“When the Legend Becomes the Truth”: The Case of Matthew Shepard

By Andrew GumbelNovember 7, 2013

“When the Legend Becomes the Truth”: The Case of Matthew Shepard

The Book of Matt by Stephen Jimenez

IN THE EARLY EVENING of October 6, 1998, hours before the brutal attack that would end his life, Matthew Shepard attended a meeting of the University of Wyoming’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Association. The group was finalizing plans for Gay Awareness Week and getting excited about the keynote speaker, the poet, novelist and children’s author Lesléa Newman, best known for her groundbreaking story of lesbian parenting, Heather Has Two Mommies.

It was lost on nobody that an event celebrating gay identity carried risks in the cowboy culture of southern Wyoming, no matter how liberal the university liked to think itself. Jim Osborn, the head of the campus LGBTA, described how he had recently been harassed near Fraternity Row, and warned everyone at the meeting to be careful.

Shepard, just shy of his 22nd birthday, was in every conceivable sense an easy target. He was short and almost painfully slight, weighing barely over 100 pounds. He was a classic pretty boy with an open, outgoing personality, and flamboyant taste in clothes. He’d already had more than his share of trouble; his father nicknamed him the “bad karma kid.” Three years earlier, while on a school trip to Morocco, he’d been attacked and gang-raped. Two months before the LGBTA meeting, he’d been punched so hard — by a bartender from northern Wyoming who did not appreciate his sexual advances — that his jaw shattered and had to be wired shut.

When the news broke the next day that Shepard had been robbed, pistol-whipped, tied to a fencepost, and left for dead in the freezing cold by two townies he’d met in a bar, it didn’t take much to convince Laramie’s LGBT community that their worst nightmares had come true, and that everything they stood for was now under vicious attack.

By the time Newman arrived in Laramie the following Monday, the town — and much of the country — was in ferment. Shepard had just been pronounced dead in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the organizers of Gay Awareness Week were terrified of possible copycat attacks. Newman was described by one of the organizers as “visibly nervous,” despite the presence of a plainclothes police officer. When photographs of the two suspected killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were shown on TV, they produced a collective shudder in many LGBTA members. “I recognized them as exactly the types who drive past me in their pick-ups when I'm out biking," a lesbian student told me when I arrived in Laramie to cover the story a day or two later. "The kind who shout ‘you fucking faggot’ and let you know exactly where you stand." The student was too frightened to give me her full name.

By this point, two friends of Shepard’s, Alex Trout and Walt Boulden, were telling anyone who would listen that his murder was a hate crime. A story was forming in the public consciousness: that Shepard had met McKinney and Henderson for the first time at the Fireside Lounge; told them he was gay; and accepted their offer of a ride home. The two men went along with his overtures, all the better to rob him and beat the crap out of him as soon as they had him in their clutches.

It was a story McKinney and Henderson only reinforced when they talked to the police following their arrests. McKinney, in particular, described being overtaken by “gay panic” when he beat Shepard around the head with the barrel of a .357 Magnum, crushing the younger man’s brain stem, and left him lashed to a fence, without his shoes, on the edge of a rocky field. Gay panic was the best argument McKinney could think of to diminish his responsibility. And it worked, because the jury at his trial rejected the prosecution argument that the crime was premeditated. Henderson, meanwhile, pled out to avoid the death penalty so there was no second trial.

Both men ended up with life sentences, which satisfied the public clamor for justice, but did little to add shades of gray to an overwhelmingly black-and-white story. With few facts at its disposal, the news media turned instead to symbolism. The New York Times thought Shepard’s treatment echoed the western custom of nailing a dead coyote to a fencepost as a warning to intruders. Others wrote, erroneously, that Shepard had been lashed to the fence with arms outstretched, like Christ on the cross.

And so Matthew Shepard the murder victim gave way to Shepard the martyr to a cause. The gay rights movement, together with an army of supporters, decided that his death needed to be a line in the sand, an act of abject horror that must never be repeated, a senseless killing that could acquire meaning only if it led to positive outcomes. Shepard was celebrated in a play, The Laramie Project, on film and television, and in countless songs and poems. His family set up a foundation in his memory to plead for tolerance and stronger legislative protection for gays and lesbians. The outpouring of energy was remarkable, and did not let up for years. As Sean Maloney, a lawyer for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, said: “Matthew Shepard is to gay rights what Emmett Till was to the civil rights movement.”

Yet, from the beginning, there were signs that the story was not quite as simple as everyone had been led to believe. Alex Trout and Walt Boulden, the two friends most vocal about the motive for Shepard’s murder, had no direct knowledge of the crime, and were not even invited to Shepard’s funeral. The prosecutor who put McKinney and Henderson away for life, Cal Rerucha, declined an invitation to the White House to lobby for a new federal hate crimes statute, to the dismay of Shepard’s parents. As an elected public official and a Democrat, there was no obvious reason why he would snub President Clinton over the biggest case of his career.

The notion that Shepard was targeted solely because he was gay became a truism that people accepted mainly because they had no reason to doubt it. It was consistent with the shock they felt over the bone-chilling violence he had suffered and, in many cases, it served a political cause they believed in. The only people visibly countering the received wisdom were bigots and extremists like the Westboro Baptist Church, which picketed Shepard’s funeral with signs reading “No Fags in Heaven”; or Christian conservatives railing against what one writer recently characterized as the “gay grievance industry.”  The political battle lines were clear, and people picked their side accordingly.

Or at least they did until Stephen Jimenez, an investigative journalist who is himself gay, started digging into the case, and unearthed a body of evidence challenging the story as it was commonly understood. Perhaps his most important insight, as he began work on The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, was how little we really knew. McKinney’s “gay panic” defense was never seriously tested, as it might have been if Henderson had had a separate trial. There was no easy way for the public to understand the distinct roles that McKinney and Henderson played, and no easily accessible public record delving into the activities of the two assailants and their victim in the days and weeks leading up to the crime.

The outcry over Shepard’s murder, and the speed with which the case was prosecuted, effectively cast a pall over everything. Once McKinney and Henderson were convicted and sentenced, the criminal justice system felt no need to delve further into their lives. A sense of propriety, meanwhile, held investigators back from revealing anything awkward or unflattering they had learned about Shepard. It took Jimenez many years to gain the confidence of those investigators and the surviving protagonists, and many years, too, to conduct his own research into a criminal subculture stretching from southern Wyoming to Denver, two and a half hours’ drive away along the foothills of the Rockies.

What he discovered was a story that many people have not wanted to hear. Multiple sources, on both sides of the law, told Jimenez that Shepard was acquainted with his killers before the night of the attack, and was involved with them in buying, selling, and using crystal methamphetamine, a drug with a devastating impact on much of Middle America. McKinney eventually acknowledged to Jimenez that the “gay panic” defense was nonsense. He, Henderson, and their girlfriends all admitted, after multiple interviews, that they had lied about the true motive for the murder so the police would not discover the full extent of their drug activities.

Jimenez also heard that McKinney had pimped himself out to gay men as a way of earning extra cash to feed his drug habit. In other words, gay sex was far from an alien concept to him. Most explosively, Jimenez heard from a boyfriend of Shepard’s that Shepard and McKinney had been sexually involved with each other. “Aaron screwed Matt at least five times that I know of,” the boyfriend, Ted Henson, disclosed.

This and other aspects of Jimenez’s research into Laramie’s sex-and-drugs underworld are a little murky, perhaps unavoidably so. Since he could not issue subpoenas and did not enjoy police powers of arrest, he had only his own judgment to go by to determine the reliability of his sources, many of whom were known criminals and did not always stick to their stories. Some gay advocacy organizations with a vested interest in maintaining a pure image of Shepard have seized on this to accuse him of peddling malicious gossip under the guise of serious reporting. But many of Jimenez’s conclusions are in fact supported by the original investigators. The reason Cal Rerucha, the prosecutor, did not go to Washington was, as he eventually acknowledged, that he did not think Shepard’s murder was a hate crime at all. Detective Ben Fritzen concurred. “Anybody who was closely involved in investigating the case,” he told Jimenez, “pretty much came up with the same consensus.”

Jimenez certainly took time to understand his sources’ motives for speaking to him. That does not mean they are telling the truth, necessarily, but it does suggest Jimenez did more than just look for material to cast Shepard in the worst possible light. Ted Henson, for example, agonized for a long time before going on the record. “I know Matt was not perfect but none of us are,” he ended up saying,

All I want is for the true meaning of Matt to come out, not something that is made up. Matt was far from [an] innocent person but he was a person that I loved and still do.

The book thus illuminates a philosophical difference of opinion as much as a factual one. Is Shepard more appropriately honored by public beatification, or by an honest reckoning of who he was and why he was killed? Shepard’s own friends can’t agree on the answer to that question, so the discomfort is understandable. Jimenez’s biggest mistake, in the end, may have been to disregard the advice of the canny newspaper editor in the John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.”

As Jimenez tells it, by the time Shepard showed up to the LGBTA meeting, he’d already been drinking for several hours. He’d been seen at a bar called The Library, and a fellow LGBTA member told the police she could smell alcohol on his breath. He was also considering ordering a limo to take him to Denver and back that night — an expensive pleasure that, according to Jimenez’s sources, Shepard indulged in frequently and could afford only because it entailed picking up one or more six-ounce batches of meth valued at $10,000 apiece.

McKinney, meanwhile, was coming apart at the seams. He’d been on a week-long meth binge and was desperate to keep it going by any means. He was also out of money, and in hock to two drug dealers impatient to collect. He was bleary-eyed and paranoid. Before his binge, back when he was a meth seller and not a buyer, he’d given a friend a hit in exchange for a .357 Magnum. Now his plan was to set up a meeting with a drug dealer and trade in the Magnum for a hit of his own. Or so he told Henderson. In fact, he was thinking of using the gun to rob the dealer. He had an idea that a meth batch was arriving that night from Denver, and that his dealer either had it or could lead him to it.

In the end, he and Henderson frittered away the evening in bars, downing beers and talking rather than settling on a solid plan. As midnight approached, they headed to the Fireside Lounge, where they spotted Shepard sitting with a tall restaurateur named Mike St. Clair. According to St. Clair, McKinney leaned over to Shepard and said: “Hey, buddy.” Then he bummed a cigarette off him.

At some point over the next hour, it occurred to McKinney that Shepard might have the meth batch, or know where it was. The plan with the other dealer was hastily dropped as McKinney decided he was going to lure Shepard away from the bar, and force the information out of him. McKinney offered to drive him home, and Shepard, who had now been drinking for nine or 10 hours, accepted. Henderson, the soberest of the three, took the wheel of McKinney’s black Ford pickup. Within a couple of minutes, McKinney had pulled out his gun and ordered Shepard to hand over his wallet. It contained just $20.

McKinney directed Henderson to a dirt road on the outskirts of Laramie, which he knew because he’d grown up nearby. When they reached the end of a field dotted with rocks and cactus, McKinney dragged Shepard out of the pickup and started bashing him with the seven-inch barrel of the Magnum. Shepard begged him to stop and said he had another $150 at home he would gladly hand over. But McKinney was no longer rational. He ordered Henderson to tie Shepard’s hands behind his back and strap them to the fence. It’s possible that Henderson resisted briefly and received a smack in the mouth from the Magnum – there are competing theories on how he split his lip that night.

Still, Shepard might have survived but for a sudden obsession McKinney developed over the truck’s license plates. In McKinney’s mind, if Shepard memorized the plate number it could give the police documentary proof that he had carried out the assault. This was paranoia talking; the license plate was not a factor in the police investigation, and probably would not have been, even if Shepard had survived. But McKinney was insistent. He ordered Shepard to read back the plate number and, after he did, delivered the fatal blows. “The last time I hit him,” McKinney said in an interview in 2004, “I swung the gun like a baseball bat.”

McKinney and Henderson left Shepard for dead, and headed to the address they found on his driver’s license. They were still hoping to find money, or drugs, or both. But they muddled South 7th Street with North 7th Street, and ended up in the wrong neighborhood. To compound their problems, they ran into two Mexican teenagers vandalizing a car and quickly got into a fight. McKinney hit one of the teenagers with his gun; the other retaliated by whacking his head with a wooden club.

Moments later, a police cruiser pulled up. The officer mistakenly thought the occupants of the pickup were responsible for the vandalism. McKinney and Henderson didn’t wait to find out what he wanted; they opened the doors and ran. Within minutes, Henderson was under arrest, an alarming gash clearly visible across his face. McKinney was captured the next day when his girlfriend took him to hospital to treat his head wound.

The officer, Flint Waters, took a look inside the pickup and saw the Magnum covered in blood on the floor on the passenger side. He understood right away he was dealing with more than just car vandals. Once Shepard was found the following evening, hypothermic and comatose and covered in blood, it took the police just 36 hours to tie McKinney and Henderson to the attack and arrest them. From a procedural point of view, this was never a complicated case.

Jimenez’s retelling certainly has the ring of plausibility; in many ways it makes more sense than a vicious, unprovoked attack on a complete stranger. But The Book of Matt is also a frustrating read. Instead of telling Shepard’s story, Jimenez chooses to tell his own, taking the reader through the many iterations of events he heard over the years, and recreating his thought process as he considers and sifts each one. The effect is dizzying, like being stuck inside a giant kaleidoscope of ever-shifting narratives, and does a disservice to the often excellent reporting along the way. As his detractors have pointed out, Jimenez has a habit of overanalyzing insignificant details; inserts himself into the narrative in ways that are often off-putting and self-aggrandizing; and does not do enough to distinguish his incontrovertibly strong sources from his incontrovertibly weak — and frequently anonymous — ones.

Jimenez also fails to ask some important questions. He is so intent on arguing against anti-gay animus as the primary reason for Shepard’s murder, that he does not consider whether it might have played a subsidiary role. Is it not conceivable — probable, even — that McKinney allowed the beating to run out of control because Shepard was small, gay and, most pertinently, a reminder of the shame McKinney felt about his own homosexual adventurism? Jimenez never explores the contradictory emotions a full-blooded Wyoming male with a girlfriend might feel about having sex with other men for money. This is Brokeback Mountain territory, albeit with a methamphetamine-fueled twist.

Still, the book delivers some important lessons. The first is that, when events turn into media circuses, the facts are invariably distorted, and complex reality is replaced by an over-simplified rendering of heroes and villains. Whatever one makes of Jimenez’s research, it seems clear that Shepard moved in questionable circles, and almost certainly knew his attackers before they pounced.

The second lesson is that trials rarely reveal the full story of a crime. They are about establishing guilt. And because both defendants ended up pleading guilty — McKinney after the evidentiary phase, Henderson before — the process in this case was short-circuited. Had Henderson had better legal representation and insisted on his own trial (something the local authorities resisted because they didn’t want to spend the extra money), it might have cast a whole new light on his role, as well as the dynamics of the night leading up to the fatal attack.

A third lesson is that, when politics intervene, the human story tends to take a back seat to ideological posturing, both for and against a given cause. Politicians from Bill Clinton down seized on Matthew Shepard’s murder as an opportunity to change both legal and cultural attitudes toward homosexuality. In so doing, they touched on a lot of raw nerves and entrenched traditions. Undoubtedly, they also furthered the cause of gay rights and started a cultural shift that has since opened the door not only to a new hate crimes statute but to many previously unthinkable things such as marriage equality and the extension of federal benefits to same-sex partners. Jimenez doesn’t question these achievements. But he does believe that something in the process has gotten lost. “Together,” he writes, “we have enshrined Matthew’s tragedy as passion play and folktale, but hardly ever for the truth of what it was, or who he was.”

Curiously, someone who might agree with him on that point is Lesléa Newman, who has been haunted by Shepard since that traumatic visit to Laramie 15 years ago. Newman was so moved by the murder that she tucked a photograph of Shepard into her wallet on the day she left Laramie, and has kept it there since. Last year, she published a book of poems about Shepard, October Mourning, which touches on many of the themes played up by Jimenez. One beautifully nuanced poem, “Then and Now,” sums it up:

Then I was a son
Now I am a symbol

Then I was a brother
Now I am an absence

Then I was a friend
Now I am a memory

Then I was a person
Now I am a headline

Then I was a guy
Now I am a ghost

Then I was a student
Now I am a lesson

Of course, if Shepard’s death is to be a lesson, it would be helpful to have our facts straight. Jimenez’s book may not be the last word on what all those facts are, but he has opened up a discussion we would do much better to continue than to ignore.


Andrew Gumbel is a Los Angeles-based journalist and writer and a longtime foreign correspondent for British newspapers. 

LARB Contributor

Andrew Gumbel is an award-winning journalist and author with a long track record as an investigative reporter, political columnist, magazine writer and foreign correspondent. He contributes regularly to The Guardian, among other publications, and has written extensively on subjects ranging from politics, law enforcement and counterterrorism, to food and popular culture. His books include Oklahoma City: What The Investigation Missed — And Why It Still Matters (HarperCollins, 2012), Down for the Count: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America (The New Press, 2016), and, most recently, Won't Lose This Dream: How an Upstart Urban University Rewrote the Rules of a Broken System (The New Press, 2020).


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