COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - As bullets tore through a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs, killing five people and wounding many more, one patron who had been partying moments before rushed into action, grabbing a handgun from the suspect, hitting him with it and pinning him down until police arrived just minutes later.
That customer was one of at least two whom police and city officials credit with stopping the gunman and limiting the bloodshed in Saturday night’s shooting at Club Q. The violence pierced the cozy confines of an entertainment venue that has long been a cherished safe spot for the LGBTQ community in the conservative-leaning city.
"Had that individual not intervened this could have been exponentially more tragic," Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers told The Associated Press.
"It's an incredible act of heroism," the mayor said Monday on NBC's "Today."
Police identified the suspected gunman as 22-year-old Anderson Lee Aldrich, who was in custody and being treated for injuries.
A law enforcement official said the suspect used an AR-15-style semiautomatic weapon in the attack, but a handgun and additional ammunition magazines also were recovered. The official could not discuss details of the investigation publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The scene related to the shooting inside Club O on, Sunday November 20, 2022 in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo by Matthew Staver/For the Washington Post)
Club Q on its Facebook page thanked the "quick reactions of heroic customers that subdued the gunman and ended this hate attack." Investigators were still determining a motive and whether to prosecute it as a hate crime, said El Paso County District Attorney Michael Allen. Charges against the suspect will likely include first-degree murder, he said.
Already questions were being raised about why authorities didn’t seek to take Aldrich’s guns away from him in 2021, when he was arrested after his mother reported he threatened her with a homemade bomb and other weapons.
Though authorities at the time said no explosives were found, gun control advocates are asking why police didn’t try to trigger Colorado’s "red flag" law, which would have allowed authorities to seize the weapons his mother says he had. There’s also no public record prosecutors ever moved forward with felony kidnapping and menacing charges against Aldrich.
The mayor said on "Today" that the district attorney would file motions in court Monday to allow law enforcement to talk more about any criminal history "that this individual might have had."
Of the 25 injured at Club Q, at least seven were in critical condition, authorities said. Some were hurt trying to flee, and it was unclear if all of them were shot, a police spokesperson said. Suthers told the AP there was "reason to hope" all of those hospitalized would recover.
The shooting rekindled memories of the 2016 massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that killed 49 people. Colorado has experienced several mass killings, including at Columbine High School in 1999, a movie theater in suburban Denver in 2012 and at a Boulder supermarket last year.
Authorities were called to Club Q at 11:57 p.m. Saturday with a report of a shooting, and the first officer arrived at midnight.
Joshua Thurman said he was in the club with about two dozen other people and was dancing when the shots began. He initially thought it was part of the music, until he heard another shot and said he saw the flash of a gun muzzle.
Thurman, 34, said he ran with another person to a dressing room where someone already was hiding. They locked the door, turned off the lights and got on the floor but could hear the violence unfolding, including the gunman being subdued, he added.
"I could have lost my life — over what? What was the purpose?" he said as tears ran down his cheeks. "We were just enjoying ourselves. We weren’t out harming anyone. We were in our space, our community, our home, enjoying ourselves like everybody else does."
Detectives were examining whether anyone had helped the suspect before the attack, Police Chief Adrian Vasquez said. He said patrons who intervened during the attack were "heroic" and prevented more deaths.
Club Q is a gay and lesbian nightclub that features a drag show on Saturdays, according to its website. Club Q’s Facebook page said planned entertainment included a "punk and alternative show" preceding a birthday dance party, with a Sunday all-ages drag brunch.
Drag events have become a focus of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and protests recently as opponents, including politicians, have proposed banning children from them, falsely claiming they're used to "groom" children.
To substantiate a hate-crime charge against Aldrich, prosecutors would have to prove he was motivated by the victims’ actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. So far, the suspect has not been cooperative in interviews with investigators and has not given them clear insight yet about motivation, according to the official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"It has all the trappings of a hate crime, but we need to look at social media, we need to look at all other kinds of information ... before we make any definitive conclusions about a motive," Suthers said on "Today."
President Joe Biden said that while the motive for the shootings was not yet clear, "we know that the LGBTQI+ community has been subjected to horrific hate violence in recent years."
"Places that are supposed to be safe spaces of acceptance and celebration should never be turned into places of terror and violence," he said. "We cannot and must not tolerate hate."
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who became the first openly gay man to be elected a U.S. governor in 2018, called the shooting "sickening."
"My heart breaks for the family and friends of those lost, injured and traumatized," Polis said.
A makeshift memorial sprang up Sunday near the club, with flowers, a stuffed animal, candles and a sign saying "Love over hate" next to a rainbow-colored heart.
Seth Stang was buying flowers for the memorial when he was told that two of the dead were his friends. The 34-year-old transgender man said it was like having "a bucket of hot water getting dumped on you. ... I’m just tired of running out of places where we can exist safely."
Ryan Johnson, who lives near the club and was there last month, said it was one of only two nightspots for the LGBTQ community in Colorado Springs. "It’s kind of the go-to for Pride," the 26-year-old said of the club.
Colorado Springs, a city of about 480,000 located 70 miles (110 kilometers) south of Denver, is home to the U.S. Air Force Academy and the U.S. Olympic Training Center, as well as Focus on the Family, a prominent evangelical Christian ministry that lobbies against LGBTQ rights. The group condemned the shooting and said it "exposes the evil and wickedness inside the human heart."
In November 2015, three people were killed and eight wounded at a Planned Parenthood clinic in the city when authorities say a gunman targeted the clinic because it performed abortions.
The shooting came during Transgender Awareness Week and just at the start of Sunday’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, when events around the world are held to mourn and remember transgender people lost to violence.
Since 2006, there have been 523 mass killings and 2,727 deaths as of Nov. 19, according to The Associated Press/USA Today database on mass killings in the U.S.