The alleged attacker in the Club Q gay nightclub shooting that killed five people has been charged with hate crimes, murder, and assault.
The suspect, Anderson Lee Aldrich, appeared in court on Tuesday to hear the charges over the November 19 attack at the LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs, Colorado that left five dead and injured at least 17 people. The Reuters news agency put the injury count at 22.
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Those killed were identified as Kelly Loving, 40; Daniel Aston, 28; Derrick Rump, 38; Ashley Paugh, 34; and Raymond Green Vance, 22.
Patrons at the club halted the attack, knocking Aldrich to the ground and pummelling him. Richard Fierro, a war veteran, told reporters that he took Aldrich’s pistol and hit the suspect repeatedly.
Fierro said his military training had kicked in when the shooting began and he wanted to keep everyone safe, including his family who was at the event. His daughter’s boyfriend was among the dead.
Colorado does not have the death penalty. Aldrich would face life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of first-degree murder.
However, Aldrich could face a death sentence in federal court if prosecutors decide to bring charges under the US code, which still has capital punishment on its books for certain crimes.
Aldrich had been held on hate crime charges but prosecutors had said previously they weren’t sure if those counts would stick because they needed to assess if there was adequate evidence to show it was a bias-motivated crime.
District lawyer Michael Allen had noted that murder charges would carry the harshest penalty – likely life in prison – but also said it was important to show the community that bias-motivated crimes are not tolerated if there was evidence to support the charge.
Allen did not detail the charges in Tuesday’s hearing but said they included “many counts of bias-motivated crimes”.
Judge Michael McHenry ordered the arrest warrant affidavit in the case to be unsealed on Wednesday, over the objections of Aldrich’s lawyer who said he was concerned about the defendant’s right to a fair trial due to publicity surrounding the case.
A motive for the shooting has not been identified.
The attack took place during a drag queen’s birthday party, and on the eve of a day of remembrance for transgender people lost to violence. Club Q was known as a sanctuary for people from the LGBTQ community in the conservative-leaning city of Colorado Springs.
A patron who helped subdue the gunman, Thomas James, said that he wanted to “save the family I found”, indicating the close relationships forged in the club.
The attack has drawn comparisons to the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, where a gunman entered a gay club and killed 49 people before he was killed by police.
Aldrich, who uses they/them pronouns according to defence court filings, was arrested at the club by police. After Aldrich’s initial court appearance on November 23, Allen said that the suspect’s gender identity would not affect the prosecution of the case.
The shooting took place amid an atmosphere of escalating anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in the United States that advocates say can lead to violence.
The shooting also reignited debates over the prevalence of gun violence in the US.
More than a year before the shooting, Aldrich was arrested on allegations of making a bomb threat that led to the evacuation of about 10 homes. Aldrich threatened to harm family members with a homemade bomb, ammunition and multiple weapons, authorities said at the time.
The case was later sealed and it is not clear what became of the charges, but there have not been any public indications that they resulted in a conviction.
Colorado has a “red flag” law that allows firearms to be confiscated from people who have demonstrated the potential to harm themselves or others, but it was not invoked.