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FILE - Noah Reich, left, and David Maldonado, the Los Angeles co-founders of Classroom of Compassion, set up a memorial near Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Nov. 22, 2022, with photographs of the five victims of a mass shooting at the gay nightclub. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

COLORADO SPRINGS —The 23-year-old accused of killing five people and injuring more than a dozen others in November at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs will spend the rest of their life in prison after pleading guilty Monday in the attack, including to first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder.

Anderson Lee Aldrich also pleaded “no contest” to two hate crime charges. 

Aldrich, handcuffed and wearing shackles, admitted to 53 total counts in the Club Q shooting in an El Paso County courtroom filled with victims of the shooting.

As part of the plea deal, Aldrich was sentenced to five consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole, which is mandatory for those who plead guilty to or are convicted of first-degree murder in Colorado. Aldrich also agreed to serve and was sentenced to 46 consecutive 48-year sentences — totaling 2,208 years — for the attempted first-degree murder counts.

“Guilty,” Aldrich calmly and repeatedly said at a courtroom lectern as they formally agreed to the plea deal. “I intentionally and after deliberation caused the death of each victim listed in those counts.”

El Paso District Judge Michael McHenry read the names of the people killed and injured in the shooting as Aldrich admitted guilt. Those killed were: Derrick Rump, Daniel Aston, Kelly Loving, Ashley Paugh and Raymond Green Vance. They ranged in age from 22 to 40. Rump and Aston worked at Club Q.

McHenry immediately moved to formally sentence Aldrich on Monday, and victims and survivors began to make tearful and forceful statements.

“Our family and friends will never be able to watch Daniel grow and enjoy so many milestones of life,” said Sabrina Aston, whose 28-year-old son was killed in the shooting. “You robbed him of ever fulfilling his dreams.”

Sniffs and sobs could be heard throughout the courtroom as the many victims listened to each other’s remarks. Some were shaking their heads and covering their faces. Tissues were being passed back and forth.

The guilty plea seven months after the attack is a remarkably fast resolution to the court proceedings after a mass shooting. It often takes years before a criminal case against a mass shooter is resolved in Colorado. The gunmen in the 2015 Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs and 2021 King Soopers shooting in Boulder, for instance, are still awaiting trial because of delays stemming from questions about their competency. 

But Aldrich, who was initially charged with more than 300 criminal counts in the Nov. 19 shooting, told The Associated Press in a recent interview from jail that they have “to take responsibility for what happened.”

The only way Aldrich, who is nonbinary and uses “they” and “them” as pronouns, could have prevented spending the rest of their life in prison was by mounting an insanity defense. Additionally, Aldrich’s attorneys have all but conceded that their client is guilty and Colorado abolished capital punishment in 2020, leaving little doubt about Aldrich’s fate. 

A “no contest” plea carries the same consequences as a guilty plea, though it lets a defendant avoid admitting guilt.

“Because of the evidence presented, I believe that there’s a high probability of being convicted at trial to those counts,” Aldrich said. “And so I’m pleading no contest.”

Flowers and signs decorate a memorial outside Club Q on Dec. 6, two weeks after a shooting that killed Daniel Aston, Kelly Loving, Ashley Paugh, Derrick Rump and Raymond Green Vance. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The guilty plea and sentencing Monday may not mark the end of the criminal proceedings against Aldrich. In a news conference after the hearing, the FBI announced it has also opened a federal investigation into the shooting with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. 

That signals a federal prosecution may be coming. A federal conviction in the case could carry the death penalty, though the Biden administration hasn’t shown a willingness to pursue capital punishment against defendants. 

The El Paso County District Attorney’s Office said it will not release documents and video footage from the shooting given the pending federal case.

Aldrich, whose head is covered in scars from being subdued by three Club Q patrons who stopped the rampage, provided no information on a motive. The suspect declined to address the court, but through their attorney said they were deeply sorry. Someone sitting in the courtroom gallery responded with an audible whisper: “bullshit.”

Aldrich showed little emotion during Monday’s hearing.

Victims of the shooting told Judge McHenry that their lives have been upended by the attack. Many are still dealing with physical and mental injuries. They deeply miss their loved ones who were killed at random. 

Adriana Vance, Raymond’s mother, said her son, 22, was “kind, loving and gentle.” She told the judge Monday that Aldrich “doesn’t deserve to go on.”

“What matters now is that he never sees the sunrise or sunset,” Adriana Vance said. 

Richard Fierro, an Army veteran who was at Club Q and helped stop Aldrich’s attack, looked directly at Aldrich while speaking during the sentencing phase of Monday’s hearing, calling the shooter a “terrorist.”

“I hope the words I shouted into the back of your head echo in your mind for the rest of your life,” Fierro said, referencing what he told the shooter on the night of the attack.

Richard Fierro gestures while speaking Nov. 21 during a news conference outside his home about his efforts to subdue the gunman in the Nov. 19 shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Raymond Vance was the boyfriend of Fierro’s daughter, Kassandra. She, too, was at Club Q the night of the attack but escaped with minor injuries.

“I will never be able to unsee my future laying in a casket before me,” Kassandra Fierro told the court Monday.

Matthew Haynes, one of the owners of Club Q, said he wasn’t at the club when the shooting happened but that he has watched surveillance camera recordings of the attacks many times. 

“This defendant went to Club Q several times before Nov. 19,” Haynes said. “You were served food and drinks by the very bartenders — Daniel, Derek — that you would later return and murder in cold blood. Your head carries the scars of our community fighting back. May every single time you look in the mirror you remember what you did.” 

El Paso County District Attorney Michael Allen told Judge McHenry that Aldrich’s attempts to express remorse ring hollow. 

“He knew exactly what he was doing and was clear-headed while doing it,” Allen said. “When first responders arrived on scene he immediately started blaming one of the patrons for carrying out the shooting.”

Allen said the weapons — an AR-15-style rifle and a handgun — Aldrich carried during the shooting are indications of deliberation: They were unserialized, so-called “ghost guns” with the exception of a handgun frame that had been purchased by the suspect’s mother in Florida.

“If not for the brave actions of three people, many more victims would have died inside Club Q on Nov. 19,” Allen said. “No amount of prison in a case like this comes close to being enough to repair the damage. This plea agreement achieves the highest measure of justice possible under the law in the state of Colorado.”

Authorities revealed during court proceedings earlier this year that Aldrich visited Club Q at least six times prior to the attack and that Aldrich had an aversion to the LGBTQ community. Surveillance footage showed that Aldrich entered the club about 10:15 p.m. on the night of the shooting, stayed for a few minutes, and then left before returning around midnight wearing a ballistic vest and carrying guns.

Shooting targets submitted as evidence
Evidence submitted by the prosecution in the preliminary hearing Feb. 22 for Anderson Lee Aldrich, the suspect in the Club Q shooting Nov. 19, included photos of targets investigators say were found in Aldrich’s apartment hours after the shootings. (Provided by 4th Judicial District)

Aldrich opened fire immediately upon entering the club. The shooting stopped after Aldrich was subdued by Club Q patrons. Aldrich has been jailed since being arrested on the night of the shooting.

Aldrich was arrested by SWAT officers in 2021 after allegedly loading bullets into a Glock pistol and warning their frightened grandparents not to interfere with an elaborate plan to stockpile guns, ammo, body armor and a homemade bomb and commit mass violence. “You guys die today and I’m taking you with me,” Aldrich allegedly said, court documents show. “I’m loaded and ready.”

Aldrich also threatened to become the “next mass killer.” 

A judge dismissed the case against Aldrich in July 2022, however, after prosecutors were unable to serve subpoenas on witnesses, namely the suspect’s mother and grandparents. Aldrich petitioned for the case to be sealed when the charges were dropped, a request that was granted. 

Aldrich was banned from possessing or purchasing guns until the 2021 case was dismissed under a mandatory protection order that was issued by a judge. Authorities seized two firearms from Aldrich as part of the 2021 arrest: a pistol without a serial number, called a “ghost gun,” and an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle. 

The weapons were never returned, but Aldrich was able to procure more guns elsewhere and use them to carry out the Nov. 19 attack on dancing clubgoers.

“When you commit a hate crime, you are targeting a group of people for their simple existence,” McHenry said before handing down the sentence. “Hate crimes are worse than other crimes. Like too many other people in our culture, you chose to find a power that day behind the trigger of a gun. Your actions reflect the deepest malice of the human heart.”

Elliott Wenzler is a reporter for the Colorado Sun, covering local politics, the state legislature and other topics. She also assists with The Unaffiliated newsletter. Previously, she was a community reporter in Douglas County for Colorado Community...

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....