COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — The 22-year-old accused of carrying out the deadly mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs in November ran a neo-Nazi website and used gay and racial slurs while gaming online, a police detective testified Wednesday.
Anderson Lee Aldrich also posted an image of a rifle scope trained on a gay pride parade and used a bigoted slur when referring to someone who was gay, Detective Rebecca Joines said.
Her testimony came at the start of a hearing that will determine if there’s enough evidence to warrant that Aldrich face hate crime charges, in addition to other charges including murder and attempted murder.
Aldrich, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they and them, administered the obscure website that included what Joines described as a “neo-Nazi white supremacist” shooting training video glorifying mass shootings.
The video, which she said was not created by Aldrich and has been posted online by many others, featured attacks on synagogues and mosques in Europe and the 2019 shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Joines said she believes Aldrich was trying to emulate those attacks in the Colorado Springs shooting.
Investigators also heard from an acquaintance that Aldrich said their mother, Laura Voepel, is nonbinary and forced them to go to LGBTQ clubs, Joines testified during the hearing, which is expected to conclude Thursday.
Hate crime charges require prosecutors to present evidence of a motive — that Aldrich was driven by bias, either wholly or in part.
The defense countered that Aldrich was not anti-LGBTQ, but was high on multiple drugs, was sleep deprived and came from an abusive family.
Joines discussed police calls to the apartment that Aldrich and Voepel shared for Voepel’s suicide attempt and overdose. During one call, Aldrich indicated feeling unsafe in the apartment, Joines acknowledged.
Joines said that while identification scanning technology showed Aldrich had been to the club at least six times before the shooting, there were no fights or disturbances during those visits, which each lasted just a few minutes. The defense showed a photo that appeared to be a selfie of Aldrich and Voepel smiling at Club Q in August 2021.
On the night of the shooting, according to authorities, Aldrich went to the club, left and then returned. Surveillance video showed Aldrich entering the club wearing a red T-shirt and tan ballistic vest while holding an AR-style rifle, with six magazines for the weapon and a pistol visible, police Detective Jason Gasper said. Soon after entering, Aldrich allegedly opened fire indiscriminately.
The shooting was stopped when Navy information systems technician Thomas James grabbed the barrel of Aldrich’s rifle, burning his hand it was so hot, Detective Ashton Gardner said in the most detailed account provided yet.
As panicked patrons fled from the dance floor, James and Aldrich tumbled off a landing and struggled over a handgun. Aldrich fired at least once, shooting James in the ribs, Gardner said.
After being shot, it is clear from the video that James was tiring, “but he continues to do what he can to subdue the suspect until police arrive,” Gardner testified, noting that James later gave up his spot in an ambulance to someone else who was injured.
Army veteran Richard Fierro rushed over to help, grabbing the rifle and throwing it, Gardner said. Fierro then used the handgun to beat Aldrich, telling officers later that he “kept hitting” the suspect until they arrived.
Aldrich, who wore an orange jumpsuit, shook during the testimony about the people shot and cried while being led out of court for the lunch break.
James, who issued a statement days after the attack saying he “simply wanted to save the family that I found,” did not appear to be in the main courtroom where testimony was presented. Fierro, who sustained scrapes and bruises, sat in the back row. His daughter’s boyfriend was killed in the attack.
Joines, the detective, said evidence also indicates that Aldrich was considering livestreaming the attack. A hat found in Aldrich’s vehicle had a phone taped to it, and Aldrich recorded four videos using a livestreaming app starting over an approximately two-hour period before the shooting, she said.
After the gunfire ended and police arrived, Aldrich tried to blame the shooting on one of the patrons who subdued them while also claiming that the shooter was hiding, Officer Connor Wallick testified. Officers didn’t believe it and shortly afterward confirmed that Aldrich was the shooter, he said.
Police found several high-capacity magazines at the scene, including a drum-style one that holds 60 rounds and was empty, and others that hold 40 rounds, Gasper said. A state law passed after the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting bans magazines of more than 15 rounds.
Although Aldrich identifies as nonbinary, someone who is a member of a protected group such as the LGBTQ community can still be charged with a hate crime for targeting peers. Hate crime laws are focused on the victims, not the perpetrator.
At Aldrich’s apartment, investigators found gun-making materials, receipts for weapons and a drawing of the club. In Aldrich’s mother’s room, they found round gun range targets with holes in them, Gasper said. Voepel had taken Aldrich to the range.
It was also revealed that the rifle and the handgun used in the attack appeared to be ghost guns, or firearms without serial numbers that are homemade and do not require an owner to pass a background check. One part of the handgun did have a serial number, but the overall weapon was likely not purchased whole and appeared to be privately made, Joines said.
Defense attorney Joseph Archambault pointed out that it is not illegal to make a gun.
Questions remain about how the suspect got the guns, but experts say that doesn’t have to be discussed in order to persuade the judge to rule that there’s enough evidence for a trial.
Questions were raised early on about whether authorities should have sought a red flag order to stop Aldrich from buying guns after Aldrich was 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.
Defense attorneys also brought up Aldrich’s mental health for the first time at the hearing, showing photographs of pill bottles for drugs that Aldrich had been prescribed to treat mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and PTSD. But the defense didn’t say if Aldrich had been formally diagnosed with any of those mental illnesses.
This story was updated to correct the spelling of Richard Fierro’s last name, which was misspelled “Fiorro” in one instance.