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.
Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, sat upright in a chair during the hearing and appeared alert. In an earlier court appearance just a few days after the shooting, the defendant’s head and face were covered with bruises and Aldrich was slumped over and had to be prompted by attorneys to respond to questions from a judge.
Investigators said Aldrich entered Club Q, a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community in the mostly conservative city of Colorado Springs, just before midnight on 19 November 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 had been held on hate crime charges but prosecutors had said previously they weren’t sure if 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 there was evidence to support the charge.
Allen did not detail the charges in Tuesday’s hearing but said they included “many counts of bias-motivated crimes.” He declined at a later news conference to discuss what evidence prosecutors found to back the hate crimes charges.
“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.”
Judge Michael McHenry ordered the arrest warrant affidavit in the case to be unsealed on Wednesday, over the objections of Aldrich’s attorney who said he was concerned about the defendant’s right to a fair trial due to publicity surrounding the case.
Aldrich, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns according to defense court filings, was arrested at the club by police. They 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.
Experts say someone who is nonbinary can be charged with a hate crime for targeting fellow members of the same group because hate crime laws are focused on the victims, not the perpetrator. But bringing a hate crime case to 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, Frank Pezzella, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said.
“It’s got to be more than he shot up Club Q,” he said.
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 lost to violence.
More than a year before the shooting, Aldrich was arrested on allegations of making a bomb threat that led to the evacuation of about 10 homes. Aldrich threatened to harm their own family with a homemade bomb, ammunition and multiple weapons, authorities said at the time. Aldrich was booked into jail on suspicion of felony menacing and kidnapping, but the case was apparently later sealed and it’s unclear what became of the charges. There are no public indications that the case led to a conviction.