COLORADO SPRINGS | It is no mystery who shot and killed five people at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs last year, but what motivated that person to target a venue that had long been a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community in the mostly conservative city remains unknown.
That could change during a court hearing scheduled to start Wednesday in which prosecutors must lay out enough evidence to support their allegation that it was a hate crime when 22-year-old Anderson Lee Aldrich, who is nonbinary, opened fire in Club Q that night.
Unlike the other allegations, such as murder and attempted murder, hate crime charges require prosecutors to present evidence of a motive — that Aldrich was driven by bias, either wholly or in part. That could include statements Aldrich, who uses they/them pronouns, made on social media or to other people, said Karen Steinhauser, a trial lawyer, former prosecutor and law professor at the University of Denver.
Until now, prosecutors have not revealed anything about why they charged Aldrich with a hate crime.
Aldrich was known to family and friends and in official government documents as a male until defense attorneys revealed after the shooting that Aldrich was nonbinary. Someone who is a member of a group of people, such as the LGBTQ-plus community, can still be charged with a hate crime for targeting peers. Hate crime laws are focused on the victims, not the perpetrator.
Aldrich could give up their right to this week’s hearing and avoid new details about the investigation from being made public, a decision that likely would not be announced until everyone is gathered in the courtroom.
Prosecutors usually win preliminary hearings since the standard of proof is lower than a trial and the evidence must be viewed in a light most favorable to them, but defense lawyers sometimes still want to go forward with a preliminary hearing. It’s a chance to question witnesses, often investigators, under oath to learn more about the government’s case than may be available in the sometimes thousands of pages of reports likely already turned over to them, Steinhauser said.
The shooting was captured on surveillance video. According to an arrest affidavit, video showed Aldrich pulling into a parking lot at Club Q just before midnight and getting out wearing a ballistic vest and an AR-15 style rifle. Soon after going inside, Aldrich opened fire indiscriminately at patrons, it said.
It is unknown whether Aldrich had any previous history at the club or any disputes with patrons. Their attorneys revealed during a recent hearing Aldrich was at the club earlier that night for about 1 1/2 hours but didn’t say why or elaborate further.
Questions also remain on how Aldrich got the gun used in the shooting, but experts say how and where Aldrich obtained it does not have to be discussed in order to convince the judge to rule that there’s enough evidence to take the case to trial.
However, former District Attorney George Brauchler, who prosecuted the case against the shooter who killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora in 2012, said he hopes prosecutors present evidence about the gun. Questions were raised early on about whether authorities should have sought a red flag order to stop Aldrich from buying guns after they were arrested in 2021, when they threatened their grandparents and vowed to become the “next mass killer,” according to law enforcement documents.
Authorities said two guns seized from Aldrich in that case — a ghost gun pistol and an MM 15 rifle — weren’t returned. That case was dropped, in part because prosecutors couldn’t track down Aldrich’s grandparents and mother to testify, so Aldrich had no legal restrictions on buying guns.
Brauchler said if Aldrich obtained the gun used in the attack illegally, that would go against a possible effort by the defense to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Going around gun laws would show that Aldrich knew right from wrong, as would showing Aldrich was motivated by bias, he said.
“Hate isn’t insane. Hate is a choice,” Brauchler said.
Defense attorneys have not publicly raised insanity or Aldrich’s mental health as an issue and they have not been asked to enter a plea yet. However, an insanity plea is one of the few options Brauchler said he sees for the defense.
“It’s not a whodunit. It’s not a what happened. It’s a why did it happen,” he said.