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Shooter who killed 5 at a Colorado LGBTQ+ club pleads guilty to 50 federal hate crimes

By COLLEEN SLEVIN, Associated Press
Published: June 18, 2024, 9:57am

DENVER — The shooter who killed five people and injured 19 others at a nightclub in Colorado Springs pleaded guilty to 50 federal hate crime charges on Tuesday.

Anderson Lee Aldrich, 24, is already serving life in prison after pleading guilty to state charges in the 2022 shooting last year. Federal prosecutors have focused on proving that the attack at Club Q — a sanctuary for LGBTQ+ people in the mostly conservative city — was premeditated and fueled by bias.

Aldrich entered the guilty pleas under a deal with prosecutors that allows the shooter to avoid the death penalty and instead be sentenced to more multiple life sentences for the hate crimes plus a total of 190 years on gun charges and other counts.

Defense attorneys in the state case, who said their client is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, argued that Aldrich was drugged up on cocaine and medication at the time. In phone calls from jail with The Associated Press last year, Aldrich didn’t answer directly when asked whether the attack was motivated by hate, saying only, that’s “completely off base,” and did not reveal a motivation to the AP or in state court.

“The admission that these were hate crimes is important to the government, and it’s important to the community of Club Q,” said prosecutor Alison Connaughty.

Club Q was more than just a bar, Connaughty said.

“It’s a special gathering place for anyone who needed community and anyone who needed that safe place,” she said. “We met people who said ‘this venue saved my life and I was able to feel normal again.’”

Defense lawyer David Kraut said there’s no singular explanation for why Aldrich carried out the shooting, but he mentioned childhood trauma, a sometimes abusive mother, online extremism, drug use and access to guns as contributing factors.

U.S. District Judge Charlotte Sweeney, the first openly gay federal judge in Colorado, said she would hear victim testimony before deciding whether to accept the sentencing agreement.

Less than a month before the shooting, Aldrich coordinated a spam email campaign against a former work supervisor who is gay, according to recent court filings by prosecutors. They also accuse Aldrich of disseminating someone else’s manifesto, which included racist and antisemitic statements and falsely claimed being transgender is a mental illness.

Aldrich spent over $9,000 on weapons-related purchases from at least 56 vendors between September 2020 and the attack on Nov. 19, 2022, according to new evidence cited by prosecutors.

Investigators found a hand drawn map of Club Q with an entry and exit point marked was found inside Aldrich’s apartment, evidence that was also presented in state court. There was also a black binder of training material entitled “How to handle an active shooter.”

Defense attorneys in the state case, who said their client is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, argued that Aldrich was drugged up on cocaine and medication at the time.

In a series of phone calls from jail with The Associated Press last year, Aldrich didn’t answer directly when asked whether the attack was motivated by hate, saying only, that’s “completely off base.” Aldrich did not reveal a motivation to the AP or in state court and declined to speak during that sentencing.

That Aldrich is nonbinary is a claim rejected by some of the victims as well as the district attorney who prosecuted Aldrich in state court, who called it an effort to avoid hate crime charges.

They include Ashtin Gamblin, who worked the front door that night and remains in physical therapy after being shot nine times. A true member of the LGBTQ+ community would know about the discrimination and the mental health challenges they face and wouldn’t attack its members in such a sanctuary, she said.

“To come into the one safe place to do that, you’re not part of the community. You just wanted the community gone,” Gamblin said. She’s among the survivors expected to speak during the hearing about how the attack still affects their lives.

Aldrich visited the club at least eight times before the attack, including stopping by an hour and a half before the shooting, according to prosecutors. Just before midnight, Aldrich returned wearing a tactical vest with ballistic plates and carrying an AR-15 style rifle and started firing immediately. Aldrich killed the first person in the entryway, shot at bartenders and customers at the bar and then moved onto the dance floor, pausing to reload the rifle’s magazine.

The shooting was stopped by a Navy officer who grabbed the barrel of the suspect’s rifle, burning his hand, and an Army veteran who helped subdue Aldrich until police arrived, authorities have said.

There had been a chance to prevent such violence: Aldrich was arrested in June 2021, accused of threatening their grandparents and vowing to become “the next mass killer ″ while stockpiling weapons, body armor and bomb-making materials. But Aldrich’s mother and grandparents refused to cooperate, and prosecutors failed to serve subpoenas to family members that could have kept the case alive, so the charges were eventually dismissed.

A felony conviction in the case would have prevented Aldrich from legally buying more firearms. But District Attorney Michael Allen pointed out that most of the gun components used in the shooting were untraceable ghost gun parts that did not require Aldrich to pass a background check to acquire. Two guns seized from Aldrich in the 2021 case were still held by the sheriff’s office at the time of the Club Q shooting, he said.

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Justifying the proposed sentence, prosecutors wrote: “The horrors that the victims and survivors experienced at the hands of the defendant cannot be overstated. The victims and survivors, who were celebrating Transgender Day of Remembrance, were attacked when they least suspected it by someone who had stood in their presence mere hours before.”

Aldrich, who will be returned to state prison after the hearing, is being sentenced federally under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded federal law in 2009 to include crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Gamblin wanted the death penalty as an acknowledgement of how many people’s lives have been harmed. She said some friends don’t want to go out to events anymore and others struggle to keep jobs that involve working with the public.

“We want nothing more to go back to normal, but we know it’s not going to happen,” she said.

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