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

DENVER — The shooter who killed five people and injured 19 others at an LGBTQ+ club that was a refuge in the conservative city of Colorado Springs pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes and was sentenced to 55 life terms in prison on Tuesday, but once again declined to apologize or say anything to the victims’ families.

Prosecutors nevertheless highlighted the importance of Anderson Lee Aldrich being forced to take responsibility for the hatred toward LGBTQ+ people that they say motivated the mass shooting. As part of a plea agreement, Aldrich repeatedly admitted on Tuesday to evidence of hate.

“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.

Aldrich attacked a place that was much more than a bar, according to Connaughty, who described Club Q as a safe space for people in the LGBTQ+ community.

“We met people who said ‘this venue saved my life and I was able to feel normal again,’” she said. The sentence against Aldrich “sends a message that acts of hate will be met with severe consequences.”

Aldrich, 24, is already serving life in prison after pleading guilty to state charges last year. Federal prosecutors focused on proving that the Nov. 19, 2022 attack at the haven for LGBTQ+ people was premeditated and fueled by bias.

U.S. District Judge Charlotte Sweeney, the first openly gay federal judge in Colorado, heard heart-wrenching testimony from victims before accepting the agreement, which also includes a total of 190 years on gun charges and other counts.

Several of the survivors said they wanted the death penalty, but Sweeney explained that capital punishment had not been sought by prosecutors and would need to have been imposed by a jury. Instead, the life sentences will mean no drawn-out appeals and no more hearings where a hate crime defendant might become a symbol. She said Aldrich will never get out of prison and will face “a miserable future, with a miserable end.”

The survivors delivered harrowing accounts of the shooting and the fear and anguish they’ve lived with since then. Several called for Aldrich’s execution. The father of one victim said Aldrich “should be shot like a dog.”

Adriana Vance, whose son Raymond Green Vance was killed, said she wakes up screaming.

“All I have left of his now is the urn that I speak to every night,” she said. Aldrich “knows nothing but hate” and deserves death, she said.

One survivor — who had been celebrating a birthday and performing as a drag queen that night — expressed forgiveness for Aldrich, and focused on the community’s capacity to find joy despite the pain.

“I’ve had to look at my partner in a casket, attend funerals of my friends and deal with unspeakable trauma,” said Wyatt Kent. “I see this person as a hurt person, created by failures of systems around them designed to help. I forgive you. We, the queer community, we are the resilient ones.”

Aldrich, appearing in an orange prison uniform with head shaved and wrists handcuffed, faced the victims as they spoke but declined to make his own statement when given the chance. Defense attorney David Kraut made no explicit mention of hate or bias in his comments.

Kraut said there was no singular explanation for what motivated the mass shooting, but mentioned childhood trauma, an abusive mother, online extremism, drug use and access to guns as factors that increased the risk his client would engage in extreme violence.

Defense attorneys in the state case had pushed back against hate charges, arguing Aldrich was drugged with cocaine and medication. 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.” Aldrich previously pleaded no contest to state hate crime charges without admitting guilt.

Connaughty said evidence of Aldrich’s hate for the LGBTQ+ community included two websites created by Aldrich to post hate-related content, a target found inside the defendant’s house with a rainbow ring that had bullets in it and the defendant’s sharing of recordings of 911 calls from the 2016 killing of 49 people at the gay-friendly Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Aldrich also studied other mass shootings, accumulated weapons, shared an online manifesto from a mass shooter who referred to being transgender as a “disease,” and coordinated a spam email campaign against a former work supervisor who is gay, the prosecutor said.

Prosecutors said Aldrich spent over $9,000 on weapons-related purchases from dozens of vendors between September 2020 and the attack. A hand drawn map of Club Q with an entry and exit point marked was found inside Aldrich’s apartment, along with a black binder of training material entitled “How to handle an active shooter.”

Defense attorneys in the state case said Aldrich is nonbinary, and uses they/them pronouns. A state prosecutor called that an effort to avoid responsibility for hate crimes.

Ashtin Gamblin, who worked the front door of Club Q and was shot nine times, told The AP that a true member of the LGBTQ+ community would know about the discrimination and mental health challenges its members face and wouldn’t attack such a sanctuary.

Aldrich visited the club at least eight times before returning in a tactical vest and carrying an AR-15 style rifle, first killing a person in the entryway and then shooting at bartenders and customers before targeting people on the dance floor.

“The defendant was prepared to inflict the maximum amount of damage in the minimum amount of time,” Connaughty said, adding that Aldrich fired 60 rounds in less than a minute.

A Navy officer grabbed the rifle barrel, burning his hand, and an Army veteran helped subdue Aldrich until police arrived.

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.

Aldrich was sentenced Tuesday 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.

“I’m sure the shooter thinks he took our spirit that night,” said Ed Sanders, who was shot in the back and leg. “You cannot destroy our community by killing individuals. You can’t kill our love and spirit.”

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