COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — One by one, nearly two dozen victims stood in a courtroom to confront the person who pleaded guilty to murdering five people and injuring 17 others in an attack last year on a nightclub that served as a sanctuary for the LGBTQ+ community in Colorado Springs.
Some cried, others seethed with anger. They called Anderson Lee Aldrich coward, monster, terrorist.
Family and friends of the deceased and survivors who witnessed the shooter unleash terror at Club Q a week before Thanksgiving made sure during Monday’s emotional hearing that Aldrich won’t start a life prison sentence without confronting the truth of the many lives ruined or inalterably changed.
“This monster next to me decided to come into my job and our community safe space and begin hunting us down as if our lives were meaningless,” said Michael Anderson, who was bartending that night. “He has broken this community into pieces that may never be repaired.”
Aldrich pleaded guilty in state court to five counts of murder and 46 counts of attempted murder — one for each person at Club Q during the attack. Aldrich also pleaded no contest to two hate crimes.
Aldrich — who identifies as non-binary and uses they and them pronouns — did not reveal a motivation during Monday’s hearing and declined to address the court during the sentencing.
The guilty plea followed a series of jailhouse phone calls from Aldrich to The Associated Press expressing remorse.
But District Attorney Michael Allen said Aldrich’s statements rang hollow. The prosecutor also rejected the notion that Aldrich was non-binary, saying there was “zero evidence” prior to shooting to support that.
“I think it was a stilted effort to avoid any bias motivated or hate charges,” said Allen. Allen said the defendant displayed “extreme hatred” for the LGBTQ+ community and repeatedly called Aldrich a coward at a press conference following the sentencing.
Over hours of wrenching testimony Monday, the survivors and relatives of the dead talked about the recurring trauma they’ve experienced and how it’s disrupted their jobs and emotional wellbeing. One expressed forgiveness for Aldrich while another, a woman whose daughter’s boyfriend was killed, told Aldrich: “The devil awaits with open arms.”
Many who spoke said they wished Colorado still had the death penalty so it could be used on Aldrich. Several lamented the gun violence that has become so prevalent in the US.
Richard Fierro, a military veteran who joined others to stop Aldrich’s shooting spree last November at Club Q, stared at Aldrich as he spoke, his voice raising with palpable anger.
“I want this terrorist to have visions of his terror to haunt him for the rest of your life,” said Fierro.
Drea Norman recalled the loud pops heard that night, the smell of gunpowder filling the club and the muzzle flashes that kept going. Crawling on all fours, Norman stumbled on to Raymond Greene Vance, already shot and without a pulse, then hid inside a freezer.
When the shooting stopped, Norman stepped around Vance and found bartender Derek Rump fatally shot on the patio. Then Norman heard shouts — Fierro calling for help keeping Aldrich down.
“I stood above him. My only thought was, ‘throw my foot down, stop him,’ and after what I imagine was ten strikes, I stopped,” Norman said.
People in the courtroom wiped away tears as the judge explained the charges and read the names of the victims. Judge Michael McHenry also issued a stern rebuke of Aldrich’s actions, connecting it to societal woes.
For some, the killings had rekindled memories of the 2016 massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that killed 49 people.
Aldrich’s guilty pleas came 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 is working with the US Justice Department’s civil rights division on a separate investigation into the attack, authorities confirmed.
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.
Outside the courtroom, Joshua Thurman said he worries that someone will open fire again whether he’s at the grocery store, gas station or his apartment. Thurman said he’s in therapy and dealing with drinking problems.
“Even though I smile and laugh, I hurt,” Thurman said. “It’s so hard to not want to pick up a bottle. Eight, nine in the morning.”
Aldrich originally was charged in state court with more than 300 state counts, including murder and hate crimes. As authorities consider separate federal charges, the US Attorney’s Office has requested no documents in the case be released, said Colorado Springs Police Chief Adrian Vasquez.
Stephanie Clark, the sister of Ashley Paugh, recalled her 11-year-old niece being hopeful that Paugh would be found safe after the shooting. The young girl’s hope dissolved with cries of “no, no, no” and “please do something” after finding out her mother was gone.
“That is something I wish he would hear every day for the rest of his life,” Clark said.
Associated Press reporters Michael Tarm, out of Chicago, and Matthew Brown, out of Denver, contributed to this story.