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The shooter who killed 5 at a Colorado LGBTQ+ club pleads guilty to 50 federal hate crimes

FILE - A television cameraman works near a tribute to the victims of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub painted on the side of a downtown commercial building Nov. 23, 2022, in Colorado Springs, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

DENVER (AP) — The shooter who killed five people and injured 19 others at an LGBTQ+ club that was a refuge in the conservative city of Colorado Springs pleaded guilty to 50 federal hate crime charges on Tuesday, but once again declined to apologize or say anything to the victims’ families.

Prosecutors nevertheless highlighted the importance of Anderson Lee Aldrich finally being forced to take responsibility for the hatred toward LGBTQ+ people that they say motivated the mass shooting. As part of the plea agreement, Aldrich repeatedly admitted on Tuesday to evidence of hatred.

“The admission that these were hate crimes is important to the government, and it’s important to the community of Club Q,” said prosecutor Alison Connaughty.

By targeting Club Q, Aldrich attacked a place that was much more than a bar, Connaughty added.

“It’s a special gathering place for anyone who needed community and anyone who needed that safe place,” she said. “We met people who said ‘this venue saved my life and I was able to feel normal again.’”

Aldrich, 24, is already serving life in prison after pleading guilty to state charges in the 2022 shooting last year. Federal prosecutors focused on proving that the attack at Club Q — a sanctuary for LGBTQ+ people in the mostly conservative city — was premeditated and fueled by bias.

U.S. District Judge Charlotte Sweeney, the first openly gay federal judge in Colorado, was hearing victim testimony before deciding whether to accept the sentencing agreement, which would avoid the death penalty, instead recommending 50 life sentences for the hate crimes plus a total of 190 years on gun charges and other counts.

Aldrich, appearing in an orange prison uniform with his head shaved and wrists handcuffed, declined to speak at the sentencing, and his attorney David Kraut made no explicit mention of hate or bias in his comments. Kraut said there’s no singular explanation for why Aldrich carried out the shooting, but he mentioned childhood trauma, a sometimes abusive mother, online extremism, drug use and access to guns as factors that “combined to increase the risk that Anderson would engage in extreme violence.”

Defense attorneys in the state case had pushed back against hate as a motivation, arguing that Aldrich was drugged up on cocaine and medication at the time. In phone calls from jail with The Associated Press last year, Aldrich didn’t answer directly when asked whether the attack was motivated by hate, saying only, that’s “completely off base,” and ultimately pleaded no contest to the state hate crime charges, which is short of admitting guilt.

Connaughty said investigators uncovered evidence of Aldrich’s hate for the LGBTQ+ community that included two websites created by Aldrich to post hate-related content, a target found inside the defendant’s house with a rainbow ring that had bullets in it and the defendant’s sharing of recordings of 911 calls from the 2016 killing of 49 people at the gay-friendly Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida,.

Aldrich also studied other mass shootings, accumulated weapons, shared an online manifesto from a mass shooter who referred to transgenderism as a “disease,” and coordinated a spam email campaign against a former work supervisor who is gay, the prosecutor said.

According to other evidence prosecutors presented to support their sentencing recommendation, Aldrich spent over $9,000 on weapons-related purchases from at least 56 vendors between September 2020 and the attack on Nov. 19, 2022. A hand drawn map of Club Q with an entry and exit point marked was found inside Aldrich’s apartment, along with a black binder of training material entitled “How to handle an active shooter.”

Defense attorneys in the state case said Aldrich is nonbinary, and uses they/them pronouns. But that was rejected by some of the victims as well as the district attorney who prosecuted Aldrich in state court, who called it an effort to avoid hate crime charges.

They include Ashtin Gamblin, who worked the front door that night and remains in physical therapy after being shot nine times. A true member of the LGBTQ+ community would know about the discrimination and the mental health challenges they face and wouldn’t attack its members in such a sanctuary, she said ahead of the hearing.

“We deserve to be safe and go in public and actually survive being in public,” Gamblin told the judge on Tuesday, speaking with her husband by her side, putting a supportive hand on her shoulder.

Gamblin’s mother also spoke, describing how her daughter buried her face in a friend’s blood in hopes of avoiding being shot, and then was taken to a hospital in an ambulance shared by the handcuffed killer. Both mother and daughter as well as other victims said they would prefer Aldrich get the death penalty.

Aldrich visited the club at least eight times before the attack, including stopping by an hour and a half before the shooting, according to prosecutors. Just before midnight, Aldrich returned wearing a tactical vest with ballistic plates and carrying an AR-15 style rifle and started firing immediately. Aldrich killed the first person in the entryway, shot at bartenders and customers at the bar and then moved onto the dance floor, pausing to reload the rifle’s magazine.

“The defendant was able to level everyone,” Connaughty said, adding that Aldrich fired 60 rounds in less than a minute. “The defendant emptied the magazine. The defendant was prepared to inflict the maximum amount of damage in the minimum amount of time.”

The shooting was stopped by a Navy officer who grabbed the barrel of the suspect’s rifle, burning his hand, and an Army veteran who helped subdue Aldrich until police arrived, authorities have said.

There had been a chance to prevent such violence: Aldrich was arrested in June 2021, accused of threatening their grandparents and vowing to become “the next mass killer ″ while stockpiling weapons, body armor and bomb-making materials. But Aldrich’s mother and grandparents refused to cooperate, and prosecutors failed to serve subpoenas to family members that could have kept the case alive, so the charges were eventually dismissed.

Aldrich, who will be returned to state prison after the hearing, was being sentenced federally under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expanded federal law in 2009 to include crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.