COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — A judge unsealed a dropped bomb threat case Thursday against the Colorado gay bar shooting suspect who threatened to become the “next mass killer” over a year before allegedly killing five people and wounding seventeen others at the LGBTQ enclave Club Q.
Judge Robin Chittum said the “proufound” public interest in the case outweighed the privacy rights of defendant Anderson Lee Aldrich. The judge added that scrutiny of judicial cases is “foundational to our system of government.”
“The only way for that scrutiny to occur is for this to be unsealed,” she said.
Aldrich, 22, was arrested in June 2021 on allegations of making a bomb threat that led to the evacuation of about 10 homes. Aldrich, who uses they/them pronouns and is nonbinary according to their attorneys, had threatened to harm their own family and boasted of having bomb making materials, ammunition and multiple weapons, according to law enforcement documents. They were booked into jail on suspicion of felony menacing and kidnapping.
The case was later dropped and officials to date have refused to speak about what happened, citing a state law that calls for dismissed cases to be sealed.
The judge’s order to release the records comes after news organizations, including The Associated Press, sought to unseal the documents.
Aldrich’s alleged statements that they intended to become “ the next mass killer ” foretold last month’s mass shooting and have raised questions over why authorities did not seek to seize Aldrich’s guns under Colorado’s “red flag” law.
Aldrich also was the subject of a tip received by the FBI a day before the bomb threat. Agents closed out the case just weeks later.
Under Colorado law, records are automatically sealed when a case is dropped and defendants are not prosecuted as happened in Aldrich’s 2021 case. Once sealed, officials cannot acknowledge that the records exist and the process to unseal the documents initially happens behind closed doors with no docket to follow and an unnamed judge.
“This is one of the strangest hearings I think I’ve ever had,” said Chittum. “I’m having a hearing about a case that none of us is to recognize.”
It was unknown when unsealed documents will be posted online. Chittum ruled despite objections from the suspect’s attorney and mother.
Public defender Joseph Archambault argued that while the public has an interest in the case, Aldrich’s right to a fair trial was paramount.
“This will make sure there is no presumption of innocence,” said Archambault.
Aldrich sat at the defense table looking straight ahead or down at times and did not appear to show any reaction when their mother’s lawyer asked that the case not be unsealed.
An attorney for Aldrich’s mother argued that unsealing the case would increase the likelihood that Laura Voepel would suffer harm harassment, intimidation or retaliation.
Aldrich’s attorneys told the judge the defense filed a contempt of court motion against the sheriff’s office over an AP story that detailed what was in some of the sealed documents. The documents were obtained by Colorado Springs TV station KKTV and verified as authentic to the AP by a law enforcement official who was not authorized to discuss the sealed case and kept anonymous. Judge Chittum did not rule on the motion but said she would not let it hold up her decision about unsealing the case.
The Associated Press verified a copy of the sealed documents with a law enforcement official that described Aldrich telling frightened grandparents of firearms and bomb-making material in their basement, vowing not to allow them to interfere in plans to kill on a mass scale.
Aldrich then pointed a Glock handgun at the grandparents as they pleaded for their lives and said, “You guys die today … I’m loaded and ready.”
The documents say the grandparents ran out of the house while Aldrich stepped away and called 911. Aldrich then holed up in a home nearby where the mother was living while a SWAT team and bomb squad stood outside with rifles raised and bomb sniffing dogs. At one point, Aldrich yelled that he would set off a bomb if law enforcement tried to enter before finally surrendering.
The law enforcement official who confirmed the documents to the AP was not authorized to talk about them and so was given anonymity.
Aldrich was formally charged Tuesday with 305 criminal counts including hate crimes and murder in the Nov. 19 shooting at Club Q, a sanctuary for the LGBTQ community in mostly conservative Colorado Springs.
Investigators say Aldrich entered just before midnight with an AR-15-sytle semiautomatic rifle and began shooting during a drag queen’s birthday celebration. The killing was stopped when patrons wrestled the suspect to the ground, beating Aldrich into submission, they said.
Conviction on murder charges would carry the harshest penalty — likely life in prison — but prosecutors said they also were pursuing the hate crime charges to show the community bias motivated crimes are not tolerated.
Associated Press writers Jesse Bedayn in Denver, Bernard Condon in New York and Matthew Brown in Billings, Montana, contributed to this report. Bedayn is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.