What started as a joyous night of laughter and dancing devolved into a scene of terror when a gunman walked into an LGBTQ club and immediately opened fire.
“I looked up and saw the outline of a man holding a rifle at the entrance of the club – probably about 15 feet from me,” said Michael Anderson, who was bartending at Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colorado, late Saturday night.
“I ducked behind the bar, and as I did, glass began to spew all around me.”
Within seconds, his friend and bar supervisor Daniel Aston was fatally wounded.
Another four people were killed and 25 others were injured in a rampage that stirred memories of the 2016 Pulse massacre in Orlando, in which 49 people at that LGBTQ nightclub were killed.
Anderson said it took a moment for him to process the horror. When he did, he thought his life was over.
“There was a moment in time where I feared I was not going to make it out of that club alive. I have never prayed so sincerely and quickly in my life, as I was anticipating that outcome and afraid of that outcome,” Anderson told CNN Monday.
“As I was praying … the gunshots stopped.”
Two heroic people managed to subdue the gunman, Anderson, preventing even greater tragedy.
“I saw what I believe what was probably the gunman lying on the ground, getting beat up and kicked and yelled at by two very brave people,” Anderson said.
He said he doesn’t know the identities of the people who stopped the shooting.
“But I hope to find out one day, because I truly believe those two people saved my life,” he said.
Police rushed to the scene around midnight and found at least two people had taken down the gunman, Colorado Springs Police Chief Adrian Vasquez said.
In addition to the five people killed, another 25 were injured – including 19 who were shot, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said.
No motive for the attack has been released.
A 22-year-old suspect is in custody and was being treated at a hospital Sunday, but he was not shot by officers, police said.
Investigators are still working to determine a motive, including whether the shooting was a hate crime, Vasquez said.
The brutal attack fell on the eve of Transgender Day of Remembrance – observed in honor of the lives of trans people lost to anti-trans violence and hatred.
While police have not identified any victims, the parents of Daniel Aston told the Denver Post their son was killed while bartending at Club Q on Saturday.
Jeff and Sabrina Aston told the Post their son moved to Colorado Springs two years ago to be closer to them and got a job at the club, which is just minutes from their house.
Anderson, the bartender who survived the attack, said Aston wasn’t just his boss – he was also a friend for years.
“He was the best supervisor anybody could have asked for. He made me want to come into work, and he made me want to just be part of the positive culture we were trying to create there,” Anderson said.
“He was an amazing person. He was a light in my life. It’s still surreal that we’re even talking about him in the past tense.”
Colorado Springs, the state’s second biggest city with just under 500,000 residents, is home to military bases and the headquarters for Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian group that says homosexuality and same-sex marriage are sins.
And until recently, Club Q was the only LGBTQ club in the city.
“This space is really the only place in Colorado Springs that the LGBTQ+ community can get together and be ourselves,” said Cole Danielson, who worked as a drag king at Club Q.
Just last month, Danielson and his wife celebrated their wedding there.
But now, “our safety as queer people in Colorado Springs is now questioned,” Danielson said. “I’m scared to be myself as a trans man in this community.”
Lifelong Colorado Springs resident Tiana Nicole Dykes called Club Q “a second home full of chosen family.”
“This space means the world to me,” said Dykes, who has close friends who were killed or critically injured in the shooting.
“The energy, the people, the message. It’s an amazing place that didn’t deserve this tragedy.”
Antonio Taylor, a drag queen and Colorado Springs resident, said Club Q’s welcoming community helped them feel ready to come out.
“This was one of the places where I didn’t have to worry about looks or people hating me for who I am,” they said, adding, “I’m sick to my stomach that the one place where I knew I was safe has been made unsafe.”
Taylor was set to perform at the club’s Musical Drag Brunch on Sunday. But the mass shooting attack forced Club Q to close indefinitely.
Jewels Parks, who has been in the Colorado drag scene for over a year, often performs at Club Q under her drag name Dezzy Dazzles and considers the venue a space where the outside world’s cruelty was not welcome.
“Club Q, along with all of the other LGBTQIA+ bars, represent a safe space for a community that has felt unsafe and rejected for most of their lives,” Parks told CNN.
“To have our safe place ripped from us and to lose members of our community, is a whole other type of hurt,” Parks said. “Right now, we need to love each other a little extra and be kind to one another.”
Police identified the suspect as Anderson Lee Aldrich. He had a long rifle during the attack, and two firearms were found at the scene, Vasquez said.
Despite opening fire immediately upon entering the club, the chief said, the gunman’s rampage ended within a few minutes because witnesses overpowered him.
“At least two heroic people inside the club confronted and fought with the suspect and were able to stop the suspect,” Vasquez said. “We owe them a great debt of thanks.”
While Aldrich remains hospitalized, questions have emerged about a previous encounter with law enforcement – and whether anything could have been done to help prevent the bloodshed.
In June 2021, Aldrich was arrested in connection with a bomb threat that led to a standoff at his mother’s home, according to his mother’s former landlord and a news release from the local El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.
Two law enforcement sources confirmed the suspect in the nightclub shooting and the bomb threat were the same person based on the name and date of birth.
In the 2021 incident, sheriff’s deputies responded to a report by the man’s mother that he was “threatening to cause harm to her with a homemade bomb, multiple weapons, and ammunition,” according to the release.
Deputies called the suspect, but he “refused to comply with orders to surrender,” the release said, leading them to evacuate nearby homes.
Several hours after the initial police call, the sheriff’s crisis negotiations unit was able to get Aldrich to leave the house he was in, and he was arrested after walking out the front door. Authorities did not find any explosives in the home.
Attempts by CNN to reach Aldrich’s mother for comment were unsuccessful.
It was not immediately clear how the bomb threat case was resolved, but the Colorado Springs Gazette reported that the district attorney’s office said no formal charges were pursued in the case. The district attorney’s office did not respond to a request for comment from CNN.
Aldrich also called the Gazette to try to get an earlier story about the 2021 incident removed from its website, the newspaper reported. “There is absolutely nothing there, the case was dropped, and I’m asking you either remove or update the story,” Aldrich said in a voice message, according to the Gazette.
In 2019, Colorado passed a controversial red flag law that allows family members, a roommate, or law enforcement to petition a judge to temporality seize a person’s firearms if they are deemed a risk.
When asked why the red flag law wasn’t used in Aldrich’s case, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said it was “too early to make any decisions” about the case.
“We are working hard to educate and to bring more awareness about the red flag law,” Weiser said.
“I don’t have enough information to know exactly what the officers knew,” he said. “What we can do is make sure that we embrace this as a call to action to better educate about this law to make sure that law enforcement understands it and is able to use it to protect lives.”