By Jim Mustian and Jesse Bedayn, The Associated Press
COLORADO SPRINGS — The suspect in a mass shooting at a Colorado Springs gay nightclub is expected to strike a plea deal to state murder and hate charges that would ensure at least a life sentence for the attack that killed five people and wounded 17, several survivors told The Associated Press.
Word of a possible legal resolution of last year’s Club Q massacre follows a series of jailhouse phone calls from the suspect to the AP expressing remorse and the intention to face the consequences at the next scheduled court hearing this month.
“I have to take responsibility for what happened,” 23-year-old Anderson Lee Aldrich said in their first public comments about the case.
Federal and state authorities and defense attorneys declined to comment on a possible plea deal. But Colorado law requires victims to be notified of such deals, and several people who lost loved ones or were wounded in the attack told the AP that state prosecutors have given them advance word that Aldrich will plead guilty to charges that would ensure the maximum state sentence of life behind bars.
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Prosecutors also recently asked survivors to prepare for the June 26 hearing by writing victim-impact statements and steeling themselves emotionally for the possible release of the Club Q surveillance video of the attack.
“Someone’s gone that can never be brought back through the justice system,” said Wyatt Kent, who was celebrating his 23rd birthday in Club Q when Aldrich opened fire, gunning down Kent’s partner, Daniel Aston, who was working behind the bar. “We are all still missing a lot, a partner, a son, a daughter, a best friend.”
Jonathan Pullen, the suspect’s step-grandfather who plans to watch the upcoming hearing on a livestream, said Aldrich “has to realize what happened on that terrible night. It’s truly beginning to dawn on him.”
Aldrich faces more than 300 state counts, including murder and hate crimes. And the U.S. Justice Department is considering filing federal hate crime charges, according to a senior law enforcement official familiar with the matter who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing case. It’s unclear whether the anticipated resolution to the state prosecution will also resolve the ongoing FBI investigation.
Some survivors who listened to the suspect’s recorded comments to the AP lambasted them as a calculated attempt to avoid the federal death penalty, noting they stopped short of discussing a motive, put much of the blame on drugs and characterized the crime in passive, generalities such as “I just can’t believe what happened” and “I wish I could turn back time.” Such language, they said, belied by the maps, diagrams, online rants and other evidence that showed months of plotting and premeditation.
“No one has sympathy for him,” said Michael Anderson, who was bartending at Club Q when the shooting broke out and ducked as several patrons were gunned down around him. “This community has to live with what happened, with collective trauma, with PTSD, trying to grieve the loss of our friends, to move past emotional wounds and move past what we heard, saw and smelled.”
Terror erupted just before midnight on Nov. 19 when the suspect walked into Club Q, a longtime sanctuary for the LGBTQ community in this mostly conservative city of 480,000, and fired an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle indiscriminately. Disbelief gave way to screaming and confusion as the music continued to play. Partygoers dove across a bloody dance floor for cover. Friends frantically tried to protect each other and plugged wounds with napkins.
The killing only stopped after a Navy petty officer grabbed the barrel of the suspect’s rifle, burning his hand because it was so hot. An Army veteran joined in to help subdue and beat Aldrich until police arrived, finding the shooter had emptied one high-capacity magazine and was armed with several more.
Aldrich, who since their arrest has identified as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they and them, allegedly visited Club Q at least six times in the years before the attack. District Attorney Michael Allen told a judge that the suspect’s mother made Aldrich go to the club “against his will and sort of forced that culture on him.”
Allen also has said the suspect administered a website that posted a “neo-Nazi white supremacist” shooting training video. Online gaming friends said Aldrich expressed hatred for the police, LGBTQ people and minorities and used anti-Black and anti-gay slurs. And a police detective testified that Aldrich sent an online message with a photo of a rifle scope trained on a gay pride parade.
Defense attorneys in previous hearings have not disputed Aldrich’s role in the shooting but have pushed back against allegations it was motivated by hate, arguing the suspect was drugged up on cocaine and medication the night of the attack.
“I don’t know if this is common knowledge but I was on a very large plethora of drugs,” Aldrich told the AP. “I had been up for days. I was abusing steroids. … I’ve finally been able to get off that crap I was on.”
Aldrich didn’t answer directly when asked whether the attack was motivated by hate, saying only that’s “completely off base.”
Even a former friend of Aldrich found their remarks to be disingenuous. “I’m really glad he’s trying to take accountability but it’s like the ‘why’ is being shoved under the rug,” said Xavier Kraus, who lived across the hall from Aldrich at a Colorado Springs apartment complex.
The AP sent Aldrich a handwritten letter several months ago asking them to discuss a 2021 kidnapping arrest following a standoff with a SWAT team, a prosecution that had been dismissed and sealed despite video evidence of Aldrich’s crimes. In that case, just months before the Club Q shooting, they threatened to become “the next mass killer” and stockpiled guns, ammo, body armor and a homemade bomb. The incident was livestreamed on Facebook and prompted the evacuation of 10 nearby homes as authorities discovered a tub with more than 100 pounds of explosive materials.
The alleged shooter, who lived with their grandparents at the time and was upset about their plans to move to Florida, threatened to kill the couple and “go out in a blaze,” authorities said. “You guys die today and I’m taking you with me,” they quoted the suspect as saying. “I’m loaded and ready.”
The charges were dismissed even after relatives wrote a judge warning that Aldrich was “certain” to commit murder if freed. District Attorney Allen, facing heavy criticism, later attributed the dismissal of the case to Aldrich’s family members refusing to cooperate and repeatedly dodging out-of-state subpoenas.
In response to AP’s letter, Aldrich first phoned a reporter in March and asked to be paid for an interview, a request that was declined. They called back late last month, days after prosecutors wrote in a court filing that there was “near-unanimous sentiment” among the victims for “the most expedient determination of case-related issues.”
In a series of six calls, each limited by an automated jail phone system to 15 minutes, the suspect said: “Nothing’s ever going to bring back their loved ones. People are going to have to live with injury that can’t be repaired.”
Asked why it happened, they said, “I don’t know. That’s why I think it’s so hard to comprehend that it did happen. … I’m either going to get the death penalty federally or I will go to prison for life, that’s a given.”
While the AP normally would not provide a platform to someone alleged to have committed such a crime, editors judged that the suspect’s stated intent to accept responsibility and expression of remorse were newsworthy and should be reported.
Former Club Q bartender Anderson was among survivors who told prosecutors they wanted a fast resolution of the criminal case.
“My fear is that if this takes years, that prevents the processing and moving on and finding peace beyond this case,” he said. “I would love this wrapped up as quickly as possible under the guarantee that justice is served.”
AP Writer Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report. Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.