The suspect in aat a Colorado Springs LGBTQ+ nightclub last year has pleaded guilty in the attack. Monday’s plea by comes just seven months after the shooting and spares victims’ families and survivors a long and potentially painful trial.
The suspect pleaded guilty to five counts of murder and 46 counts of attempted murder. The accused gunman also pleaded no contest to two counts of bias-motivated crimes, one a felony and the other a misdemeanor.
The defendant faces life in prison on the murder charges under the plea agreement.
“I intentionally and after deliberation caused the death of each victim,” the defendant told Judge Michael McHenry.
People in the courtroom wiped away tears as the judge explained the charges and read out the names of the victims.
The guilty pleas follow a series of jailhouse phone calls from the suspect to The Associated Press expressing remorse and the intention to face the consequences for the shooting.
Several survivors told the AP about the plea agreement after being approached about the alleged gunman’s comments to AP. They said prosecutors had notified them that the suspect, who is nonbinary and uses they and them pronouns, would plead guilty to charges that would ensure a sentence of life behind bars.
The suspect originally was charged with more than 300 state counts, including murder and hate crimes. The U.S. Justice Department is considering pursuing federal hate crime charges, according to a senior law enforcement official familiar with the matter who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing case.
The attack at Club Q came over a year after the suspect had been arrested for threatening their grandparents and vowing to become “the next mass killer.” But, charges were ultimately dropped in that case.
Victims’ family members and survivors were speaking at Monday’s hearing about how their lives were forever altered by the terror that erupted just before midnight on Nov. 19 when the suspect walked into Club Q and indiscriminately fired an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle.
The line to get through security early Monday snaked through the large plaza outside the courthouse as victims and others queued up to attend the hearing. One man wore a T-shirt saying “Loved Always & Never Forgotten” in honor of victim Daniel Davis Aston, a 28-year-old bartender and entertainer at Club Q who was killed in the shooting.
In addition to Aston, the victims of the shooting were identified as Kelly Loving, Derrick Rump, Ashley Paugh and Raymond Green Vance.
The suspect hinted at plans to carry out violent attacks at least a year before the Club Q assault. In June 2021, the suspect’s grandparents told authorities that they were warned not to stand in the way of a plan to stockpile guns, ammo, body armor and a homemade bomb to become “the next mass killer.” The suspect was then arrested after a standoff with SWAT officers that was livestreamed on Facebook and the evacuation of 10 nearby homes, telling officers “If they breach, I’m a f—-ing blow it to holy hell!” The suspect eventually surrendered.
However, the charges against the suspect were thrown out in July 2022 after the suspect’s mother and grandparents, the victims in the case, refused to cooperate with prosecutors, evading efforts to serve them with subpoenas to testify, according to court documents unsealed after the shooting.
Xavier Kraus, a former neighbor,that the suspect got their guns back following the 2021 incident.
“We had a conversation that time too about, you know, I expressed my fear of guns,” Kraus said. “He tried to assure me, ‘It’s not the gun you have to be afraid of, bro. It’s the people behind the gun.'”
Other relatives told a judge they feared the suspect would hurt their grandparents if released, painting a picture of an isolated, violent person who did not have a job and was given $30,000 that was spent largely on the purchase of 3D printers to make guns, the records showed.
The suspect was released from jail then and authorities kept two guns — a ghost gun pistol and an MM15 rifle — seized in the arrest. But there was nothing to stop the suspect from legally purchasing more firearms, raising questions immediately after the shooting about whether authorities should have sought a red flag order to prevent such purchases.
The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office said it would not have been able to seek a court order stopping the suspect from buying or possessing guns because the 2021 arrest record was sealed after the charges were dropped. There was no new evidence that they could use to prove that the suspect posed a threat “in the near future,” the sheriff’s office said.
Investigators later revealed that the two guns the suspect had during the Club Q attack — the rifle and a handgun — appeared to be ghost guns, or firearms without serial numbers that are homemade and do not require an owner to pass a background check.
The suspect told AP in one of the interviews from jail they were on a “very large plethora of drugs” and abusing steroids at the time of the attack. But they did not answer directly regarding the hate crimes charges. When asked whether the attack was motivated by hate, the suspect said only that was “completely off base.” The suspect’s attorneys, who have not disputed the suspect’s role in the shooting, have also pushed back on hate being the reason.
Some survivors who listened to the recorded phone calls saw the alleged shooter’s comments as an attempt to avoid the death penalty which still exists in the federal system. Colorado abolished it in 2020 and life without prison is now the mandated sentence for first-degree murder in the state. They objected to the suspect’s unwillingness to discuss a motive and their use of passive, general language like “I just can’t believe what happened” and “I wish I could turn back time.”