DENVER – 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.
The counts against Anderson Lee Aldrich include 48 hate crime charges, one for each person known to have been in the club at the time.
Investigators say Aldrich, 22, entered Club Q, a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community in the mostly conservative city of Colorado Springs, just before midnight on Nov. 19 and began shooting during a drag queen’s birthday celebration. The killing stopped after patrons wrestled the suspect to the ground, beating Aldrich into submission, they said.
Aldrich sat upright during Tuesday's hearing and appeared alert. In an earlier court appearance just a few days after the shooting, the defendant was slumped over — head and face covered with bruises — and had to be prompted by attorneys to respond to questions from a judge.
The shooting came more than a year after Aldrich was arrested following a standoff with SWAT teams after authorities say Aldrich threatened to stockpile guns, ammo and body armor to become the “next mass killer.” But charges were dropped, the record is sealed and prosecutors say they can’t legally talk about what happened.
Of the 48 hate crime charges, 27 counts involve injuries and 21 involve people fearing injury or property damage. In addition to those killed or wounded by gunfire, police have said five people had non-gunshot injuries and other victims had “no visible injuries.”
Club Q's co-owner, Matthew Haynes, said the filing of 305 charges “graphically illustrates how heinous and horrific this attack was on our community."
To Haynes, dozens of letters on his desk filled with negative comments, some saying the shooter was doing God’s work, reinforces his concerns about those he said propagate hate.
“Those feelings are still not condoned by the far-right, the leaders are not unanimously standing up in this country and saying, ‘Hey, no hate, this is too much,’” said Haynes. “How many more victims does there have to be?”
Aldrich had been held on hate crime charges following the attack but prosecutors had said previously they weren’t sure whether those counts would stick because they needed to assess if there was adequate evidence to show it was a bias motivated crime.
District Attorney Michael Allen had noted that murder charges would carry the harshest penalty — likely life in prison — but also said it was important to show the community that bias motivated crimes are not tolerated if evidence supports the charge.
At a news conference after the hearing, Allen declined to discuss what evidence prosecutors found to back the hate crimes counts. However, he said a recent change in Colorado law allows offenders to be charged with hate crimes even if they are only partially motivated by bias.
“If it was not for that change we would probably not be able to charge it in this case,” he said.
Judge Michael McHenry ordered the arrest warrant affidavit to be unsealed Wednesday, over the objections defense attorney Joseph Archambault who cited concern's about his client’s right to a fair trial due to publicity surrounding the case.
Aldrich is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, according to defense court filings. They were arrested at the club by police and have not entered a plea or spoken about the events.
Allen said the suspect being nonbinary was “part of the picture” in considering hate crime charges but he wouldn’t elaborate.
“We are not going to tolerate actions against community members based on their sexual identity,” Allen said. “Members of that community have been harassed, intimidated and abused for too long.”
Experts say a nonbinary individual can be charged with a hate crime for targeting fellow members of the LGBTQ community because hate crime laws are focused on the victims, not the suspect. But obtaining a hate crime conviction can be difficult, because prosecutors must prove what motivated the defendant, a higher standard than usually required in court.
Colorado prosecutors will need concrete evidence such as statements Aldrich may have made about the shooting, said Frank Pezzella, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“It’s got to be more than (they) shot up Club Q,” he said.
Haynes said he is encouraged by assurances offered by the district attorney to prosecute the case to the full extent of the law.
The co-owner, who remembers Christian protesters outside Club Q when it first opened in 2003, also lauded police and the FBI for being sensitive to victims’ preferred pronouns and chosen names. He added that the mayor’s office is working with the co-owners toward remodeling Club Q and installing a memorial for the victims.
“Twenty years ago this would have been very, very different,” said Haynes.
According to witnesses, Aldrich fired first at people gathered at the club’s bar before spraying bullets across the dance floor during the attack, which came on the eve of an annual day of remembrance for transgender people targeted by violence.
Associated Press writer Jesse Bedayn contributed to this report from Denver. Bedayn is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.