COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — A suspect who killed five people at a Colorado Springs nightclub in 2022 was sentenced to life in prison for murder on Monday, after victims called the defendant a “monster” who hunted down LGBTQ+ patrons in a calculated attack.
Anderson Lee Aldrich pleaded guilty to five counts of murder and 46 counts of attempted murder – one for each person inside 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, who’s 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.
People in the courtroom wiped away tears as the judge explained the charges and read out the names of the victims.
“You are targeting a group of people for their simple existence,” said Judge Michael McHenry.
“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 judge continued.
Relatives and friends of victims were able to give statements in court to remember their loved ones and 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.
“I intentionally and after deliberation caused the death of each victim,” Aldrich told the judge.
The guilty plea follows a series of jailhouse phone calls from Aldrich to The Associated Press expressing remorse and the intention to face the consequences for the shooting.
Several survivors told the AP about the plea agreement after being approached about Aldrich’s comments to AP. They said prosecutors had notified them that Aldrich, who is nonbinary and uses they and them pronouns, would plead guilty to charges that would ensure a sentence of life behind bars.
Aldrich originally was charged with more than 300 state counts, including murder and hate crimes. The U.S. Justice Department is considering pursuing federal hate crime charges, according to a senior law enforcement official familiar with the matter who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing case.
The line to get through security early Monday snaked through the large plaza outside the courthouse 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 had been arrested for threatening their grandparents and vowing to become “the next mass killer.” In June 2021, Aldrich’s grandparents told authorities that they were warned not to stand in the way of a plan to stockpile guns, ammo, body armor and a homemade bomb. Aldrich was then arrested after a standoff with SWAT officers that was livestreamed on Facebook.
However, the charges against Aldrich were thrown out in July 2022 after Aldrich’s mother and grandparents, the victims in the case, refused to cooperate with prosecutors, evading efforts to serve them with subpoenas to testify, according to court documents unsealed after the shooting. Other relatives told a judge they feared Aldrich would hurt their grandparents if released, painting a picture of an isolated, violent person who did not have a job and was given $30,000 that was spent largely on the purchase of 3D printers to make guns, the records showed.
Aldrich was released from jail then and authorities kept two guns — a ghost gun pistol and an MM15 rifle — seized in the arrest. But there was nothing to stop Aldrich from legally purchasing more firearms, raising questions immediately after the shooting about whether authorities should have sought a red flag order to prevent such purchases.
The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office said it would not have been able to seek a court order stopping Aldrich from buying or possessing guns because the 2021 arrest record was sealed after the charges were dropped. There was no new evidence that they could use to prove that Aldrich posed a threat “in the near future,” the sheriff’s office said.
Investigators later revealed that the two guns Aldrich had during the Club Q attack — the rifle and a handgun — appeared to be ghost guns, or firearms without serial numbers that are homemade and do not require an owner to pass a background check.
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 only that was “completely off base.” Aldrich’s attorneys, who have not disputed Aldrich’s role in the shooting, have also pushed back on hate being the reason.
Some survivors who listened to the recorded phone calls saw Aldrich’s comments as an attempt to avoid the death penalty which still exists in the federal system. Colorado abolished it in 2020 and life without prison is now the mandated sentence for first-degree murder in the state. They objected to Aldrich’s unwillingness to discuss a motive and their use of passive, general language like “I just can’t believe what happened” and “I wish I could turn back time.”