowers. Some summer nights, they’ll sit with Kendrick for hours, the sun setting over the towering Rocky Mountains. The cemetery workers know the Castillos, who often are the last visitors to leave, and they will lock up after the parents feel it’s time to go home.

In the winter, with the snow deep and the wind howling, John and Maria clear a patch in front of his grave before they say goodnight to their son.

“When we’re there, we feel good,” John Castillo said. “I can’t imagine not doing it. Our love is that great for our son.”

On May 7, 2019, two teenage students barged into the STEM School Highlands Ranch with pistols and a rifle. On that day, Kendrick Castillo did not listen when his armed classmates told everyone not to move. Instead, he charged them, likely sparing the lives of other students but sacrificing his own.

That day, the Castillos became part of a group that former Columbine High School principal Frank DeAngelis calls the “club no one wants to be a member of.”

Since their son died, the Castillos have advocated for new legislation in the Capitol. They’ve sat in courtroom pews and on witness stands. They’ve appeared in newspapers and on TV and radio, making sure Kendrick’s heroism was not in vain. They have taken in their son’s friends, celebrating their accomplishments and worrying about them like they are their own children.

But in keeping Kendrick’s memory alive, in advocating for change, in figuring out how to cope with their new normal, the Castillos are still trying to find their way.

“That big wall of fog that athletes come into from the tunnel? We’re at the back end of that,” John Castillo said. “Everything is very clear: Kendrick’s death is real.”

Castillo paused.

“Man, the pain is unbelievable.”

“It’s important they come around so I know they’re okay”

Kendrick’s memory fills the Castillo home.

His parents haven’t touched anything in his childhood bedroom, leaving it exactly the way Kendrick had it when he went to school for the last time.

Their living room transformed into a memorial for their son — pictures and artwork sent from the Red Cross, U. S. Marines and strangers from around the world.

The Castillos keep Kendrick’s beloved Jeep topped off with gas at all times, and they tell their son’s friends that if they ever want to drive to the mountains or take a trip to Red Rocks, just grab the keys.

Throughout the past year, a close group of Kendrick’s friends visited often. When they return home from college, their first stop was Kendrick’s grave or the Castillo’s house.

John Castillo likes to hear updates from his son’s friends or their parents, listing off their accomplishments with pride: One made the All-American swim team; another is in the Air Force Academy; a third is doing mission work in Colombia.

“It means a lot to me,” John Castillo said. “It’s important they come around so I know they’re okay. I know their bond with Kendrick, and I worry about them. I know how I’m dealing with it, but some of these kids are thousands of miles away in college. I hope they’re gonna be okay.”

These were all good kids, Castillo said.

“I don’t know what went wrong that this even had to happen.”

Advocating on an island

Although he’s still grasping to understand why the shooting happened, John Castillo has dedicated himself to stopping future school shootings. The journey, he’s discovered, is a lonely path — especially in Democratic-controlled Colorado.

Many parents and students who have become vocal in the wake of school shootings around the United States have advocated for stricter gun regulation and have battled the National Rifle Association.

Teens from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — where 17 students were killed and 17 injured in February 2018 — have become household names as they brought the national conversation on gun violence to the forefront.

“I think people would prefer I would follow the scenarios taken in places like Parkland,” Castillo said. “Following along with Moms Demand Action and other gun control groups… but I don’t feel that way.”

Castillo in January testified at the Colorado Capitol in favor of a bill allowing more people to be armed in schools, arguing that this could have prevented shootings like the one that killed his son. The Republican-backed legislation died in committee.

He has also spoken out about the need for tougher sentences for juveniles, including the 16-year-old STEM shooter. The teen pleaded guilty to murder and other charges and faces 40 years to life with the possibility of parole.

“It’s really not justice,” Castillo said. “It’s a slap in the face.”

Parents in other communities affected by school shootings have been reluctant to jump on board with his ideas, Castillo said.

“I stand alone,” he said. “I’m kind of an outlier when it comes to this. It’s not very popular, and it is hard. They’ll smile because they feel my pain, but they won’t rally behind me because it’s not where they want to go.”

While one shooter has pleaded guilty, the 18-year-old charged in connection with the May 7 attack still faces a trial, which has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Castillo supported the death penalty for him, but 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler chose not to pursue it.

Coping with loss and commemorating Kendrick

Through hours of court proceedings, Brauchler has seen the Castillo family seated in their customary positions behind the prosecutors’ table. They never miss a hearing.

“These court proceedings are the last formal business of their son’s life,” Brauchler said. “When this process ends, the attention fades away and all the support systems are not at the same level. The solitude, the loneliness, the permanence really starts to take root and sink in. I always worry about the victims after our part of the process is over.”

As they deal with the devastating loss, the Castillos have leaned on a host of people from different walks of life, including faith leaders, politicians, media and families from Santa Fe High School in Texas, where in May 2018 eight students and two teachers were fatally shot and 13 others were wounded.

But cobbling together a fulfilling life has been immensely painful. John Castillo does the talking in public, Maria standing quietly by his side. In November, though, it was Maria Castillo who testified in a court hearing for the 16-year-old shooter, explaining through intermittent gasps and sobs how her life will never be the same.

“I don’t want to eat. I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to work,” she told the judge. “I wish I could trade places with him.”

“She’s just a wreck,” John Castillo said.

Neither has returned to work. John spent 31 years at the Marriott International as a chief engineer, while Maria was a chef at the Ritz Carlton hotel.

John Castillo says he’s thought about what it would be like to return to his old job, where he supervised building maintenance, IT work and hotel renovations.

“It was a fun environment,” he said. “To be in hospitality, you have to have that personality to be exuberant. I don’t know what that looks like now.”

His emotions, he said, are all over the place. He sometimes doesn’t recognize the person he’s become.

“I see COVID and people dying, and I don’t have that piece of fear,” Castillo said. “It has been ripped away from me. I don’t care what people think, whether it’s high level politicians or whoever. The devastation of murder has removed that. It’s troublesome to me, because that’s not who I am. I’m a different person now.”

For the first anniversary of Kendrick’s death, the Castillos had planned a large rally and vigil on the steps of the state Capitol, but the pandemic has changed all that. Instead, a small group of Kendrick’s friends will meet them at the cemetery for a prayer service and bagpipes. John Castillo will say a few words.

The family will not be taking part in any STEM School remembrance, John Castillo said, adding that they have not felt supported by school officials.

The couple is planning on selling their home in Denver so they can live closer to the cemetery, Castillo said. If and when he goes back to work, John Castillo still is going to make the daily drive to the foothills to see his son.

“That’s what we have to do,” he said. “That’s rest of our lives. Everything has been taken from us.”

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