Colorado Springs LGBTQ+ club mass killer gets life in prison, victim says ‘devil awaits’ defendant
Jun 25, 2023, 9:07 PM | Updated: Jun 26, 2023, 4:14 pm
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — The person who killed five people at a Colorado Springs nightclub in 2022 was sentenced to life in prison on Monday, after victims called the shooter a “monster” and “coward” who hunted down revelers in a calculated attack on a sanctuary for the LGBTQ+ community.
During an emotional courtroom hearing packed with victims and family members, Anderson Lee Aldrich pleaded guilty to five counts of murder and 46 counts of attempted murder – one for each person at Club Q on the night of the shooting. Aldrich also pleaded no contest to two hate crimes, one a felony and the other a misdemeanor.
“This thing sitting in this court room is not a human, it is a monster,” said Jessica Fierro, whose daughter’s boyfriend was killed that night. “The devil awaits with open arms.”
The guilty plea comes just seven months after the shooting and spares victim’s families and survivors a long and potentially painful trial.
More charges could be coming: The FBI confirmed Monday it was working with the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division on a separate investigation into the attack.
People in the courtroom wiped away tears as the judge explained the charges and read out the names of the victims. Judge Michael McHenry also issued a stern rebuke of Aldrich’s actions, connecting it to societal woes.
’You are targeting a group of people for their simple existence,” McHenry said. “Like too many other people in our culture, you chose to find a power that day behind the trigger of a gun, your actions reflect the deepest malice of the human heart, and malice is almost always born of ignorance and fear.”
The killings rekindled memories of the 2016 massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that killed 49 people.
Relatives and friends of victims were able to give statements in court Monday to remember their loved ones. Survivors spoke about how their lives were forever altered just before midnight on Nov. 19 when the suspect walked into Club Q and indiscriminately fired an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle.
The father of a Club Q bartender said Daniel Aston had been in the prime of his life when he was shot and killed.
“He was huge light in this world that was snuffed out by a heinous, evil and cowardly act,” Jeff Aston said. “I will never again hear him laugh at my dad jokes.”
Daniel Aston’s mother, Sabrina, was among those who said they would not forgive the crimes.
Another forgave Aldrich without excusing the crime.
“I forgive this individual, as they are a symbol of a broken system, of hate and vitriol pushed against us as a community,” said Wyatt Kent, Aston’s partner. “What brings joy to me is that this hurt individual will never be able to see the joy and the light that has been wrought into our community as an outcome.”
Aldrich’s body shook slightly as the victims and family members spoke. The defendant also looked down and glanced occasionally at a screen showing photos of the victims.
Aldrich — who identifies as nonbinary and uses they and them pronouns — did not reveal a motivation and declined to address the court during the sentencing part of the hearing. Defense attorney Joseph Archambault said “they want everyone to know they’re sorry.”
The guilty plea follows a series of jailhouse phone calls from Aldrich to The Associated Press expressing remorse for the shooting.
District Attorney Michael Allen said Aldrich’s statements were self-serving and rang hollow. And the prosecutor rejected the notion that Aldrich was nonbinary.
“There’s zero evidence prior to the shooting that he was nonbinary,” said Allen, who repeatedly called Aldrich a coward. “He exhibited extreme hatred for the people in the LGBTQ+ community, and so I think it was a stilted effort to avoid any bias motivated or hate charges.”
Allen told the judge that the victims were targeted “for who they were an are.”
“Hatred coupled with criminal action will not be tolerated,” he added.
Aldrich’s no contest plea on hate crimes charges effectively has the same impact as a conviction under Colorado law and doesn’t absolve them of responsibility.
Aldrich originally was charged with more than 300 state counts, including murder and hate crimes. The U.S. Justice Department has been considering federal hate crime charges.
The status of those deliberations were unclear Monday but FBI special agent Mark Michalek confirmed there was an ongoing investigation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office has requested no documents in the case be released, said Colorado Springs Police Chief Adrian Vasquez.
Allen said the federal death penalty was a “big part of what motivated the defendant” to plead guilty.
However, the Colorado plea deal and sentence would not preclude U.S. authorities from charging Aldrich with a federal crime that carries a death sentence, explained Robert Dunham, former head of the Death Penalty Information Center and now an adjunct professor of death penalty law at Temple Law School.
Double jeopardy, the prohibition against trying someone twice for the same crime, wouldn’t apply, because federal and state jurisdictions aren’t the same and because the charges wouldn’t be identical. It isn’t clear what specific crime Aldrich would face.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Colorado said it could not comment on ongoing investigations.
The line to get through security and into the courthouse early Monday snaked through the large plaza outside as victims and others queued up to attend the hearing. One man wore a t-shirt saying “Loved Always & Never Forgotten.”
The attack at Club Q came over a year after Aldrich was arrested for threatening their grandparents and vowing to become “the next mass killer ” while stockpiling weapons, body armor and bomb-making materials.
The refused to cooperate with prosecutors, evading efforts to serve them with subpoenas to testify. Aldrich was released and authorities kept two guns. But there was nothing to stop Aldrich from legally purchasing more firearms.
Aldrich told AP in one of the interviews from jail they were on a “very large plethora of drugs” and abusing steroids at the time of the attack. But they did not answer directly regarding the hate crimes charges. When asked whether the attack was motivated by hate, Aldrich said that was “completely off base.”
District Attorney Allen said Aldrich knew exactly what they were doing during the attack and had drawn diagrams in advance indicating the best way to carry it out.
He emphasized that Aldrich didn’t get any concessions in the plea agreement – sentenced to the maximum of five consecutive life sentences plus 2,208 additional years for the 46 counts of attempted murder. That amounts to the second longest sentence in state history behind only the one given the person who killed 12 people at a movie theater in a Denver suburb in 2012, Allen said.
That night, when Ashtin Gamblin stared into Aldrich’s face, shots were already going off.
“I nuzzled up with my friend’s body, soaking my clothes in his blood, terrified that this person might come back,” said Gamblin, who was shot nine times. “I hope for the worst things possible in prison, and even that won’t be good enough.”
Associated Press reporters Michael Tarm, out of Chicago, and Matthew Brown, out of Denver, contributed to this story.