The person who killed five people at a Colorado Springs nightclub in 2022 was sentenced to life in prison on Monday, after victims called the shooter a "monster" and "coward" who hunted down revelers in a calculated attack on a sanctuary for the LGBTQ+ community.
During an emotional courtroom hearing packed with victims and family members, Anderson Lee Aldrich pleaded guilty to five counts of murder and 46 counts of attempted murder – one for each person at Club Q on the night of the shooting. Aldrich also pleaded no contest to two hate crimes, one a felony and the other a misdemeanor.
"This thing sitting in this court room is not a human, it is a monster," said Jessica Fierro, who’s daughter’s boyfriend was killed that night. "The devil awaits with open arms."
The guilty plea comes just seven months after the shooting and spares victim’s families and survivors a long and potentially painful trial.
People in the courtroom wiped away tears as the judge explained the charges and read out the names of the victims.
"You are targeting a group of people for their simple existence," said Judge Michael McHenry.
A mourner brings flowers to leave at the growing memorial where hundreds of flowers, balloons, signs and remembrances have been left for the victims of the Club Q shooting on November 21, 2022 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richard
"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, and malice is almost always born of ignorance and fear," the judge continued.
Relatives and friends of victims were able to give statements in court to remember their loved ones and survivors spoke about how their lives were forever altered just before midnight on Nov. 19 when the suspect walked into Club Q and indiscriminately fired an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle.
The father of a Club Q bartender said Daniel Aston had been in the prime of his life when he was shot and killed.
"He was huge light in this world that was snuffed out by a heinous, evil and cowardly act," Jeff Aston said. "I will never again hear him laugh at my dad jokes."
Daniel Aston's mother, Sabrina, was among those who said they would not forgive the crimes.
Another forgave Aldrich without excusing the crime.
"I forgive this individual, as they are a symbol of a broken system, of hate and vitriol pushed against us as a community," said Wyatt Kent, Aston’s partner. "What brings joy to me is that this hurt individual will never be able to see the joy and the light that has been wrought into our community as an outcome."
Aldrich’s body shook slightly as the victims and family members spoke. The defendant also looked down and glanced occasionally at a screen showing photos of the victims.
Aldrich did not reveal a motivation and declined to address the court during the sentencing part of the hearing. Defense attorney Joseph Archambault said "they want everyone to know they’re sorry."
The guilty plea follows a series of jailhouse phone calls from Aldrich to The Associated Press expressing remorse for the shooting.
District Attorney Michael Allen said Aldrich’s statements were self-serving and rang hollow.
"The 'why' matters. These victims were targeted for who they were and are," Allen said to the judge. "Hatred coupled with criminal action will not be tolerated."
Aldrich originally was charged with more than 300 state counts, including murder and hate crimes. The U.S. Justice Department was considering pursuing 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.
The status of those deliberations were unclear Monday and no federal charges were mentioned during the court hearing.
The line to get through security and into the courthouse early Monday snaked through the large plaza outside as victims and others queued up to attend the hearing. One man wore a t-shirt saying "Loved Always & Never Forgotten."
The attack at Club Q came over a year after Aldrich was arrested for threatening their grandparents and vowing to become "the next mass killer " while stockpiling weapons, body armor and bomb-making materials.
The charges in that case were eventually dismissed after Aldrich’s mother and grandparents refused to cooperate with prosecutors, evading efforts to serve them with subpoenas to testify. Aldrich was released and authorities kept two guns. But there was nothing to stop Aldrich from legally purchasing more firearms.
Aldrich told AP in one of the interviews from jail they were on a "very large plethora of drugs" and abusing steroids at the time of the attack. But they did not answer directly regarding the hate crimes charges. When asked whether the attack was motivated by hate, Aldrich said that was "completely off base."
District Attorney Allen said Aldrich knew exactly what they were doing during the attack and had drawn diagrams in advance indicating the best way to carry it out.
That night, when Ashtin Gamblin stared into Aldrich’s face, shots were already going off.
"I nuzzled up with my friend's body, soaking my clothes in his blood, terrified that this person might come back," said Gamblin, who was shot nine times. "I hope for the worst things possible in prison, and even that won’t be good enough."