DENVER — Newly released body camera footage from a June 2021 standoff between members of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and the Club Q mass shooter has resurfaced questions around whether more could have been done to keep weapons out of the shooter’s hands before the attack that claimed the lives of five people in November 2022.
“To me, all of the things that happened that day suggest that this person would be a danger in the future,” Ian Farrell, a Denver-based criminal law expert, said after viewing the footage. “It strikes me as a problem that there wasn’t really a sort of aggressive effort to restrict this person’s ability to obtain weapons.”
The roughly one hour and 15 minutes worth of video from law enforcement officials who responded to the bomb threat and kidnapping call in a neighborhood just outside of Colorado Springs was obtained by Scripps News, the parent company of Denver Post partner Denver7.
In it, sheriff’s deputies can be seen outside a home in the county’s Lorson Ranch neighborhood demanding that Anderson Aldrich come out with hands empty. Using a megaphone, one of the law enforcement officers on the scene repeatedly yells that those instructions are a lawful order.
“Anderson, this is El Paso County Sheriff’s Office. We have a warrant for your arrest. Come out the front door now with nothing in your hands,” the official says at the roughly one-hour mark in the video.
Aldrich eventually complies and is taken into custody. Earlier in the video, a woman identified as Aldrich’s mother, Laura Voepel, can be seen urging deputies to evacuate the neighborhood and warning them Aldrich would kill them.
“You need to evacuate this block is what you need to do. He’s got a lot of stuff in there do you understand?” Voepel said. “You have to get these people out of here … ”
Aldrich, who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, faced charges related to allegations they kidnapped their grandparents following the standoff but those charges were dismissed in July 2022.
The case collapsed after family members stopped cooperating and prosecutors could not successfully subpoena Aldrich’s grandmother in Florida, according to 2022 reporting by The Associated Press.
Two guns confiscated from Aldrich following the 2021 standoff were not returned to him, but the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office chose not to pursue using Colorado’s so-called red flag law to prevent Aldrich from owning or obtaining guns after that case was dismissed. The state law allows law enforcement officials or family members to seek a court order to seize the guns of a person who poses a threat to themselves or others.
On Nov. 19, Aldrich entered the Club Q nightclub that has long been an epicenter of the Colorado Springs LGBTQ community. He shot and killed Daniel Davis Aston, 28; Kelly Loving, 40; Ashley Paugh, 35; Derrick Rump, 38; and Raymond Green Vance, 22, and wounded 18 other people.
In June, Aldrich, 23, pleaded guilty to five counts of murder and was sentenced to five consecutive life terms in prison.
In a news release following the Club Q shooting, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office said it did not seek an extreme risk protection order against Aldrich following the dismissal of that prior case because he was no longer a threat “in the near future” as the red flag law requires.
Watching the body camera footage, Farrell, a professor with the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, said he believes local authorities may have had options to charge Aldrich with other crimes that did not require the cooperation of family members, including failure to obey a lawful order. Other charges may have allowed prosecutors to keep Aldrich from possessing weapons for a longer period of time. However, once the 2021 case was dismissed, Aldrich had the legal right to buy guns again.
“They always have discretion as to whether or not to charge someone with an offense and the obstruction charge is much less serious than the sort of bomb threat, etcetera, that was the focus from the beginning,” Farrell said. “It strikes me as surprising given the general willingness (of prosecutors) to charge everything they possibly can charge.”
The bigger concern was the officials’ decision not to invoke the red flag law. Farrell noted that the judge who dismissed Aldrich’s prior case had major concerns about the risk Aldrich presented to public safety.
The El Paso County commissioners declared the county a “Second Amendment Preservation County” in the wake of the red flag law and the sheriff’s office maintained a policy not to use it except in “exigent circumstances.”
“I worry that the politics of guns and the Second Amendment was sort of high in the thinking or the decision-making process or what have you of the people making these decisions rather than doing everything they could to prevent something from happening,” Farrell said.
In June, a group of survivors and family members of victims of the Club Q shooting alerted El Paso County of their plans to sue the county. In court documents, they claim the shooting could have been prevented if not for a blanket refusal to seek a red flag order.
Dr. Chris Knoepke is a gun safety researcher with the University of Colorado’s Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative. He and his colleagues’ work includes gathering details from every extreme risk protection order application filed in Colorado dating back to 2020, including those that were not granted.
So far, the average number of applications per year is roughly 120, Knoepke said. While not every case of gun violence rises to the level of a bomb threat and alleged kidnapping like Aldrich’s 2021 standoff (many more involve domestic violence or suicide), Knoepke is confident the number of instances of people who present a risk to themselves or others in the state is much higher than that number of filings shows.
“I think, on the whole, it’s fair to say (extreme risk protection orders) are not catching every single circumstance for which they were designed,” Knoepke said. “If you are an eligible petitioner and you’re concerned about anybody, this is still a tool that is available to you irrespective of where you live in the state.”