By COLLEEN SLEVIN
DENVER (AP) — More than a year before police say Anderson Lee Aldrich killed five people and wounded 17 others at a gay night club in Colorado Springs, Aldrich was arrested on allegations of making a bomb threat that led to the evacuation of about 10 homes.
Aldrich, who uses the pronoun they and is nonbinary according to their attorneys, threatened to harm their own family with a homemade bomb, ammunition and multiple weapons, authorities said at the time. They were booked into jail on suspicion of felony menacing and kidnapping, but the case was later sealed and it’s unclear what became of the charges. There are no public indications that the case led to a conviction.
Officials refuse to speak about what happened, citing the sealing law, which was passed three years ago to help prevent people from having their lives ruined if cases are dismissed and never prosecuted. It was passed as part of a nationwide movement aimed at addressing the “collateral consequences” from people’s run-ins with law enforcement that often make it difficult for them to get jobs or housing.
Amid a flurry of questions about the incident after Aldrich was identified as the suspect in the Nov. 19 shooting at Club Q, District Attorney Michael Allen said during a Nov. 21 news conference that he “hoped at some point in the near future” to share more about the incident, raising expectations that he wanted the information to be made public.
But 11 days later, Allen still hasn’t shed light on the incident and the documents remain sealed despite a petition to make them public submitted by a coalition of media organizations including The Associated Press.
Here is a closer look at what is known about the incident, the records and what is being done to make them public as a grieving community clamors for more information.
WHY ARE THE CASE DOCUMENTS SEALED?
There had been ways to seal criminal records in Colorado for decades, but in 2019, state lawmakers changed the law to allow records to be automatically sealed when a case is dropped and defendants aren’t prosecuted. Before that law was passed, anyone seeking to seal their records would’ve had to petition the court in what was an opaque process that was difficult for many to navigate, said one of the sponsors, Democratic state Rep. Mike Weissman.
Weissman said he thinks Colorado’s law strikes the right balance with a mechanism to ask for documents to be unsealed, but that speeding up the process for unsealing cases that draw intense public interest could be a possible improvement.
Law enforcement agencies are still able to access sealed records, though they are limited in what they can share publicly. The law prevents authorities from even acknowledging the existence of such sealed cases when someone from the public asks about them. Allen has cited the 2019 law in his refusal to discuss what happened.
CAN SEALED RECORDS BE MADE PUBLIC?
Yes, but it isn’t easy. Colorado law allows anyone to ask a court to unseal a record if they believe the benefit outweighs the defendant’s right to privacy. But that can only be done if someone has reason to believe a record may exist, since court officials can’t disclose such information to the public.
The process happens behind closed doors with no docket to follow. It isn’t even known which judge is considering the request. All of that makes it impossible to know when a decision could come.
David Loy, legal director at the First Amendment Coalition, said it seems troubling that the public is unable to follow the petition request to unseal the documents.
“It’s sort of a black box as to who the judge is, we don’t normally have secret judges, we don’t normally have secret courts, for very important reasons,” he said.
Getting access to records is important for learning the details of cases and whether the justice system worked as it should have, including whether a red flag order should have been pursued to remove any firearms, said Jeff Roberts, who heads the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition,
“You don’t truly know the circumstances until you can see what law enforcement authorities wrote about what happened,” he said.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE BOMB THREAT INCIDENT?
Most of what is known about the June 18, 2021, incident in Colorado Springs comes from a news release put out that night by the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.
In it, the office said that a woman calling from the street where Aldrich’s grandparents lived reported that “her son” was threatening to harm her with a homemade bomb, multiple weapons and ammunition. Aldrich was later found at house about a mile (1.6 kilometers) away, on the block where his mother lived. The release noted that no explosives were found, but it didn’t mention if any other weapons were found.
Ring doorbell video obtained by the AP shows Aldrich arriving at their mother’s front door with a big black bag, telling her the police were nearby and adding, “This is where I stand. Today I die.”
Two squad cars and what appears to be a bomb squad vehicle later pull up to the house, and a barefooted Aldrich emerges with hands up.
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER ALDRICH’S 2021 ARREST?
It’s not clear, because case records are sealed. What is known is that in August, Aldrich told a reporter for The Gazette in Colorado Springs that they had spent two months in jail after the 2021 arrest, though it is unknown if that is true. The reporter called Aldrich in response to a voicemail Aldrich had left with the newspaper asking that its previous story about the bomb threat be removed or updated, asserting that the case had been dropped.
SHOULD COLORADO’S RED FLAG LAW BEEN USED?
That is difficult to say, largely because of the lack of public details about what happened after Aldrich’s arrest and what other evidence authorities might have gathered. And it isn’t clear when Aldrich acquired the semi-automatic rifle and handgun investigators recovered at the scene of last month’s shooting.
The law allows a law enforcement agency or household member ask a court to order someone to surrender their firearms if they pose a significant risk to themselves or others.
Had a red flag order been issued against Aldrich, any firearms they had at the time would have been taken away and they would have been prevented from buying additional weapons from a gun dealer required to perform a background check.
Associated Press writer Jesse Bedayn 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.