Details in 2021 case with Colorado shooter suggest missteps

Dec 15, 2022, 3:53 AM | Updated: 6:34 pm
In this image taken from El Paso County District Court video, Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, center, sit...

In this image taken from El Paso County District Court video, Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, center, sits during a court appearance in Colorado Springs, Colo., Tuesday, Dec. Nov. 6, 2022. Aldrich, the suspect accused of entering a Colorado gay nightclub clad in body armor and opening fire with an AR-15-style rifle, killing five people and wounding 17 others, was charged by prosecutors Tuesday with 305 criminal counts including hate crimes and murder. (El Paso County District Court via AP)

(El Paso County District Court via AP)

DENVER (AP) — The prosecution of the Colorado gay nightclub shooter for allegedly kidnapping and threatening to kill their grandparents in 2021 was moving toward a plea deal as defense attorneys reported “great progress” in Anderson Aldrich’s therapy for PTSD, but the case quickly collapsed and was dismissed months later, according to court documents obtained by The Associated Press.

Charges against Aldrich — who had stockpiled explosives and allegedly spoke of plans to become the “next mass killer ” before engaging in an armed standoff with SWAT teams — were thrown out during a four-minute hearing in July in which the prosecution didn’t even argue to keep the case alive.

Judge Robin Chittum, who received a letter last year from relatives warning that Aldrich was “certain” to commit murder if freed, granted defense attorneys’ motion to dismiss the case because a deadline was looming to bring it to trial. There was no discussion at the hearing about Aldrich’s mental health treatment, violent past or exploring options to compel Aldrich’s grandparents and mother to testify.

It is unknown what happened with Aldrich’s therapy. The last mention in court hearings was in January.

On Nov. 19, police say the 22-year-old Aldrich attacked Club Q in Colorado Springs, killing five people and wounding 17 with an AR-15-style rifle before being disarmed and subdued by patrons.

Details of the 2021 failed prosecution — laid out in 12 court hearing transcripts obtained by the AP — paint a picture of potential missteps in the case against Aldrich and raise more questions about whether enough was done to stop the recent mass shooting.

Talk of a plea agreement evaporated by this summer as defense attorneys continually reminded the judge that a trial deadline approached. Prosecutors failed to successfully serve a subpoena to testify on Aldrich’s 69-year-old grandmother, who was bedridden in Florida. And there’s scant discussion in the transcripts of efforts by prosecutors to subpoena other potential witnesses — including Aldrich’s mother, grandfather and a fourth victim listed in court documents but not identified.

Alan Dershowitz, an attorney and Harvard law professor, said it’s extremely hard to predict violent crimes in the future, but Aldrich’s case is a rare example of when the evidence was so overwhelming for past and potential future crimes that the suspect “clearly should have been confined.”

“This does not seem like a hard case,” said Dershowitz. “This seems like a case of prosecutorial incompetence.”

Howard Black, public information officer for the district attorney’s office, said Thursday that he cannot share information about the kidnapping case because it’s part of the current investigation. District Attorney Michael Allen has previously said his office did everything it could to prosecute the case, including trying to subpoena the defendant’s mother, but has repeatedly declined to elaborate.

Chittum’s judicial attendant Chad Dees said the judge declined comment.

The transcripts reviewed by AP do not include any reference to subpoenas being pursued prior to April this year — around the time plea deal negotiations fell through.

That left little time to get papers in the hands of the grandmother under speedy trial rules, raising questions about how well the district attorney’s office handled the case.

“The prosecutors proceeded toward a prosecution, and then seem frozen in amber at a critical stage,” said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. “Most prosecutors see the service of subpoenas as enhancing with negotiations. It conveys the severity of the case.”

Turley also wondered why there was little mention in the transcripts about attempts to serve subpoenas to the grandfather and mother.

“It’s not clear why the grandmother is the lynchpin to the case when there were other possible witnesses,” he said.

During the 2021 standoff, Aldrich, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns according to defense attorneys, allegedly told the frightened grandparents about firearms and bomb-making material in their basement. Aldrich vowed not to let them interfere with plans to “go out in a blaze.”

Aldrich livestreamed on Facebook a subsequent confrontation with SWAT teams at the house of mother Laura Voepel, where the defendant eventually surrendered, was arrested and had weapons seized. The FBI had received a tip on Aldrich a day before the threat but closed out the case just weeks later and no federal charges were filed.

By August 2021, when Aldrich bonded out of jail, the grandparents were describing the suspect as a “sweet young” person, according to Allen, the district attorney. At two subsequent hearings that fall, defense attorneys described how Aldrich was attending therapy sessions for trauma, PTSD and mental health and was on medications that made them lethargic, the transcripts show.

In an October 2021 courtroom exchange, Chittum told Aldrich to “hang in there with the meds.”

“It’s an adjustment period for sure,” Aldrich replied, to which the judge replied, “Yeah it will settle, don’t worry. Good luck.”

The transcripts do not reveal why Aldrich was being treated. More than six years ago, Aldrich changed their name as a teenager, after filing a legal petition in Texas seeking protection from a father with a criminal history including domestic violence against Aldrich’s mother. The request for a name change came months after Aldrich — then Nicholas Brink — was apparently targeted by online bullying that ridiculed Brink over their weight and lack of money.

Court transcripts show no further talk of a plea deal by this May. A prosecutor told the court that month that a subpoena server communicated directly with Aldrich grandmother Pam Pullen, who said she was sick and would get back to him. The assistant district attorney handling the case asked for the trial to be continued citing the “serious charges.”

Prosecutors didn’t explain in court hearings what they had done to try and serve Aldrich’s mother, who lives in Colorado Springs and told a friend of Aldrich that she kept evading service, or Pullen’s husband, who was caring for her in Florida.

In June a different prosecutor told Judge Chittum that authorities still were trying to serve Pullen. The next month, with the speedy trial deadline fast approaching on July 27, yet another prosecutor told the judge that the district attorney’s office had left Pullen voicemails but not spoken directly with her.

On July 5, Chittum dismissed all charges for “failure to prosecute” during a four-minute hearing. The assistant district attorney attending the hearing had asked for the trial to be continued but did not raise any objections when Chittum instead dismissed the case.

To Dershowitz, the case’s dismissal on the grounds that subpoenas couldn’t be served on key victims is a poor excuse.

“I’ve seen so many cases where the prosecution go to extraordinary lengths to deal with issues like this,” he said. “If they wanted to serve them, they could’ve done it … and they could’ve figured out a way of more effectively prosecuting (Aldrich).”

While Dershowitz added that it’s impossible to confidently say whether the Club Q shooting could have been avoided if successful prosecution was brought in the 2021 case, he added that “there’s sufficient likelihood here that this could have been prevented.”

Aldrich later tried to reclaim guns seized in the 2021 threat, but they were not returned, according to authorities. Soon after the charges were dropped, Aldrich boasted of having regained firearms and showed former roommate Xavier Kraus two rifles, body armor and incendiary rounds, Kraus previously told AP.

Aldrich was charged last week with 305 criminal counts, including hate crimes and murder. Aldrich’s public defender has declined to talk about the case pursuant to Colorado judiciary rules.

____

Condon reported from from New York, Balsamo from Washington and Brown from Billings, Mont.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Details in 2021 case with Colorado shooter suggest missteps