Why We Must Take Challenges to the Matthew Shepard Story Seriously
Everyone in America knows the story of Matthew Shepard. Probably equally familiar are the two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who were given double life sentences for Shepard’s murder. It is the most infamous anti-gay hate crime to ever happen in America. Or is it?
A new book by journalist Stephen Jimenez called “The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard” argues that the crime was not solely if it all motivated by anti-gay feelings on McKinney and Henderson’s part, but rather the result of a desperately awful series of events that center not on Matthew Shepard’s gay identity, but his and McKinney’s being part of Laramie’s extensive drug scene.
Matthew Shepard’s Murder: The Accepted Narrative
To establish how radical a departure Jimenez’s book offers from what is commonly understood about Matthew Shepard’s murder, we must first consider the accepted version of events.
On the night/early morning of 6–7 of October, 21-year-old university student Matthew Shepard, with his golden hair, elfish good looks and slight build, met two strangers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, 22 and 21 respectively, at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming.
Frequently reduced to the simple characterization of “rednecks” (and yes, the juxtaposition of their physical characteristics is important), McKinney and Henderson had, so the story goes, decided to rob a trusting and vulnerable Matthew and offered to give him a ride home.
Henderson then drove McKinney and Shepard to a remote area at the edge of a farmer’s plot of land, where they pistol-whipped Matthew Shepard before lashing him to a fence post and leaving him for dead. Shepard, still alive but in a coma, would be discovered 18 hours later by a cyclist who, in an image that would become emblematic, said he mistook Shepard for a scarecrow.
Shepard was then taken to the hospital, but his brain injuries were too severe for doctors to operate. Shepard was pronounced dead at 12:53 a.m. on October 12.
The anti-gay animus behind the attack was apparently confirmed when during the subsequent murder trial, McKinney’s lawyers advanced the so-called “gay panic” defense, that Matthew Shepard had come on to McKinney and McKinney had flown into a rage related to a traumatic event of sexual abuse when he was young.
Both McKinney and Henderson made plea bargains, agreeing that anti-gay animus had played a substantial role in the murder and therein avoided the death penalty.
This was further supported by McKinney’s then-girlfriend and mother of his child, Kristen Price, who at the time granted a television interview in which she said that McKinney and Henderson “just wanted to beat [Shepard] up bad enough to teach him a lesson not to come on to straight people.”
The gay panic defense wasn’t ultimately viable and so did not play a part in the official sentence. Similarly, since Wyoming did not have a gay-inclusive hate crimes statute, and the evidence for a hate crime wasn’t technically sufficient either, McKinney and Henderson could not have been charged in that manner.
Yet, for the media and the court of public opinion, the matter was settled: Matthew Shepard’s murder was a horrific anti-gay hate crime.
In the wake of Matthew Shepard’s death, a foundation was set up in his name and his mother, Judy Shepard, became a tireless campaigner for hate crimes laws and acceptance of LGBTs, having by any standard done a laudable amount of good in the wake of such tragedy. This culminated in 2009 with the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act that gave federal recognition to anti-LGBT bias motivated crimes.
This, with a few minor variations, is likely the story that many readers are familiar with. Jimenez, however, argues something very different.
Next: Read the hidden truths Jimenez says he unearthed in the Matthew Shepard story.
The Book of Matt’s Account of the Matthew Shepard Murder
Matthew Shepard was heavily involved in drugs. This is something that Judy Shepard has talked about on numerous occasions and so is not of itself controversial. However, Matthew’s move to Laramie to attend the university was supposed to signal him cutting ties with the problems he’d had while living in Denver and, as far as the Shepard family was concerned, Matthew’s drug use largely ended there.
However, Jimenez advances that not only did Matthew find himself part of the Laramie drug scene, he was in fact making drug runs to Denver and, according to Jimenez, was also dealing. Another important point to note is Jimenez’s contention that Matthew Shepard and Aaron McKinney were not strangers.
Based on the testimony of several people, Jimenez offers that McKinney, who was a rabid meth user who also used cocaine, had met Matthew several times before. Henderson, for the record, had never met Shepard and only three months prior became friends with McKinney.
Jimenez claims to have gathered statements alleging Shepard and McKinney had sexual contact on at least two separate occasions. This, and evidence of McKinney having worked as a male escort in order to secure more drugs, Jimenez uses to partially substantiate that McKinney’s beating of Matthew Shepard was not an anti-gay attack because McKinney may be bisexual. This is a component of the book that proves troublesome — contending that a heavy drug user is bisexual based on his sexual activities while in the pursuit of drugs is problematic, but certainly there seems a strong body of evidence to suggest McKinney had sex with men, that he indeed had dealings with Shepard, and at the very least that he wasn’t homophobic, despite what he might later claim.
That aside for a moment, Jimenez says the collected statements of hundreds of people he interviewed establishes that in the weeks leading up to the murder, Matthew Shepard and Aaron McKinney had a falling out after Shepard refused to supply McKinney meth without payment. McKinney would later be heard telling Matthew to “watch” his back.
On the night of the murder, Jimenez explains that Matthew Shepard had been at the Fireside Lounge for a number of hours when McKinney and Henderson entered. McKinney had told Jimenez that, at that time, he was coming down off a near week long drug binge. There is also reason to believe his financial situation was precarious, owing money and having run dry on his drug supply. Finding Shepard at the bar, McKinney decided to rob him.
At one point McKinney and Shepard went to the bathroom together — not McKinney and Henderson as was widely reported. Jimenez theorizes that a further discussion about a drug run Shepard was meant to make that very night took place, likely with McKinney believing Shepard had a large amount of meth and wanting to call in a debt.
Not long after, Shepard spoke to the Fireside’s DJ on his way out of the bar, saying that McKinney and Henderson were giving him a ride home. At some point during that journey, McKinney began assaulting Shepard. They soon arrived at the now infamous wide open hillside where events unfolded in much the same pattern as the traditional account tells us, but with a few seemingly minor but important differences.
McKinney continued to pistol whip Shepard, but Jimenez contends this was motivated by McKinney’s drug-addled state and not anti-gay prejudice. McKinney then told Henderson to tie Shepard’s hands. Henderson, after having refused to comply and being hit by McKinney, did so. This was done to give them time to get away, McKinney told Jimenez. He then claims to have hit Shepard a final time. At that point a still lucid Shepard suddenly went completely still. McKinney recounts knowing that the final blow was a bad one, but told Jimenez he never meant to kill Shepard.
For the sake of brevity, we will skip the rest of the night’s events except to mention that McKinney then attempted to locate Shepard’s home address, possibly to find the drugs of which he believed Shepard was in possession, and that they were later picked up by police.
Jimenez alleges that the story of Shepard’s death being an anti-gay hate crime originated in part with Shepard’s friends and how, just hours after news of the attack and without any real proof other than Shepard’s prior statements that he fully expected to get attacked over his sexuality, they began to circulate the hate crime meme and contacted media outlets and gay rights groups.
The media then ran with that story because it seemed to fit: Matthew Shepard, a soft spoken sensitive kid who looked much younger than his years, killed by physically stronger “rednecks” who hated him for being gay and wanted to send a message. This wasn’t helped by the fact that McKinney, Henderson and McKinney’s girlfriend had by that time arrived at the same story: that the attack was meant to send a message about gay people. Why do that, then? Why not plead temporary insanity on grounds of drugs or some equivalent plea?
The reason for this, Jimenez says, is because McKinney was desperate (and remains so) to protect his drug connections because to inform on them would not only put his own life in danger but the life of his then girlfriend and their son.
So why wasn’t the methamphetamine angle investigated by the police and why did it not feature as heavily at trial? Jimenez, in the book’s weaker chapters, alleges (and I stress alleges) that a police cover-up may have been at play due to the extent of Laramie’s drug problem that, he contends, reaches into the very heart of the police force. This leads us neatly to how we treat and resolve the allegations made in “The Book of Matt.”
Questioning Jimenez’s Approach on the Matthew Shepard Murder
That the Religious Right has gloated over this book barely needs to said.
Practically frothing, Breitbart carries an extensive review and follow up piece as vindication of its idea that “the sexual left” is lying to America, while the always dependable Bryan Fischer has already decided that this is evidence of why homosexuality is so apparently disordered.
No doubt this will rumble on for quite some time, but I’d contend that doesn’t matter. The Right was always going to have a feast with these bones. Only the facts are important here, though, so blithe commentary that this case should have been allowed to rest are to be dismissed. The truth matters, Matthew Shepard’s legacy matters and so treating the subject matter seriously is entirely reasonable.
Certainly, there are some important details that must be dealt with, chiefly questions that persist surrounding Jimenez’s credibility and the book’s claims.
In 2004, Jimenez worked as a producer on an ABC 20/20 documentary that, essentially, put forward younger versions of many of the arguments featured in “The Book of Matt.” The gay community was aghast and protested the program as shoddy journalism for its narrow focus on the meth angle.
Then, when an ABC internal memo showed that Jimenez and other prominent figures behind the production had from the start already decided the angle they were taking — that it was meth and not anti-gay hate that had been a central driving force of the crime — the producers were assailed with claims this wasn’t investigative journalism but a biased report and one neatly timed to help Henderson, who had recently launched an appeal of his sentence.
Indeed, accusations also emerged that the 20/20 program was overly concerned with absolving Henderson due to the producer’s familiarity with Henderson’s attorney. “The Book of Matt,” too, dedicates a large amount of room to establishing that Henderson at no point actually attacked Shepard though, undeniably, he was an accessory.
The first charge might be explained away by the fact that Jimenez’s investigation in the Matthew Shepard case had started much earlier than many knew. As “The Book of Matt” explains, Jimenez had started researching the murder in 2000 as part of an effort to write a screenplay on Matthew Shepard’s death. As part of that research he met chief prosecuting attorney Cal Rerucha, who admitted that despite his emphasizing the anti-gay angle in court, and expecting the defense to play up McKinney’s known drug history, that the murder was “driven by drugs.” Jimenez, having discovered elements of the case he believed were worth investigating, began working on a freelance article in 2002.
That article would never find its way into print, but by 2004, Jimenez appeared to have had a good body of material, though not a cast iron case that the meth angle at least had not been given fair weight, and certainly not in most mainstream media reports.
More Complicated Problems with This Approach
However, there are problems with Jimenez’s approach to this case that are more problematic and not easily dealt with. The book hinges on hundreds of separate interviews with Matthew Shepard’s friends, his previous partners (who were largely deleted from the mainstream media’s accounts) and those who saw him during those days leading up to the murder. It also contains interviews with McKinney, Henderson and countless others related to the case.
That the tapestry of statements is compelling is undeniable, but the chief problem here can be encapsulated in the previously mentioned statement regarding police corruption and a drug cover-up.
The police force contend the meth angle is nonsense, but they can’t prove it. Similarly, Jimenez only has statements made by sometimes unreliable witnesses. As NPR notes:
What Jimenez doesn’t have to back up his story is a toxicology report, proving that McKinney had meth in his system that night. Dave O’Malley and another investigator on the case, Rob Debree, both told us a toxicology report was done on Aaron McKinney showing no trace of drugs in his system the night in question. But neither was able to produce the report.
This is what is so very frustrating about Jimenez’s “The Book of Matt:” little of it is easily verifiable because so much time has elapsed, so many agendas are at play and so many anonymous sources are involved. For the average reader, the truth seems impenetrable.
This is not a criticism of Jimenez as such. It is often the nature of investigative journalism that such sources are used, and he certainly appears to make a strong case that the anti-gay aspect of the attack may have been overemphasized and that a great deal of complexity was lost. He also appears correct in lambasting the media for their lack of rigor in this case and their readily accepting the iconography — the false image of Shepard being crucified, for instance — without investigating deeper.
Yet, without easy access to the evidence Jimenez says he has been able to collect, it is unlikely that “The Book of Matt” will convince the wider population, for why should anyone believe these accounts that go against the established narrative when there is no clear way to verify Jimenez’s version of events over any other? Why should they question the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s statement that these claims have little basis in fact?
We must, though, rally against dismissing the book out of hand as “trutherism” or attempts to smear the Matthew Shepard legacy, as several commentators have already done. Jimenez has always maintained that as a gay liberal he was as invested as any other member of the community, but that the truth should be told. I find little reason to doubt that motive.
Instead, the book asks a number of questions that deserve more investigation by unconnected parties such as other media organizations, and if there are falsehoods or mistakes in either version of events they must receive thorough correction.
Importantly, nothing is lost in admitting that Matthew Shepard’s horrific death may not have been the pure hate crime we had thought — there is plenty of evidence for other bias-motivated crimes; nothing on that score is really changed and a great many lessons could be learned.
What is gained, in either finding support for the original version of events or uncovering that Jimenez’s version is more accurate, is an assured sense of the integrity of our history. The LGBT movement has always prided itself on speaking truth to power. If there are difficult truths in this story, we should not shy away from that now.
The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Matthew Shepard Murder is published by Steerforth Press; 320 pages. ISBN (Hardcover): 978-1-58642-214-1.
Photo credit: Cover image used under fair use terms.