COLORADO SPRINGS — The suspect accused of killing five and wounding 18 inside a Colorado Springs LGBTQ nightclub appeared in court for the first time Wednesday and was ordered held without bond while facing preliminary murder and hate-crime charges.
The rampage on Saturday night shattered the fragile sense of security that Club Q, one of only two local gay bars, offered a community that has long faced discrimination in this bastion of American conservatism.
Aldrich is a 22-year-old with a tumultuous past, made opaque by a name change, sealed court records and a scarce recent online footprint. The initial arrest charges included five counts of murder and five counts of committing a bias-motivated crime. Those are considered preliminary, and formal charges could differ, said Michael J. Allen, the district attorney who represents the area.
As the court hearing in Colorado Springs occurred, another American city, halfway across the country, was convulsed in similar violence. Police in Chesapeake, Va., said a gunman had killed six people in a Walmart late Tuesday. The two terrible episodes, separated by about 72 hours and 1,600 miles, were the latest mass killings to wound a nation so often struck by public spasms of violence.
So far this year, there have been 36 shootings in which four or more people were killed, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a research group. That number, reached more than a month before the year’s end, far exceeds the totals from each of the last three years. This year, those shootings have left at least 208 people dead.
An hour before the court heard from Aldrich, city officials and advocates unfurled a 25-foot Pride flag above the front steps of Colorado Springs City Hall. It was the same historic flag displayed at the Supreme Court after same-sex marriage was affirmed in 2015 and in Orlando after the 2016 mass killing at the Pulse nightclub.
The symbolism was striking for a place once known as the “hate city,” where for decades anti-LGBTQ Christian fundamentalist groups and local leaders fought against gay rights.
“As I see this flag above me, what I remember is the many times that this building chose to deny the existence of LGBTQ people,” Leslie Herod, a Colorado Springs native and the first gay African American elected to the state’s legislature, said at the flag’s unveiling. “That it took a tragedy like this to have an LGBTQ flag in this building is wrong.”
As Herod spoke, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers (R) stood on the steps to her right, hands clasped in front of him. As Colorado’s attorney general, a post he held for 10 years, Suthers fought in court to bar same-sex marriage in the state, suing the Boulder County clerk for issuing same-sex marriage licenses in 2014.
“Knowing that John Suthers has fought against LGBTQ equality since I’ve been aware, and seeing him stand to the side here — it struck me,” Herod said.
Suthers did not speak at the event. In an emailed statement afterward, Suthers said: “I believe everyone has the right to live in a place where they are safe, and I stand with our community as we are all together grieving the senseless loss of life that occurred at Club Q.”
The Club Q attack came during a period of increasing anti-LGBTQ laws and rhetoric, and advocates have said such activity often inspires violence.
Police said Aldrich was wielding a pistol and an assault-style rifle during the attack, which ended when the gunman was subdued by club patrons minutes after entering the establishment, firing a weapon.
One of those wounded, 63-year-old Ed Sanders, recounted from his hospital bed how he fell to the club’s floor after being shot in the back. On the ground next to him he recognized Kelly Loving, one of the five people killed. Sanders said he covered her in his red velvet jacket.
In an interview Tuesday evening, Sanders mourned the loss of his friends and the terror inflicted at one of his favorite places, which he has attended weekly since its opening night.
“Club Q has been the glue that held us together all these years,” Sanders said.
Still, he said, he’s hopeful for the future.
“Things will go on in Colorado Springs for us,” he said. “I think we’re going to do fine.”
The attack has spurred more calls for legislative change and in its aftermath, the state’s Democratic politicians have reignited their push to strengthen Colorado’s gun laws.
The state has a red-flag law, which allows authorities to remove guns from a potentially dangerous person. Aldrich was arrested for an alleged bomb threat last year and charged with kidnapping and felony menacing but, for reasons that remain unclear, was never prosecuted. It is not clear when or how Aldrich gained access to weapons or whether the red-flag law would have applied.
Not all jurisdictions enforce the red-flag law equally. In El Paso County, where the 2021 threat was reported, local leaders demonstrated their opposition to the law in 2019 by declaring it a “Second Amendment preservation county.”
Gov. Jared Polis (D) said in an interview this week with Colorado Public Radio that the red-flag law needs to be “really evangelized more and talked about more,” citing “very disparate records of utilizing it from different county sheriffs.”
Leaders in Colorado, which has been home to a disproportionate share of America’s mass killings, have recently called for strengthening federal gun-control measures. Over the summer, Congress passed its most significant firearms restrictions in decades and President Biden signed them into law.
Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) said the new rules were “not everything that we wanted, but steps that made a real difference.”
Defense attorneys for Aldrich submitted several court filings in the case on Tuesday, including one saying that public defenders would, at least initially, be representing the suspect.
The Colorado state public defender’s office, which has a standing policy of not commenting on ongoing cases, has not responded to messages seeking comment.
The attorneys wrote that Aldrich had invoked the right to remain silent and suggested that would remain the case, writing that the suspect “declines to speak to the prosecution and law enforcement on any topic.”
Police and prosecutors have said they would not comment again on the case until next week, citing the ongoing judicial process, and have so far provided limited public information about the investigation. Prosecutors had the arrest records in the case placed under seal on Monday.
Among those records is the arrest affidavit, which can include a narrative of what law enforcement officials say happened during the shooting and potentially detail investigative steps taken so far.
In their filings, defense attorneys also asked to have access to the arrest affidavit, saying that it “provides the basis for the arrest and detention” of the shooting suspect and that they need it for providing effective counsel. The attorneys also said the suspected attacker is nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/them.
The filings saying that Aldrich identifies as nonbinary come as investigators have so far not publicly discussed any potential motive in the case. Officials also have not confirmed whether they will pursue hate-crime charges in court.
Ann England, a clinical professor of law at the University of Colorado, said it was common for attorneys to clarify in court how clients wish to be addressed. What is unusual here, she said, was putting the information out in court documents.
“The only curious thing is that they decided to put that in a filing, knowing this case has tons of publicity,” said England, who previously worked at the Colorado state public defender’s office.
That information “had to have come from the client,” England said. “The client would’ve had to say, this is how I identify myself.”
At a short news briefing following the court session Wednesday, Allen, the district attorney, was asked whether Aldrich’s self-identification would affect the prosecution’s strategy.
Allen responded that he was looking only at “evidence of what occurred here,” adding that Aldrich’s “legal definition in this proceeding is ‘the defendant.’”
“It has no impact on the way I prosecute this case,” Allen said.
Klemko and Thebault reported from Colorado Springs and Berman from Washington. Teo Armus in Colorado Springs contributed to this report.