By Keith Coffman
CASTLE ROCK, Colo. (Reuters) - The older of two students accused of fatally shooting a classmate and wounding eight others in a suburban Denver high school made his initial court appearance on Wednesday, a day after his arrest on suspicion of murder and attempted murder.
The 18-year-old defendant being charged as an adult, Devon Erickson, sat silently at a small table with his head bowed and his hands shackled to his waist, flanked by two defense lawyers as a pair of sheriff's deputies stood just behind them.
It was not immediately clear whether his accused accomplice, who is under the age of 18, would be charged in adult court or as a juvenile.
The two teenagers are accused of opening fire on fellow students in two classrooms at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, about 25 miles (40 km) south of Denver.
Erickson's attorneys asked the judge to allow defense investigators to oversee processing of the crime scene by law enforcement officers, but prosecutors objected. Douglas County District Court Judge Theresa Slade denied that request.
No plea was entered in the case. The defendant, whose friends told the Denver Post that he had acted in musical theater and performed as lead singer in several rock bands, was ordered to return to court on Friday.
Slight of build with his longish, unkempt black hair partially dyed bright lavender, Erickson appeared in court wearing an orange-red jail uniform.
Erickson was being held on suspicion of a single count of first-degree murder and 29 counts of attempted murder, according to court records. Eight students were wounded in the shooting and survived.
The attack occurred less than a month after the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in nearby Littleton, about 5 miles from Highlands Ranch, carried out by two students who shot 13 people to death before committing suicide.
The 18-year-old student killed in Tuesday's shooting, identified by his family as Kendrick Ray Castillo, was a senior just days away from graduation, police said on Wednesday as they continued to search for a motive in the attack.
He was one of several students, according to eyewitness accounts, who charged at the two assailants in an attempt to disarm them.
Another, Brendan Bialy, is a student enrolled in the U.S. Marine Corps' delayed entry program, NBC News reported.
Denver's ABC television affiliate, citing an unidentified police source, reported on Tuesday that one of the suspects, apparently the younger of the two, was born male, but identified as female and had been bullied for it.
Sheriff Tony Spurlock declined to answer a reporter's question about whether the younger suspect was transgender.
"Right now we are identifying the individual as a female, because that's where we're at," he said. "We originally thought the juvenile was a male by appearance."
Spurlock said the suspect had been identified as male "before the detectives were able to get the medical - and detectives were able to speak to her."
Precisely what happened inside the STEM school remained unclear.
Spurlock said there was a "struggle" as officers entered the building, and some students said one victim was shot in the chest as he tried to tackle a shooter.
A man who identified himself as Fernando Montoya said his 17-year-old son, a junior at STEM, was shot three times when a shooter walked into his classroom and opened fire.
"He said a guy pulled a pistol out of a guitar case and started to shoot," Montoya told the Denver TV station.
The bloodshed shocked the affluent suburb of Highlands Ranch. Parents and students had considered the school a safe place for its 1,850 pupils ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade.
"It still doesn’t seem real to me. It completely came out of nowhere," Aiden Beatty, a friend of Erickson's told the Denver Post, recounting that he broke down sobbing in his car when he heard Erickson had been arrested in the shooting. "I was really close with him. We were best friends."
The attack came a week after a gunman opened fire on the Charlotte campus of the University of North Carolina, killing two people and wounding four others.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely in New York and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Bill Trott, Susan Thomas and G Crosse)