Lily Forsell remembers taking in the scene of the dance floor at Club Q as she was leaving Saturday after a night celebrating her 18th birthday – dozens of people were laughing, singing and dancing like they always did after the evening’s drag show.
Less than an hour later, that dance floor became the site of a violent attack.
As midnight neared, the safe haven for the Colorado Springs, Colorado, LGBTQ community was shattered by a gunman who entered the nightclub and opened fire, killing at least 5 people and injuring 25 others, police said.
Police rushed to the scene after receiving several 911 calls beginning at 11:56 p.m. They arrived to find at least two people in the venue had taken down the gunman and prevented further violence, according to Colorado Springs Police Chief Adrian Vasquez.
Victims were transported to several local hospitals, Vasquez said. Nineteen of the 25 people injured sustained gunshot wounds, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers told CNN Sunday.
A 22-year-old man is in custody and was being treated at a hospital Sunday, according to police, who noted officers did not shoot at the suspect. 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 – and is reminiscent of the 2016 Pulse massacre in Orlando, in which a shooter killed 49 people at the gay nightclub.
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 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.
The shooting has devastated regulars like Cole Danielson who worked as a drag king at Club Q when he first moved to Colorado Springs. Just last month, he and his wife celebrated their wedding there.
“This space is really the only place in Colorado Springs that the LGBTQ+ community can get together and be ourselves,” he told CNN.
“Our safety as queer people in Colorado Springs is now questioned,” Danielson added. “I’m scared to be myself as a trans man in this community.”
LGBTQ residents say they don’t feel safe
Lifelong Colorado Springs resident Tiana Nicole Dykes called Club Q “a second home full of chosen family.”
“This space means the world to me. The energy, the people, the message. It’s an amazing place that didn’t deserve this tragedy,” said Dykes, who has close friends who were critically injured and died in the shooting. Dykes says the shock of the attack only gets worse with time.
Antonio Taylor, a drag queen and Colorado Springs resident, said Club Q and its 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 attack forced Club Q to shut its doors 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.”
What we know about the shooter
The suspected gunman, identified by police as Anderson Lee Aldrich, used a long rifle during the attack, according to Vasquez. Two firearms were found at the scene, the chief said.
Though he opened fire immediately upon entering the club, Vasquez said, the shooting lasted just minutes as people in the venue subdued 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.”
Police said Sunday they are looking into the suspect’s history as part of their investigation.
In June 2021, Aldrich was arrested in connection with a bomb threat that led to a standoff at his mother’s home, according to a news release from the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office at the time and his mother’s former landlord. Colorado Springs is in El Paso County.
Two law enforcement sources confirmed the suspect in the nightclub shooting and the bomb threat were the same person based on 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, and 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 in an attempt to get an earlier story about the 2021 incident removed from the 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.
Club Q community flooded with support
Until recently, Club Q served as the only LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs and always had “good energy,” 14-year patron Shenika Mosley told CNN. After the shooting, however, Mosley believes, “We’ll never be able to have that ever again.”
Support for those grappling with the brutal attack has rushed in from LGBTQ advocacy groups, politicians and communities who have endured similar attacks.
Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, a large LGBTQ media advocacy organization, called the attack “unspeakable” and said the organization “stands in solidarity with Colorado’s LGBTQ community.”
A vigil was held Sunday at the Pulse Interim Memorial in Florida “to stand together for the families of the victims, survivors, first responders, and the LGBTQIA+ community in Colorado Springs,” Pulse Orlando said on Instagram.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, the nation’s first openly gay governor, condemned the shooting, ordered flags lowered to half-staff at all public buildings statewide for five days to honor the five victims of the attack. The Pride flag will also be flown at the state capitol for the same period of time, he said.
Speaking to CNN’s Jim Acosta Sunday, Polis emphasized how deeply the shooting touches the intimate LGBTQ community in the city, saying, “Everyone knew (Club Q). I knew it, knew this venue. It’s just shocking.”
“I know we’re going to bounce back. We’re showing love for one another. We’re showing healing for one another,” the governor said.
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Chris Boyette, Hannah Sarisohn, Casey Tolan, Michelle Watson, Sam Fossum, Andy Rose, Eric Levenson and Amir Vera contributed to this report.