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Gunman who killed five people at Colorado LGBTQ+ club pleads guilty to federal hate crime

DENVER – Anderson Lee Aldrich, who killed five people and injured 19 others at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs, is prepared to plead guilty to both hate crimes and gun possession charges on Tuesday after new evidence emerged of anti-gay slurs and gun purchases before the mass shooting.

Aldrich, now 24, is already serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to state charges last year. Aldrich also pleaded guilty to hate crimes in that case. Federal prosecutors have focused on proving that the attack at Club Q – a haven for LGBTQ+ people in the predominantly conservative city – was premeditated and fueled by prejudice.

The deal between the prosecution and defense would allow Aldrich to avoid the death penalty if he pleads guilty to 50 hate crimes and weapons possession charges. Instead, he will receive multiple life sentences in addition to a 190-year prison sentence. U.S. District Judge Charlotte Sweeney, the first openly gay federal judge in Colorado, will decide whether to accept the sentence.

Less than a month before the shooting, Aldrich coordinated a spam email campaign targeting a former workplace manager who is gay, according to recent court filings from prosecutors. They also accuse Aldrich of distributing another person's manifesto that contained racist and anti-Semitic statements and falsely claimed that being transgender was a mental illness.

According to new evidence relied on by prosecutors, Aldrich spent more than $9,000 on gun purchases from at least 56 dealers between September 2020 and the November 19, 2022 attack.

Investigators found a hand-drawn map of Club Q in Aldrich's apartment with entrances and exits marked. This evidence was also presented in state court. There was also a black folder with training materials titled “How to Deal with an Active Shooter.”

Defense attorneys in the state's case, who said their client is nonbinary and uses “they”/”them” pronouns, argued that Aldrich was under the influence of cocaine and drugs at the time.

In a series of phone calls with the Associated Press from prison last year, Aldrich did not directly answer questions about whether the attack was motivated by hate, saying only that it was “completely out of line.” Aldrich did not reveal a motive to the AP or in state court and declined to speak during the sentencing.

Some of the victims, as well as the district attorney who prosecuted Aldrich in state court, rejected the claim that Aldrich was nonbinary, calling it an attempt to avoid hate crime charges.

Among them is Ashtin Gamblin, who was working the front door that night and is still in physical therapy after being shot nine times. A true member of the LGBTQ+ community would know about the discrimination and mental health issues they face and would not attack its members in such a sanctuary, she said.

“When you go to the only safe place to do that, you're not part of the community. You just wanted the community to go away,” said Gamblin, one of the survivors who will speak during the hearing about how the attack still affects their lives.

Aldrich visited the club at least eight times before the attack, including an hour and a half before the shooting, prosecutors said. Shortly before midnight, Aldrich returned wearing a tactical vest with ballistic plates and carrying an AR-15-style rifle and immediately began shooting. Aldrich killed the first person in the entryway, shot bartenders and patrons at the bar, then entered the dance floor, where he paused to reload the rifle's magazine.

The shooting was stopped by a Marine officer who grabbed the barrel of the suspect's rifle, burning his hand, and an Army veteran helped subdue Aldrich until police arrived, authorities said.

There was a chance to prevent such violence: Aldrich was arrested in June 2021. He was accused of threatening his grandparents and vowing to become “the next mass murderer” while stockpiling guns, body armor and bomb-making materials. But Aldrich's mother and grandparents refused to cooperate, and prosecutors failed to serve subpoenas to family members who could have kept the case alive, so the charges were eventually dropped.

A felony conviction in that case would have prevented Aldrich from legally purchasing additional firearms. But District Attorney Michael Allen pointed out that most of the gun parts used in the shooting were untraceable ghost gun parts that Aldrich did not have to go through a background check to acquire. Two guns taken from Aldrich in the 2021 case were still in the sheriff's office's possession at the time of the Club Q shooting, he said.

In justifying the proposed sentence, prosecutors wrote: “The horrors inflicted on the victims and survivors at the hands of the defendant cannot be overstated. The victims and survivors, celebrating Transgender Day of Remembrance, were attacked when they least expected it by someone who had been standing in their presence just hours earlier.”

Aldrich, who will be returned to state prison after the hearing, will be sentenced at the federal level 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.

Gamblin wanted the death penalty as recognition of how many lives were damaged. She said some of her friends no longer want to go to events and others are struggling to keep jobs that require them to interact with people.

“We want nothing more than for everything to go back to normal, but we know that's not going to happen,” she said.