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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ex-Army major in ‘combat mode’ brought down Colorado gunman

From left, Josephine Anemaet, Brian Huston, and Evelyn Anemaet, all local residents, arrive to lay flowers on Monday morning, Nov. 21, 2022, at the impromptu memorial to victims of the mass shooting in Colorado Springs, Colo.

By Dave Philipps, Jack Healy, Shawn Hubler and Patricia Mazzei

Richard M. Fierro was at a table in Club Q with his wife, daughter and friends on Saturday, watching a drag show, when the sudden flash of gunfire ripped across the nightclub. His instincts from four combat deployments as an Army officer in Iraq and Afghanistan kicked in.

He charged through the chaos, tackled the gunman and beat him bloody with his own gun.

“I don’t know exactly what I did, I just went into combat mode,” Fierro, 45, who left the Army in 2013 as a major, said Monday at an interview in his garage, his first since the shooting on Saturday night. “I just know I have to kill this guy before he kills us.”

On Monday, the authorities said they were holding Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, on suspicion of murder and bias-motivated crime causing bodily injury, Colorado’s equivalent of a hate crime, for each of the five people killed in the shooting. Chief Adrian Vasquez of the Colorado Springs Police Department identified the victims as Daniel Aston, Kelly Loving, Ashley Paugh, Derrick Rump and Raymond Green Vance.

The number of wounded victims was revised downward by authorities to 18 from 25. Of those people, 17 were shot and one was injured without being shot, officials said. At least 13 injured victims remained hospitalized, spokespeople for two hospital systems said. Fierro said his wife and daughter were recovering from injuries at home. Vance was his daughter’s longtime boyfriend.

The rampage lasted only a few minutes, and the death toll could have been much higher, officials said, if patrons of the nightclub had not stopped the gunman. Vasquez identified Fierro and Thomas James as the people who knocked down the gunman.

“He saved a lot of lives,” Mayor John Suthers of Colorado Springs said of Fierro. The mayor said he had spoken to Fierro and was struck by his humility. “I have never encountered a person who engaged in such heroic actions and was so humble about it.”

When the shooting started, Fierro said he hit the floor, pulling a friend down with him. As bullets sprayed, he saw the gunman move through the bar toward a door leading to a patio where dozens of nightclub patrons had fled. Fierro said he raced across the room, grabbed the gunman by a handle on the back of his body armor, pulled him to the floor and jumped on top of him.

The gunman, who Fierro estimated weighed more than 300 pounds, sprawled onto the floor with his AR-15 style rifle landing just out of reach. Fierro started to go for the rifle, he said, but then saw the gunman had a pistol as well.

“I grabbed the gun out of his hand and just started hitting him in the head, over and over,” Fierro said.

As the fight continued, he said, he yelled for other club patrons to help him. A man grabbed the rifle and moved it away to safety. A drag performer stomped on the gunman with high heels. The whole time, Fierro said, he kept pummeling the shooter’s head while the two men screamed obscenities at each other.

When police arrived a few minutes later, the gunman was no longer struggling, and Fierro said he feared that he had killed the man.

Michael J. Allen, the district attorney, said formal charges would likely be filed after the suspect, who remained hospitalized Monday, makes an initial court appearance. Additional charges are possible, Allen said. The suspect is being held without bond.

Court records showed that a public defender is representing the suspect. Efforts to reach that lawyer were not successful.

Families of the five fatal victims began sharing tributes to their lost loved ones.

Aston, a 28-year-old transgender man, moved to Colorado Springs two years ago and landed his first job as a bartender at Club Q. Loving, 40, visited Club Q on Saturday night during a weekend trip from Denver, a city to where she had recently moved. A friend described her as “a trans mother” — someone who taught her how to live her day-to-day life. Vance, 22, was visiting the club for the first time with his girlfriend.

Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado ordered flags on all public buildings to be lowered to half-staff beginning on Monday morning for five days, one for each of the people killed.

Officials revealed little about the suspect on Monday. He is the grandson of state Assemblyman Randy Voepel of California, according to one of Voepel’s aides, who added that Voepel, a Republican from Santee, California, in San Diego County, would not comment.

Fierro, the Army combat veteran who took down the gunman, was at Club Q with his wife, Jess; their daughter, Kassandra; Vance and family friends to watch one of Kassandra’s friends perform a drag act. It was Richard Fierro’s first time at a drag show. He said he was having fun.

“These kids want to live that way, want to have a good time, have at it,” he said in the interview Monday. “I’m happy about it because that is what I fought for, so they can do whatever the hell they want.”

The fight with the gunman left Fierro covered in blood, he said. When the police arrived, officers tackled him and put him in handcuffs. He said he was held in a police car for more than an hour and screamed and pleaded to be let go so that he could see what had happened to his family.

Fierro, who owns a local brewery, said that on combat deployments in the Army, he had been shot at and had seen roadside bombs shred trucks in his platoon. His record shows that he was awarded the Bronze Star twice. The experiences of combat still haunt him, he said, and the psychological and physical toll of the deployments were why he left the Army.

He said he never thought he would have to deal with that kind of violence at home.

“I was done with war,” he said.

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