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Wyatt Kent, center front, a performer at Club Q during a mass shooting in November 2022, hugs a person outside the courthouse after a hearing for the shooting suspect Monday, June 26, 2023, in Colorado Springs, Colo. The suspect pleaded guilty in the attack that left five people dead and wounded others just before Thanksgiving Day 2022, at the longtime sanctuary for the LGBTQ+ community in this mostly conservative city. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

COLORADO SPRINGS — An hour before shots rang out at Club Q in November, leaving five people dead and more than a dozen others wounded, Ashtin Gamblin had a fleeting conversation with Anderson Lee Aldrich.

As the self-described “door girl” for the LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs, Gamblin took Aldrich’s entry fee and gave the then-22-year-old a wristband.

Aldrich left the club but later returned — this time wearing tactical gear and wielding multiple weapons. 

“I was nice as can be, made jokes, smiled, laughed,” Gamblin said in a news conference following Aldrich’s sentencing Monday. “Like an hour later I was getting shot by him with no regard for my life.”

Gamblin and other Club Q victims shared their stories of survival, some for the first time, after Aldrich pleaded guilty in the Nov. 19 attack and was sentenced by El Paso County District Judge Michael McHenry to five consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole. It was victims’ first, and possibly only, chance to directly confront Aldrich, now 23. 

Speaking in court and at a news conference after the hearing, victims said they had lasting trauma from the attack. Gamblin’s mom purchased guard dogs and began obsessively calling her daughter. A drag performer who organized a show at the club the night of the attack said sound has become a “personal enemy” and that balloons popping and thunder now cause panic attacks. Another survivor said he’s afraid to go to the grocery store and gas stations.  

Gamblin was shot nine times by Aldrich. She survived by playing dead and hiding behind the body of a coworker, 28-year-old Daniel Aston, who was killed in the shooting.

During the victim impact statements, Gamblin told the court that after the shooter had been subdued by Club Q patrons, she tried desperately to call her husband, who was overseas on a military deployment. In a voicemail she played in court Monday, she could be heard yelling his name repeatedly before hanging up. 

“I kind of wish this was a death penalty state, not because I want him to die but I would like him to sit in a jail cell not knowing when he’s going to die and what his last breath might be,” she said.

“This was deliberate”

Drea Norman was standing by Kelly Loving, 40, one of the five people killed in the shooting, when Aldrich entered the club. 

Once the shots rang out, Norman dropped to the floor and began crawling to find safety. Norman passed another victim, 22-year-old Raymond Green Vance. He was unresponsive.

After the shots stopped, Norman began searching for loved ones in the chaotic club and saw Richard Fierro and Thomas James, two Club Q patrons, holding Aldrich down. They shouted for help because the shooter was starting to crawl away. Norman responded by stomping on Aldrich’s head at least 10 times.

“This was deliberate,” Norman told the judge of the attack, saying that Aldrich seemed excited during the shooting spree. 

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Fierro took his opportunity at the courtroom microphone to talk directly to Aldrich, whose head is covered in scars from the counterattack by Fierro, Norman and James. 

“Every time you see the back of your head be reminded, somebody will get you,” he said. 

Another victim, Ed Sanders, said he was shot in his back and leg during the attack. He talked about the ongoing pain and work he does to care for himself and his injuries now.

“My heart goes on and my life goes on, but life isn’t the same,” Sanders, who started visiting Club Q in 2002, said in court. 

Also killed in the attack were Derrick Rump, 38, and Ashley Paugh, 35. The victims ranged in age from 22 to 40. Rump and Aston worked at Club Q.

Stephanie Clark, Paugh’s sister, recalled in court 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 (Aldrich) would hear every day for the rest of his life,” Clark said. 

Alrich identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, their lawyers have said.

Michael Anderson, who was bartending at Club Q on the night of the shooting, said Aldrich has “broken this community into pieces that may never be repaired. 

“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,” Anderson said in court. 

A bunch of flowers rest outside of a building.
Flowers and signs decorate a memorial outside Club Q Dec. 6, 2022, 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)

A federal court case may follow, Club Q will reopen

In a news conference following the sentencing, leaders from the community and victims commented on the sentencing.

“The threat of the death penalty in the federal system was a big part of what motivated this defendant to take this plea,” El Paso County District Attorney Michael Allen said. “Cases like this are why the death penalty should exist in the state of Colorado.”

Colorado abolished capital punishment in 2020.

At the news conference, the FBI announced it has opened an 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 hate crime 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. 

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.

Matthew Haynes, an owner of Club Q, said at the news conference that the club will reopen in the same location in Colorado Springs. It will include a memorial to the shooting victims and a pride flag flying as high as possible along with metal detectors and “duck and hide areas.”

“This cannot be what defines Club Q in the 20 years of what it has been,” Haynes said. “This person, this act is not what’s going to end Club Q and prevent the next generation from having their safe space — their place to find their friends, their chosen family, their feeling of belonging.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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 Media. She has won awards for her reporting and photography. Elliott graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in editorial journalism and minors in both business and Spanish. She is also an avid rock climber, snowboarder and hiker. Twitter: @ElliottWenzler