Nightmare at the Nightclub

When the shooting started, a combat veteran’s lifesaving instincts kicked in

By Dave Philipps Published Feb 15, 2024 15:02:49 IST
Nightmare at the Nightclub illustration by Jeffrey Smith

Richard M. Fierro was at a table at Club Q with his wife, daughter and friends on a Saturday night last November when the sudden flash of gunfire ripped across the nightclub. His instincts, forged during four combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, instantly kicked in. Fight back, he told himself. Protect your people. 

Fierro, 45, who spent 15 years as a U.S. Army officer and left as a major in 2013, charged through the chaos at the club and tackled the gunman, beating him with the shooter’s own gun.

“I don’t know exactly what I did. I just went into combat mode,” Fierro said in the driveway of his Colorado Springs, Colorado, home a few days after the shooting, an American flag hanging limp in the freezing air. “I just knew I had to stop this guy.”

The gunman, Anderson Lee Aldrich, then 22, was arrested on charges of killing five people and wounding 18 more in a rampage that lasted only a few minutes. The death toll could have been much higher, officials said, if patrons of the bar had not stopped the gunman.

“He saved a lot of lives,” John Suthers, then the mayor of Colorado Springs, said of Fierro. Suthers 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.”

It was supposed to be a chill family night out. The combat veteran and his wife, Jess Fierro, joined their daughter, Kassandra, her longtime boyfriend, Raymond Green Vance, and two family friends to watch one of his daughter’s friends perform a drag act.

It was Fierro’s first time at a drag show, and he was enjoying it. After all those years in the Army, he now relished his role as a civilian and a father, watching one of his daughter’s old high school friends perform.

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

image-87_021524030026.jpgRichard Fierro tackled the gunman before he could kill more people.; Photo credit: Daniel Brenner/The New York Times

Fierro was trying to get better at going out. In Iraq and Afghanistan he’d been shot at, lost friends and seen roadside bombs shred trucks in his platoon. He was twice awarded the Bronze Star.

The wars were past and yet still present. There were things he would never forget. For a long time after coming home, crowds put him on edge. He couldn’t help but be vigilant. In restaurants he sat against the wall, facing the door. No matter how much he tried to relax, part of him was always ready for an attack, like an itch that could not be scratched.He was too often distrustful, quick to anger. It had been hard on his wife and daughter. He was working on it. There was medication and there were sessions with a psychologist. He got rid of all the guns in the house. He let his hair grow out long and grew a long white goatee to distance himself from his days in uniform.

He and his wife run a successful local brewery called Atrevida Beer Co., and he had a warm relationship with his daughter and her boyfriend. He also accepted that war would always be with him. But that night at Club Q, he was not thinking of war at all. People were dancing. He was joking with his friends. Then the shooting started.

It was a staccato of flashes by the front door, the familiar sound of small-arms fire. Fierro knew it too well. Without thinking, he hit the floor, pulling his friend down with him. Bullets sprayed across the bar, smashing bottles and glasses. People screamed. Fierro looked up and saw a figure as big as a bear, easily more than 135 kilos, wearing body armour and carrying a rifle a lot like the one Fierro had carried in Iraq. The shooter was moving through the bar toward a door leading to a patio where dozens of people had fled.The long-suppressed instincts of a platoon leader surged back to life. Fierro raced across the room, grabbed the gunman by a handle on the back of his body armour, pulled him to the floor and jumped on top of him

“Was he shooting at the time? Was he about to shoot? I don’t know,” Fierro said. “I just knew I had to take him down.”

The two crashed down to the floor. The gunman’s military-style rifle clattered just out of reach. Fierro started to go for it, but then saw the gunman come up with a pistol in his other hand.

“I grabbed the gun out of his hand and just started hitting him on the head, over and over,” Fierro said. As he held the man down and slammed the pistol on his skull, Fierro started barking orders. Using a string of expletives, he yelled for a club patron to grab the rifle, then told the patron to start kicking the gunman in the face. Fierro ordered a bystander to stomp the attacker with her high heels. Meantime, Fierro said, he pummelled the shooter with the pistol while screaming at him.

What allowed him to throw aside all fear and act? He said he has no idea. Probably those old instincts of war, which had burdened him for so long at home, suddenly had a place now that something like war had come to his hometown.

“In combat, most of the time nothing happens, but it’s that mad minute, and you are tested in that minute. It becomes habit,” he said. “I don’t know how I got the weapon away from that guy, no idea. I’m just a dude, I’m a fat old veteran, but I knew I had to do something.”

When police arrived a few minutes later, the gunman was no longer struggling. Fierro, himself covered in blood, feared that he had killed him.

Fierro got up and frantically lurched around in the dark, looking for his family. He spotted his friends on the floor. One had been shot several times in the chest and arm. Another had been shot in the leg.

As more police filed in, Fierro started yelling like he was back in combat. “Casualties! Casualties! I need a medic here now!” He yelled to the police that the scene was clear, the shooter was down but people needed help. He took tourniquets from a young police officer and put them on his bleeding friends. He tried to speak calmly to them as he worked, telling them they’d be okay.


image-88_021524030113.jpgMourners gathered at a makeshift memorial near Club Q in Colorado Springs to pay tribute to the victims.; Photo credit: Scott Olson/getty images; Scott Olson/getty images



He spied his wife and daughter on the edge of the room and was about to go to them when he was tackled. Officers rushing into the chaotic scene had spotted him, a blood-spattered man with a handgun. Not knowing whether he was a threat, they put Fierro in handcuffs and locked him in the back of a police car for what seemed like more than an hour. He screamed and pleaded to be let go so that he could see his family.

Eventually, Fierro was freed. He located his wife and daughter, both of whom had minor injuries, and went to the hospital with them. His friends were there in much more serious condition. They were all alive.

But his daughter’s boyfriend, Raymond, was nowhere to be found. In the dark and disarray, they had lost him. They drove back to the club, searching for him. They circled familiar streets, hoping they would find him walking home. But there was no sign of him.

Then the family got a call late Sunday from Raymond’s mother. He had died in the shooting. When Fierro heard, he held his daughter and cried.

In part he cried because he knew what lay ahead. The families of the dead, the people who were shot, they had now been in war, as he had. They would struggle as he and so many of his combat buddies had. They would ache with misplaced vigilance. They would lash out in anger, never be able to scratch the itch of fear, be torn by the longing to forget and the urge to always remember.

“My little girl, she screamed, and I was crying with her,” Fierro said. “Driving home from the hospital I told them, ‘Look, I’ve gone through this before, and down the road, when this happens, you just get out on the next patrol. You need to get it out of your mind.’ That is how you cured it. You cured it by doing more. Eventually you get home safe.

“But here I worry there is no next patrol. It is harder to cure. You are already home.”


Editor’s Note: In June, Anderson Lee Aldrich pleaded guilty to five counts of first-degree murder, 46 counts of attempted first-degree murder and no contest to two counts of bias-motivated crimes. He received five life sentences without the possibility of parole and 46 consecutive 48-year sentences.

The New York Times (29 November 2022), copyright © 2022 by The New York Times Company

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