COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) - The Colorado Springs gay nightclub shooter had charges dropped in a 2021 bomb threat case after the family members he terrorized in the incident refused to cooperate, the district attorney said Thursday.
El Paso County District Attorney Michael Allen also said that Anderson Lee Aldrich tried to reclaim guns that were seized after the threat, but authorities did not return the weapons.
Allen spoke hours after a judge unsealed the case that included allegations Aldrich threatened to kill relatives and to become the "next mass killer" more than a year before the nightclub attack that killed five people.
The suspect's mother and grandparents derailed that earlier case by evading prosecutors' efforts to serve them with a subpoena, leading to a dismissal of the charges after defense attorneys said speedy trial rules were at risk, Allen said.
Testifying at a hearing two months after the threat, the mother and grandmother described the suspect in court as a "loving" and "sweet" young person who did not deserve to be in jail, the prosecutor said.
The former district attorney who was replaced by Allen told The Associated Press he faced many cases in which people dodged subpoenas, but the inability to serve Aldrich's family seemed extraordinary.
"I don't know that they were hiding, but if that was case, shame on them," Dan May said of the suspect's family. "This is an extreme example of apparent manipulation that has resulted in something horrible."
The judge's order comes after news organizations, including the AP, sought to unseal the documents, and two days after AP published portions of the sealed documents that were verified with a law enforcement official.
Aldrich, 22, was arrested in June 2021 on allegations of making a threat that led to the evacuation of about 10 homes. The documents describe how Aldrich told frightened grandparents about firearms and bomb-making material in the grandparents' basement and vowed not to let them interfere with plans for Aldrich to be "the next mass killer" and "go out in a blaze."
Aldrich - who uses they/them pronouns and is nonbinary, according to their attorneys - holed up in their mother's home in a standoff with SWAT teams and warned about having armor-piercing rounds and a determination to "go to the end."
Aldrich's grandparents' call to 911 led to the suspect's arrest, and Aldrich was booked into jail on suspicion of felony menacing and kidnapping. But after Aldrich's bond was set at $1 million, Aldrich's mother and grandparents argued on the defendant's behalf to lower the bond, which was reduced to $100,000 with conditions including therapy.
The case was dropped this past summer after attempts to serve the family members with subpoenas to testify against Aldrich failed, according to Allen. Both grandparents moved out of state, complicating the subpoena process, Allen said.
"At the end of the day, they weren't going to testify against Andy," Xavier Kraus, a former friend and neighbor of Aldrich, told AP.
Kraus said he had text messages from Aldrich's mother saying that she and the suspect were "hiding from somebody." He later found out the family had been dodging subpoenas. Aldrich's "words were, 'They got nothing. There's no evidence,'" Kraus said.
A protective order against the suspect that was in place until July 5 prevented Aldrich from possessing firearms.
Soon after the charges were dropped, Aldrich began boasting that they had regained access to firearms, Kraus said, adding that Aldrich had shown him two assault-style rifles, body armor and incendiary rounds.
Aldrich "was really excited about it," Kraus said, and slept with a rifle nearby under a blanket.
Relatives of Aldrich's grandmother said after the suspect's 2021 arrest that she had recently given Aldrich $30,000, "much of which went to his purchase of two 3D printers - on which he was making guns," according to documents in the case.
Aldrich's statements in the bomb case raised questions about whether authorities could have used Colorado's "red flag" law to seize weapons from the suspect.
El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder released a statement Thursday saying that there was no need to ask for a red flag order because Aldrich's weapons had already been seized as part of the arrest and Aldrich couldn't buy new ones.
The sheriff also rejected the idea that he could have asked for a red flag order after the case was dismissed in August. The bombing case was too old to argue there was danger in the near future, Elder said, and the evidence was sealed a month after the dismissal and couldn't be used.
"There was no legal mechanism" to take guns following the case dismissal, the sheriff said.
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.
Judge Robin Chittum said the "profound" public interest in the case outweighed Aldrich's privacy rights. The judge added that scrutiny of judicial cases is "foundational to our system of government."
"This is one of the strangest hearings I think I've ever had," Chittum said. "I'm having a hearing about a case that none of us is to recognize."
During Thursday's hearing, 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 remain sealed.
The suspect's attorney also objected to the document release. 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," Archambault said.
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 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-style semiautomatic rifle and began shooting during a drag queen's birthday celebration. Patrons stopped the killing by wrestling the suspect to the ground and beating Aldrich into submission, witnesses said.
Seventeen people suffered gunshot wounds but survived, authorities said.
Conviction on the murder charges would carry the harshest penalty - likely life in prison.
Mustian and Condon reported from New York, and Bedayn reported from Denver. 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.