Tied to a wooden fence, tortured, and left to die, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard—a bright, sensitive freshman at the University of Wyoming—has become a national symbol of violence against gays. His killers: Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, products of a grim world of drugs, alcohol, broken homes, and twisted dreams, have been charged with first-degree murder. And the town of Laramie, home to all three, stands revealed as an American paradox: a God-fearing friendly place that harbors deep and lingering prejudice. Melanie Thernstrom explores the hidden topography of a killing.
THE CRUCIFIXION OF MATTHEW SHEPARD
The first time Doc O’Connor met Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming freshman approached Doc’s silver limousine outside a cafe in downtown Laramie. “Hi,” he said. “My name’s Matt. I’m gay and I want to go to a gay bar in Fort Collins. Do you have a problem with that?”
“No, I don’t have a problem with that,” Doc told him. “I have a problem with people who don’t pay!” The limo driver laughs, remembering—a deep belly laugh. Doc, a stout 50-year-old man with a beard, gray-black hair slicked back, and cowboy boots, is the owner of Doc’s Class Act Limousine Service, as well as Doc’s Western Village, and most of the town of Bosler—a blink of a place 18 miles north of Laramie consisting of boarded-up storefronts and decaying wooden houses.
On Friday, October 2, Doc drove Matthew, who was cautious about drinking and driving, and the young man’s friend Tina Labrie the 70 miles to Fort Collins, Colorado, and back. (There are no openly gay bars in Wyoming.) Matthew told Doc to call him Matt, rather than Sir or Mr. Shepard and asked him not to open the door for him. The following Monday, Matthew called from downtown and asked the older man to pick him up. He sat up front in the limousine with Doc, who said he had been on his way to Subway to get a sandwich. Matthew asked if he could go with him.
They stayed at the restaurant for two hours, talking. Doc had recently set up a Web site for his businesses: “Matt was really into computers, and I’m just a 10th-grade dropout,” Doc says. “He told me all about Saudi Arabia,” where his parents live, and what kind of guy he liked. “He said, ‘Doc, don’t take offense, but I wouldn’t go with you. You’re not my type and you’re too old!’ ” Doc recalls, smiling. “He told me about Cody and getting his jaw busted.” (Last summer in Cody, Wyoming, he had been beaten by a bartender who said Matthew had made a pass at him.) Doc asked, “ ‘What did you do to the people who beat the shit out of you?’ He said, ‘I forgave them and went on with my life.’ Then he paid for my dinner. He was a real nice guy, Matt.”
On Tuesday, Matthew called Doc from the Library, a local bar; he wanted the limousine that night to go someplace with some friends. Doc was supposed to attend an Eagles Club trustees meeting, but said he’d try. They spoke again early in the evening, and Doc told Matthew to call back later that night, but he didn’t hear from him. Wednesday morning, Doc called him, but Matthew’s cell phone rang and rang.
At 4:25 P.M. outside a convenience store, Doc bumped into Kristen Price, a blonde 18-year-old who was carrying her infant son in her arms. Kristen and her boyfriend, Aaron McKinney—who was awaiting sentencing on a burglary conviction—had recently moved out of an apartment attached to one of Doc’s buildings in Bosler.
“I’m asking how did Aaron size up to this deal [the sentencing],” he recalls, “and she told me he’s getting probation, he’s going to pay it off. Then she says there’s something else, a new problem. ‘They’re going to get him for attempted murder for beating some gay guy up.’ ”
“Honey,” Doc told her, “in the state of Wyoming you don’t go to jail for beating on a gay guy.”
Although Doc had been trying to reach Matthew all that day, it didn’t occur to him that Kristen would have been talking about Matthew.
Two hours after Doc’s conversation with Kristen, a passing cyclist saw what he thought was a scarecrow lashed to a wooden buck fence on a remote plot of land. The scarecrow turned out to be Matthew, unconscious, a huge gash in his head, his face drenched with blood except where his tear trails had washed it clean. His shoes were missing.
After police questioning, Aaron McKinney confessed that he and his friend Russell Henderson had met Matthew at the Fireside Bar & Lounge on Tuesday night and posed as gay to lure him into their truck. Then they drove him to an out-of-the-way location, bound him to a fence, pistol-whipped him, and taunted him while he begged for his life. Then they abandoned the gentle five-foot-two, 105-pound freshman to hang alone for 18 hours, losing blood as the temperature dropped.
On Friday, Doc picked up the paper and was faced with a horrible realization: the gay guy Kristen had been talking about was Matthew. Moreover, as the story broke on the front pages of newspapers across the country, a chilling chronology became clear: “They found him at 6:30 on Wednesday,” Doc says. “So Krissy told me this while Matt was still strung up.”
Although the memorial services have passed by the time I arrive in Laramie, 10 days after his death, and the national press has moved on, the tragedy reverberates everywhere. HAS MATTHEW SHEPARD’S DEATH LEFT YOU FEELING CONFUSED, ANGRY, FRIGHTENED...? posters ask. An enormous banner at the Democratic headquarters proclaims, THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS WITH MATTHEW, beside re-election signs for Cal Rerucha, the district attorney in charge of prosecuting the case. Other businesses announce, VIOLENCE IS NOT OUR VALUE.
“This is a great community: welcoming, open, family-oriented—good people,” Laramie chief of police Bill Ware tells me. “People are trusting—that’s that western attitude.... We are what America used to be. And we want to stay that way.
“I’m not going to get into the diversity issue,” he says, brushing aside questions about Matthew. “That’s going to take me to a place I don’t want to be.” The chief hands me a card with a picture that shows him standing in his uniform, one hand resting on his clean white police car. The back of the card says that Chief Ware is “a proud husband, father and grandfather” who “sings Christian gospel.”
“Are you married?” he asks me. “You should move out here, find a cowboy, and have kids!”
While the killing has been interpreted as a sick attempt to preserve the Old West—to rid the town of the intruder whose presence threatens traditional life—the crime’s most striking element is the enormity of the change this single act of violence has wrought.
“This is the nicest place I’ve ever lived. There’s something magical here,” says Tiffany Edwards, a pretty, part-Cherokee 22-year-old who has written most of the Shepard coverage for The Laramie Daily Boomerang, the town paper. “That’s part of what’s so upsetting about all this—for me personally and our town.”
The magic is not in the scenery. Unlike most of the state, Laramie is not blessed in its landscape. Fifty miles west of Wyoming’s capital city, Cheyenne, it sits in a flat, treeless sweep of high plains bruised by bad weather, its mountains mostly hidden. Founded in 1868 as a railway town, the impoverished city is still divided into east and west by a freight line. With the ranching industry in decline, employment here is dominated by the University of Wyoming. About 90 percent of the population is white; the median annual household income is $24,080; reportedly, 20 percent of the residents live below the poverty line.
Laramie is, however, the friendliest place I have ever been in America. When I arrived at the miniature airport, other passengers came up and offered me a ride. Although I’m on an expense account during my stay, people cook me meat loaf.
There is a collective sorrow here: in the week following the death, 1,000 people came to a single vigil on the front lawn of the St. Paul’s Newman Catholic University Center. The city council passed a resolution calling “for the community to express sympathy, to reflect on our loss and to begin a healing process.”
Mary Elizabeth Galvan, the defense lawyer for Russell Henderson’s girlfriend, Chasity Pasley (who pleaded guilty as an accessory to murder), doesn’t want to comment on her client, but tears form in her eyes as she speaks about Matthew and his parents. “As a mother, it breaks my heart. The thought of his parents on that long plane ride back from Saudi Arabia, without even privacy, while their son was dying in the hospital.”
Amidst the grief, there is an undercurrent of resentment. Some townspeople feel angry that the slaying is being “blamed” on them; they feel it has been “blown out of proportion” and “used by the gay-rights movement for political purposes.” U.W. student Shelley Barton puts it this way: “Everyone takes note of it because it happened in Wyoming, and then suddenly it’s made to be typical of Wyoming: ‘Oh, it’s a redneck place—we expected it.’ ”
“It's like spilling the paint on the clean carpet is a bigger deal than spilling paint on a dirty carpet,” a local worker is quoted as saying in the Boomerang. “Like this doesn’t happen anywhere else.”
Hate-crime legislation has failed to pass in Wyoming three years in a row. The media’s linkage of the state’s politics and Matthew’s death infuriates many townspeople. Yet disavowals are suffused with a sense of inescapable moral responsibility and the necessity for atonement.
Many Laramie residents describe themselves as not homophobic. One resident explains: “We don’t have phobias—we have values.” But people mock gay reporters sent to cover the crime. “I’m from the San Francisco Chronicle,” they imitate unselfconsciously, assuming fey voices. Many people insist that homosexuality is “not for me to judge.” But when they are asked, “What’s to judge?” their answers become convoluted.
Some people insist on making a distinction between condemning the sin and condemning the sinner, separating “the homosexual lifestyle” from “the gay person.” Most people feel that Matthew Shepard did not represent that contemptible lifestyle. A number of residents told me that they consider Matthew Shepard the first gay person they ever “met.” And the fact that these “meetings” took place after his death seems to have made them all the more significant.
Milt Green, a 46-year-old U.W. extension-service teacher who works with Native American students, says that he “would hope people take the time to find out who Wyoming people really are.” He thinks Matthew’s murder was “a useless, stupid crime against another human being—I can’t support it.”
Nevertheless, he adds, “because of my value system, my background—my family values have a hard time relating to [homosexuality]. I don’t understand it.” He sees tolerance as “a respect issue: I have to respect [gays] for telling me, and they have to respect me in that I don’t understand where they’re coming from.”
Karla Brown, the 26-year-old manager of the Fireside Bar & Lounge, says that she doesn’t know why “thinking about homosexuality evokes such a viscerally negative response in people ... it’s almost like watching someone eat rotten food. People are revolted by the idea.” Her own view is that “in an ideal world we’d all be able to love each other, right?” But she doesn’t think that’s realistic. Just as the 1955 murder of Emmett Till (a 14-year-old black who was stripped and shot for saying “hi” to a white girl in a candy store) upset even racist Mississippians, the indisputable barbarity of the Shepard attack is making people think. “I’ve heard people talking about it who’ve never talked about homosexuality before,” Karla says, and surprisingly, she adds, she hasn’t “heard too many ignorant comments, which I think shows that people are basically decent.”
Karla’s boyfriend, Matt Mickelson, the 28-year-old owner of the Fireside, complains, “Now we’re the capital of gay-bashing.” But he also says, “If you don’t feel sympathy for that kid, then you are one heartless son of a bitch. This will make people more tolerant for sure. Normally you might flip someone some shit—make some off-color comment. Now you’re going to be more reserved about it.”
Mickelson remembers having seen Matthew come into the bar a few times, and can’t imagine he would have done anything to provoke his death. “As nice and polite and quiet as he was, I don’t see this kid making random advances,” he says. “The gay community is reserved and respectable here.” Mickelson adds that, like so many others, he doesn’t care for “some guy flaming around and half coming on to you—I don’t even like it when girls do that.” But Matthew “wasn’t a big parader,” and it bothers Mickelson that “the media has made him into this gay-rights messiah.”
The bar owner confesses sheepishly that, to his surprise, he once “ended up having a gay friend. I didn’t know it at the time we became friends, but then, what are you going to say—‘You’re not my friend anymore’?” In Mickelson's Catholic family he was told that “homosexuality is a mineral deficiency—one step from retardation.” He asks if I think this is true.
Most of the churches in Laramie participated in the vigils and memorial services for Matthew; even traditionally anti-homosexuality sects, like Mormons, included prayers for Matthew's family in their services. There was universal disgust at the Reverend Fred Phelps and his followers, who came from Topeka, Kansas, to protest during Matthew’s funeral.
Many Laramie churchgoers feel the media has taken their Christian values—good, ordinary values—and twisted them into something obscene, linking them to violence. Jesse Fisher is a 22-year-old Seventh-Day Adventist who works as a night lobby maid at the Holiday Inn. “Christianity,” she says, “is about tolerance and forgiveness. It hurts us that [the protesters] are calling themselves Christians. Church is the place that is supposed to take sinners in—church is the place you can go. Everyone has sins. I have sins, like I had a son out of marriage.” She thinks that after his death Matthew may have things to reckon for, but “maybe Matthew already made his peace with God—how can we know?”
For members of the gay community in Laramie, however, the killing has a different meaning. Gayle Woodsum says that gay people in the West get the message: “You can be who you want to, but don’t tell us what it is.” For her, “Matthew’s death is a wake-up call that if you tell—if you slip up—we might not let you live.”
At precisely this time, when she and other gay people feel the most unsafe, they are faced with an obligation to speak out about Matthew’s death—some publicly coming forward as gay for the first time. “When I heard, I just wanted to go back into the closet,” Meesha Fenimore, a friend of Matthew’s and a fellow member of U.W.’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Association (L.G.B.T.A.), says.
Gayle Woodsum was struck by what she regarded as a revealing typo that appeared in a front-page article in the Boomerang about Matthew’s death: “A homocide is a homocide.” At Matthew’s memorial service at the Unitarian church, Gayle stood up and told people that they had to “keep an eye on the law-enforcement people. This is a very homophobic system.”
“Speaking about the murder brought up this intense fear,” she tells me, “but it’s fear of what they’ve already done to me.” When Gayle headed the Albany County Crime Victim Witness Program for two years, she heard gay-bashing jokes and, she alleges, read memos instructing law-enforcement officials on how to file domestic-abuse charges so that allegedly abusive men could keep their guns.
When someone outed Gayle to the district attorney’s office, she was shunned, she says, and then fired without explanation—by the same men who have now been entrusted with prosecuting Matthew’s alleged murderers. (In the Boomerang, the D.A. denied that Woodsum was fired because of her sexual orientation.)
The coroner, Julie Heggie, says, “I definitely know that people in Laramie are very homophobic—I know that. I’ve lived in Laramie most of my life. It’s very scary. It was horrible to see his body—and I deal with death on a daily basis. This is going to affect even the coroner’s office.” She adds, as if trying to talk herself into it, “But if it changes 10 people’s attitudes, it’s a good thing.”
Although the section where Matthew was bound has been taken as evidence by the police, the fence has become a place of pilgrimage. Barren and beautiful beneath the snow-dusted Rockies, the site conjures thoughts of Golgotha. Small yellow stones have been arranged to form a cross; in every crevice of the fence are bouquets, notes, stray tokens. Tiffany Edwards brought a tigereye stone; the day she and I visit she is disturbed to find it gone, along with other offerings she recalls, such as a pair of rubber medical gloves that were said to have touched Matthew’s body.
“I brought the tigereye,” says Tiffany, “to bring insight and clarity, to see the whole picture, to understand Matthew—his pain and terror and what his life was—to envision him there and be O.K. about it.”
Matthew “came into this world prematurely and he left prematurely,” a press release from his parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard, reads. An earlier statement said that his “life has often been a struggle in one way or another,” including many childhood ailments. “We know that he thinks if he can make one person’s life better in this world, then he has succeeded. That is a measure of success Matthew has always pursued.”
The mythologizing of Matthew—his overnight transformation into a national and international symbol—has left him oddly faceless. No one has seemed interested in publishing the details of his life—as if they would detract from his martyrdom. But pity is not understanding, and Matthew’s sorrow did not begin at the fence.
“He had emotional scars—he had faced this kind of attack throughout his life,” his friend Romaine Patterson says. “He was a perpetual victim. That’s how he became the person that he was.” The press was careful to portray Matthew as a special person who “happened” to be gay. In fact these two qualities were deeply interconnected. “In some way he was special because he was gay,” Judy Shepard tells me, “because he had always been different and that difference made him become more thoughtful, sensitive, and empathetic.” But “Matthew wasn’t openly gay,” his mother says. “He was honestly gay. He didn’t go around with a sign on—for one thing, he was afraid.”
As well as suffering through a series of minor incidents throughout his life, during his senior year in high school Matthew had been the target of a vicious attack in Morocco. “He had the posture of a victim,” Judy says. “He was the kind of person whom you just look at and know if you hurt him that he’s going to take it—that there’s nothing he can do about it, verbally or physically. When he walked down the street he had that victim walk,” she says. “But if he was in an arena he knew about, like politics, he could shine with self-confidence.”
As a child growing up in the small town of Casper, Wyoming, Matthew had always preferred the company of adults. He was friendly with all his classmates, “but he never had a best friend,” his mother recalls, and she believes he needed that. “I think he always felt out of place.” He was teased for being small and unathletic. He was fascinated by politics: Gloria Ningen, the family hairdresser, recalls how, when Matthew was in the second grade, “he came into our shop and told us all how to vote [in the local election]—and he knew. He knew the issues. We all thought he was going to grow up to be president.”
After Matthew’s sophomore year in high school, the family moved to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where his father was employed as an oil safety engineer. Because there was no American high school there, Matthew was sent to the American School in Switzerland—a progressive school where he studied German and Italian and was involved in theater. “He was a snappy dresser,” his mother recalls. “He liked country, techno music, and neo-swing bands like the Squirrel Nut Zippers. He was a good dancer and often went to clubs.”
After graduation, he attempted to figure out where to go. “He had a real restless, searching quality,” Judy says. He briefly attended Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina, and then Casper College, where a teacher introduced him to Romaine Patterson, an outgoing lesbian at the center of a social circle. “He was looking for a gay community and we took him in,” Romaine says. When she moved to Denver a few months later, he followed. He worked for a little while in a telemarketing job, selling vitamins, and then quit. Romaine was a waitress at a coffee shop, where he went and hung out for a couple of hours most days.
“He’d sit down and have these great conversations with strangers,” Romaine recalls. “His focus was to help people who are less fortunate. He made friends with a homeless man, and he’d take him to lunch once a week.”
Matthew suffered from periodic clinical depression and looked into living in Karis Community, a Denver assisted-living home run by mental-health professionals, but he decided instead that he would move to Laramie and attend U.W., his parents’ alma mater. He felt that living in a small town would supply some of the same sense of community, and that, as his mother says, “he’d feel safer there.”
Although he didn’t come out until after graduating from high school, Matthew knew he was gay from an early age. He told his friend Tina Labrie how, during puberty, he had looked at some girlie magazines with a group of friends. “He said he was curious to see women’s bodies, too, but he could tell that his friends were feeling something different—they were attracted and excited in some way he wasn’t. And then he noticed that when he looked at pictures of guys he had that same feeling.”
He struggled with how to come out to his parents. Romaine, who grew up in the tiny community of Tongue River, Wyoming, says that “when you come from Wyoming, parents haven’t had that education.” They need to be “familiarized with someone who is gay.”
Matthew’s friend Brian Gooden says, “His mom tried to be supportive, but she still had some misunderstandings, some hopes it was just a phase he was going through. He desperately wanted acceptance and understanding from his parents. I think he believed deep down that his parents would come round, but it was taking more time than he wanted it to.” Brian recalls how Matthew “tried to drop hints to his parents that he was gay for a long time before he told them. Once when he was home he left a gay magazine out on the coffee table, but they put it on his bed without saying anything.”
“That’s absurd—I knew he was gay all along,” Judy tells me. She doesn’t remember the incident, she says, but if she didn’t say anything it was because she wasn’t surprised. When Matthew finally called her from North Carolina in 1995 to tell her he was gay, she reassured him she had known for years. She knew from the way he responded when girls got crushes on him, as they often did, because he was friendly and kind and treated them better than other boys did. She knew through what Matthew termed “gaydar”—the mysterious way in which sexuality is sometimes successfully communicated and understood—and she knew because Matthew, like most people, wanted and needed to reveal his true self.
Judy Shepard never believed that Matthew had a choice about his sexual orientation. “He said he didn’t choose to be gay—nobody would choose to be gay. It’s a very hard life: you’re lonely, you’re scared, you’re discriminated against. He was searching for a way to be happy with it. He was worried we’d be embarrassed or ashamed. I told him to quit putting words in my mouth. He would feel guilty, an extra burden, but he knew we would be there for him no matter what. There was never any question of that.”
It was more difficult for Matthew to tell his father, whom he had always looked up to. “He and Dennis danced around it for a year,” his mother recalls. “It was a guy thing. Dennis would say to me, ‘Why doesn’t he tell me?’ Maybe in retrospect this wasn’t the right decision, but Dennis didn’t want to ask him before Matt was ready to tell him. Matt made it so much worse by building it up in his mind and causing himself all that anxiety. This was one of his real flaws. He would invent a scenario and it would be the worst possible scenario. The thing that hurt Dennis the most about it was Matt’s reluctance to confide in him.
“As a parent of a gay child you feel a profound sense of loss that they’re not going to continue traditional family life—the daughter-in-law, the big wedding,” Judy says. “But long before he told us, we had already gone through that process. We felt he was our son and we loved him, and you don’t give that up because your life is not what you thought it was going to be.”
At U.W., Matthew decided to concentrate in political science with a minor in languages. Tina Labrie, a married anthropology major whom he met at a summer picnic, quickly became his closest friend; he fit into Tina’s family—taking to her husband and becoming the idol of her small children. She responded to his warmth and vulnerability: “Whenever he learned of someone suffering, it affected him personally,” she says. She recalls a time when they went to a matinee of Saving Private Ryan: “He was so sensitive to see the violence and bloodshed he broke down and cried—afterwards he had to go home and take a nap and take a shower. Then he came back for dinner and said he felt a little better.”
Tina was touched by the way Matthew would sometimes solicit her opinion on his clothes, asking, “Does this make me look like too much of a fag?” She says, “Making a positive first impression was very important to him.” She remembers how he once gave her a bottle of apple juice to open. When she easily twisted the top off, “he said, ‘Great, there goes whatever little bit of masculinity I have.’ The look on his face was so cute, pouty but joking at the same time.” He was close to his younger brother, Logan, she recalls, from whom he got “hand-me-up” clothing. “It was very important to [Matthew] to be a good role model to [Logan],” Tina says. Matthew was excited that Logan was going to come to Laramie the next summer, and possibly attend U.W.
She was pleased when he told her that her husband, Phil, “was the first straight guy he ever felt wasn’t afraid of him. He asked me, ‘Have you ever had a fake hug? Straight guys hug as if they’re afraid being gay is contagious and they’d catch it.’ He said he’d never hit on a straight man, even if he was attracted—he just wanted to be friends with them.” Matthew told her that before the bar incident in Cody he had been assaulted and raped in Morocco. He asked her, however, not to tell Phil, because he was afraid Phil would disapprove of him.
During his senior year in high school, Matthew and three classmates had gone to Morocco. Unable to sleep one night, Matthew had gotten up and walked to a nearby coffeehouse, where he chatted with a group of German exchange students. On the way home, a gang of locals accosted him, raped him six times, and took his shoes.
He worked with the Moroccan police to catch the perpetrators, to no avail. But as he often did, Matthew inspired compassion in his troubles. “The police could have been awful, but they weren’t,” Judy says. One of them gave him a gift of a picture of a Moroccan on horseback, a gesture which touched Matthew. After the rape, Matthew stayed with his parents in Saudi Arabia for a while and underwent therapy, but he continued to suffer anxiety, flashbacks, and nightmares, from which he was unable to free himself.
“He was never the same after Morocco,” Judy says, “and neither were we. We were always worried about his physical safety and his mental state—that he would despair and hurt himself. It seemed to him it was taking forever to feel safe.”
Matthew told Tina he was haunted by the question of whether the perpetrators had ever been caught and what had happened to them. “He was impressed with the apartheid hearings in South Africa—how Nelson Mandela offered forgiveness as a step towards ending the violence. He thought that was a cool revolutionary idea,” Tina says.
After the rape, Judy says, Matthew suffered from periods of paranoia. “He would say, ‘My fear is irrational, I shouldn’t be afraid of people.’ And then he would over-compensate for his fear by making himself do something he shouldn't”—a kind of counterphobia, in which he’d recklessly put himself into the hands of strangers. Romaine recalls how he’d sometimes take risks with his safety, such as walking alone at night in Denver, explaining that he didn’t want to be circumscribed by fear. On the family vacation to Yellowstone last summer, he went to a bar in Cody by himself late one night. He drank heavily, left with some strangers, and eventually passed out, with flashbacks of Morocco. He awoke, uncertain of what had happened, with a split lip and bruised jaw. Later the bartender told the police that Matthew had made a pass at him and that he had therefore been compelled to hit him.
Matthew was “cautious when it comes to dating,” Romaine says. He had only had one serious relationship, while he was at school in North Carolina, with a man who made him unhappy. Judy worried that he could be vulnerable to an emotionally abusive relationship. “Matt allowed [his first boyfriend] to hurt him again and again.”
It was through America Online last summer that Matthew met Brian Gooden, a 36-year-old optician from Denver. Brian says that usually such communications take a sexual turn immediately: “It’s ‘What’s your stats, when can I come over?’ ” He and Matthew traded questions for an hour, and then Matthew told him he thought he was really going to like him because Brian hadn’t hit on him. They corresponded and talked regularly for several months. “Matt was hesitant to meet,” Brian says. “I asked him why, and I could hear his voice trembling. He told me he was afraid something a lot more serious would happen.” Matthew was worried that he’d become too attached, too dependent, as he had the tendency to do in some relationships. “Finally, he invited me to Laramie for three days,” Brian says, “from October 9 to 12.”
As September closed, Matthew was depressed. “Midterms were coming up,” Tina says. “He was afraid of failure—he felt all this pressure not to fuck up.”
“We were really hopeful at the beginning of the semester,” his mother says. Matthew suffered from attention deficit disorder, and had always struggled as a student. “A ‘B’ for him was a real achievement,” Judy says. “He'’ have a panic attack and would miss classes and then get so far behind there was no way of catching up. He had a habit of moving, instead of staying in one place and making things work.... He was going to try as hard as he could in Laramie, and if it didn’t work, at the end of the semester we were going to try something different—perhaps more intensive therapy. He was only a month into the semester when he died, but he was becoming more sad and withdrawn.”
Although he had a psychiatrist who prescribed medication for him, he was looking for a therapist he could really talk to. “He had seen somebody at the student health center, but she just wanted to talk about his academic goals—she didn’t seem to really understand his depression,” Tina recalls. He had been hospitalized several times for depression and suicidal ideation; the previous summer he had checked himself into a hospital in Laramie. He was taking Effexor, an antidepressant, and Klonopin, an anti-anxiety drug. Judy was concerned that the medications weren’t working and that Matthew would drink, “and the combination of the drugs and the alcohol would deepen his sadness.”
On Friday, October 2, Matthew asked Tina to accompany him to the Tornado, a gay bar in Fort Collins, Colorado, in Doc’s limousine. Matthew owned a 1978 Bronco, but he disliked driving it. “He said he felt lost in it,” Tina says, “a little guy in a such a big truck.” But he was also “worried that in renting the limousine he was being selfish. I’d never ridden in a limousine before. I said, ‘If you can’t pamper yourself, think that you’re pampering me.’ ”
At the Tornado, Tina and Matthew sat in the garden talking for an hour about life goals and dreams and death. He told her how guilty he felt about having been born into a well-off family, and she said that he could use his resources to help people. Matthew told her that if anything ever happened to her and Phil, he’d like to be the guardian of their children. Then he asked her if she would take his cat, Clayton, if something ever happened to him.
“I knew how much he loved his cat. I said, ‘O.K., from now on, when we move into an apartment we’ll make sure we get ones that allow pets,’ thinking he’d outlive Clayton and we were talking about some later cat.”
Inside the Tornado, several men approached Matthew. The first, someone warned, was H.I.V.-positive and didn’t always tell people, so Matthew shied away from him. Matthew had told Tina that he was worried about H.I.V. and always used protection. “Then this other guy came and stuck to him like glue,” Tina says. “Matt didn’t like him, but he couldn’t figure out how to get rid of him and still be polite.”
Riding home in the early hours of Saturday morning, Matthew told Tina he felt that “if he died no one would even notice until his bills weren’t paid, and then his parents would call up to bitch and then realize he was dead. He felt nobody cared what he was going through. He told me about his little suicide plan—he would take all his Klonopin at once with alcohol. I asked how often he had been thinking of this, and he said quite a bit. It seemed like he was pretty close—closer than the way he described other depressions.” Then he leaned his head on Tina’s chest and fell asleep listening to her heart beat. “I’m like, Wow, I have a friend who’s not afraid to touch me,” she recalls. “Most friends seem to think affection goes on only on special occasions.”
When they got back to Laramie, Tina asked if she could sleep on Matthew'’ couch so as not to leave him alone. Saturday morning she awoke to hear Matthew in an argument on the phone with his mother, who was upset because he had overdrawn his bank account—a pattern of his.
“Afterwards he felt really bad because he lost his cool and started cussing at her, which he had never done before,” she says. “That afternoon I had to go home because Phil had a cold. I asked Matthew if I should call somebody for him, and he told me that he knew deep down, he’d be O.K.—that he could get through this.” She asked him to promise he wouldn’t do anything to hurt himself until she got back, and he promised.
On Sunday, he called his mother and apologized, telling her, “You’re right, I’ve got to be more careful with my money. I promise I’ll do better.” Then he said, “I love you, Mom—I’ll talk to you later.”
Judy weeps now, recalling her last words to her son. “I love you, too. Be safe,” she said. “That was my mantra to Matt—be smart, be safe.”
That afternoon, Tina tried calling Matthew. When she got no answer, she went to his apartment and then searched downtown, where she was relieved to find him in a restaurant.
On Tuesday, Tina had caught a cold and stayed home all day. She tried to reach Matthew that evening, but she wasn’t feeling well enough to go look for him. Wednesday morning she started calling him right away, and became anxious when she got no answer.
After debating with herself, at seven that evening she decided to go ahead and call the police. She told the officer that she had a friend she wanted them to check on. The officer asked for his name, and when she told him, a long silence ensued. Then the officer started asking a lot of questions, like whether there were any people in town who didn’t like Matthew. “I’m thinking these aren’t normal questions, but I try and answer. And then they say they’re going to send an officer over to talk to me. And then I’m really scared. I don’t want them to send an officer to me, I want them to send an officer to look for Matt. When the officer gets here she doesn’t tell me anything, but she starts asking more questions, running all these names by me, asking whether I knew Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. But I had never heard of them.”
When Matt Mickelson, the owner of the Fireside, heard of the arrests of McKinney and Henderson, his first reaction “was like: Where did those bastards come from? Where are they from? Then I found out they were from here.” He thinks “Russell's a trailer-trash kid. His mom’s a drunk broad" who has “had some random dudes.”
On January 3, Russell’s mother, Cindy Dixon—a 40-year-old alcoholic and battered wife who was last seen staggering out of a bar—was discovered frozen to death on a snowy, rural road eight miles north of town.
Mickelson recalls Russell’s mother coming into the bar a few weeks after the slaying with Russell’s stepfather, Charles Dixon. They bought a couple of dollar beers, and then Charles Dixon approached Mickelson to apologize for any trouble the attack may have caused to his business. “He says Russ and Aaron were coming off a four-day bender, doing crank [methamphetamine]. I was like: What can I say? Sorry your kid tied someone to a fence and beat him to death?” He throws up his hands. “It’s over my head, man.”
The national press typed Aaron and Russell as rednecks—a characterization which angers many Laramie residents. Mickelson, whose family came to the area in 1862 and has included generations of cowboys, says that “rednecks aren’t ignorant or narrowminded—you get a red neck from working in the sun. These kids aren’t rednecks; they’re lazy little crankheads—rather than getting a job, they’re out trying to rob someone. They’re not cowboys—they’re cowardly. To have to tie someone up to beat them...” he adds, a detail for which he has particular contempt.
There is a grim narrative similarity among the stories of Aaron McKinney, Russell Henderson, Kristen Price, and Chasity Pasley—lives both chaotic and dull, the details numbingly interchangeable. Aaron’s parents, Bill and Denise McKinney, divorced when Aaron was young. Aaron spent much of his childhood alone; according to the Associated Press, his mother left him with his grandparents or locked him in the basement to keep him out of trouble. He often got into fights in school and did poorly, flunking seventh grade. At 14 he stole a cash register and was placed in a youth-detention center. When he was 16 his mother died unexpectedly following surgery. He quit school and began working.
A couple of years ago, he met Kristen Price, who moved into the trailer Aaron shared with a bunch of other guys. When Aaron inherited some money after his mother’s death, he reportedly went on a binge, buying drugs, jewelry, and a Camaro with a vanity plate inscribed DOPEY.
Aaron soon ran through the money, and last December, along with two accomplices, broke into the local KFC, stealing $2,500 and some desserts. After the robbery, Aaron and Kristen moved to Pensacola, Florida, where Kristen’s mother, Kim Kelly, lives. Aaron got a job as an apprentice pipe fitter, but the police caught up with them and they returned to Laramie so that he could face the robbery charge. Last summer their son, Cameron, was born.
Doc recalls that Kristen and Aaron were “always lovey-dovey when I saw them. I never saw Aaron hit her or get in her face.” He saw Kristen as “a happy-go-lucky gal.” They’d occasionally hire his limousine and for $60 an hour ride around, drinking and watching TV. Doc liked them: they “always tipped well, were well mannered—once in a while McKinney got shitfaced, but he wasn’t that hard to handle.” McKinney liked rap music. “Weird stuff,” Doc says, “like: ‘Nancy, give me head, head, dead, dead’—I never heard that type of stuff before.” Sometimes they’d pick up Russell, whom Doc recalls as “a mild-mannered fellow.” He says that sometimes “Aaron would ride around in the limousine with other girls.” Doc thought Kristen knew and didn’t care.
Aaron's friend Odius, a 22-year-old African American manual laborer who goes by a single name (“Like Prince,” he says) saw Aaron as having “a lot of anger—more than most kids. I could imagine him beating someone, but not like that.” Aaron used drugs, but, Odius says, “so do 93 percent of kids in this town.” People remember Aaron once “flipping out” at a Laramie bar upon seeing the doctor he believed responsible for his mother's death. Bill McKinney tried to explain Matthew’s death as his son’s reaction to Matthew’s alleged sexual overture. Aaron, he said, doesn’t like to be embarrassed in front of other people.
Odius first met Aaron in a crisis center in Laramie when they were teenagers. Aaron’s mother had to leave him there for periods of time when she found him too difficult to manage; Aaron hated being trapped there, subject to strict regulations. Odius has trouble formulating what he liked about Aaron: “He played practical jokes on me. Once he put honey in my shampoo.” Questioned about Aaron’s life, he responds, “We didn’t talk about his favorite movie, favorite things. It seems like you come from a nice place—a world where people have favorite things. If you’re asking me if we ever got deep-deep, we never did.” When asked if Aaron had any close friends—people who really knew him—he wrinkles his nose: “Who does?”
He remembers when Kristen was pregnant with Cameron: “He was happy and proud; his baby was on the way. He had that cocky attitude, ‘I got a woman.’ ”
Aaron’s friend Christina Tyser recalls, “It wasn’t like a good relationship or anything. But after she got pregnant, I think he felt like he had to stick with her.” Christina hasn’t “known anybody who’s had an abortion—at my high school half the girls are pregnant.”
“After his mom died, Aaron didn’t really care about anything; he said he didn’t feel like he had anything to do or anywhere to go—or any future,” Christina says. Odius says Aaron was “just kind of floating. Not everyone has hopes and dreams these days—some people just want to make it through and still be able to smile. Not everyone wants to be an astronaut or a movie star.” Long before Cindy Dixon was found in the snow, people assumed Russell Henderson’s parents were dead. He never knew his father, and at age 10 he had been taken from his mother’s house, after reportedly having been abused by various of his mother’s boyfriends. He was raised by his strict Mormon grandparents and became an honor student and a member of Future Farmers of America. He completed the requirements for the rank of Eagle Scout by cleaning a local cemetery, and had his picture taken with the governor and printed in the Boomerang. Then he started hanging around with guys like Aaron, quit school, and got a series of menial jobs, the last of which was repairing roofs. He acquired a police record for drunken driving and fighting with a police officer.
He and his girlfriend, Chasity Pasley, lived in a $340-a-month trailer in southwest Laramie. Their landlady, Sherry Aanenson, remembers Russell as “quiet, polite, just your average male.... He does what most guys do—hunt, fish, drink beer, there was a car he worked on.” She saw him as “pretty neutral—a follower.” A neighbor, however, complained about his rowdy behavior. Chasity was a freshman studying art at U.W. at the time of the arrest. Her parents had split when she was young; her father had moved to Alaska following a custody battle in which he had unsuccessfully argued that her mother, Linda Larson, should lose custody because, he alleged, she was gay. Russell and Chasity spent a lot of time with Aaron and Kristen. The four of them considered each other “best best friends.”
Tuesday, October 6, was the birthday of Matthew’s old friend Walt Boulden, and they had planned to go to a movie. At 6:30, however, Matthew called and canceled, telling Walt he had to study for his French class. Then Matthew went to the weekly L.G.B.T.A. meeting, where plans were being finalized for the campus Gay Awareness Week, which would begin the following Monday.
Jim Osborn, the association chair, told the group that he had just been harassed; he was walking across campus when a guy came up to him and said, “You’re one those faggots, aren’t you?” But Jim—a large man—punched his accoster in the face, and the guy ran away. After the meeting, the group went to the Village Inn, where Matthew ate cherry pie. He then tried to persuade each of the members to accompany him to the Fireside, but no one wanted to, and Kim Nash, a member of the L.G.B.T.A., drove him home. She watched until he went into his house. She thought he was in for the night.
No one knows why Matthew was determined to go to the Fireside that night, or why he left with Aaron and Russell. It was karaoke night, which would not ordinarily have interested him. There was some speculation that he was buying drugs from Aaron and Russell, but his friends find that implausible. A close friend thinks that depression may have weakened his judgment, and wonders if he had taken a heavy dose of Klonopin before he went to the bar. “When he was depressed,” she says, “he would just grab a handful.” Romaine Patterson remembers how in the coffee shop where she worked Matthew “would just talk to anyone—people no one else would talk to, like this weird old man.... He had no discrimination in his person.”
Matthew’s friends also find it hard to picture him being sexually drawn to Aaron or Russell. Nor do they think that Matthew was interested in a threesome.
But what if he was? The denials in the press seemed to suggest—as in the old rape ethos—that Matthew had to have had no sexual intent in order not to be complicit in his own killing. Judy Shepard thinks that night, like the Cody incident, was an example of Matthew’s “counterphobia.” Moreover, getting rides with strangers in Laramie is not an unusual or perilous thing to do.
The Fireside is a rough bar, but not a menacing one. Big pinup beer girls pop out of the walls, and a sign for the Western Athletic Conference reads, THE NEW WYOMING COWBOYS—READY TO KICK SOME WAC BUTT! A huge buffalo head in front of the D.J.’s booth blows smoke through its nostrils. The atmosphere is rowdy and friendly.
Matt Galloway, a U.W. junior who was bartending that Tuesday, tells the story with the perfect contrasts of a Passion play. He started his shift at 10 P.M.; Matthew Shepard came in half an hour later. Matthew—dressed in jeans and a sport coat—sat at the bar drinking a Heineken and a mixed drink and talking to Galloway.
Around 11:45, Aaron and Russell came in and ordered a pitcher of cheap beer, counting out the $5.50 in quarters and dimes. One of them had noticeably dirty hands; Galloway remembers wanting to count their change out himself so as not to have it handled by them. “It was ‘Gimme this, gimme that’—no ‘Thank you’s’, no politeness at all. The opposite of Matt.”
Galloway describes Matthew as “amazingly polite—soft-spoken, but well spoken. A person you can tell is kind—who would love to listen or be listened to.”
Aaron and Russell disappeared in the direction of the pool table, but then returned to the bar. “They were here for [a while], out of beer, hanging out. They were coming in with dimes,” Galloway says. “Here’s this little kid, dressed very nice. Maybe they’ve seen him before and thought he was gay.”
Matthew's last beer cost $2.50. “I went ahead and said, ‘Just give me two bucks.’ He gave me three,” says Galloway.
Shortly after midnight, the three of them left. As Matthew walked out the door, the D.J., Shadow, handed him what would be his last cigarette.
“You got to smoke it while you have it,” Mickelson later comments reflectively, shaking his head.
At 1:30 in the morning on October 7, Aaron McKinney came home disoriented and covered in blood, Kristen Price explained to the media after the murder. “He was crying and he kept throwing up. He just came in and hugged me and said, ‘I’ve done something horrible. I deserve to die.’ ” She asked what he had done and he said he wasn’t sure. “He said he thought maybe he killed somebody.”
After she had cleaned him up, given him a glass of water, and laid him down, Aaron told her that “a guy walked up to him and said that he was gay and wanted to get with Aaron and Russ,” Kristen said. “He got aggravated with him and told him that he was straight and didn’t want anything to do with him and he walked off. Then later Aaron and Russ said, ‘Let’s pretend like we’re gay and we can—we’ll rob him and take his money.’
“They just wanted to beat him up bad enough to teach him a lesson,” Kristen explained, “not to come on to straight people and don’t be aggressive about it anymore.”
According to the police, in his confession Aaron said that during the car ride Matthew had put his hand on his leg and asked, “When are we going to get to where you live?” and Aaron told him, “Guess what? We’re not gay, and we’re going to jack you up.” Aaron asked for Matthew’s wallet, which he gave to him, but they began to beat him anyway, with the butt of a gun.
Heading out of town, they drove about a mile east, and then turned just past the Wal-Mart into Sherman Hills—a housing development where Aaron had lived as a child. They continued down a sandy dirt road, through sagebrush, until the road dead-ended at a rough-hewn wooden buck fence, at the border of a property where a new house was under construction.
They bound Matthew’s hands together, behind his back, and then tied them to the fence, leaving his head and body crumpled near the ground (not in a crucifixion position). While Russell tied the rope, Aaron took Matthew’s shoes because he thought his captive would be able to free himself and walk back to town. Then, according to the police, Aaron continued to beat him, while Russell stood back, laughing.
In his confession, Aaron said that Matthew had not made a pass at them in the bar, but did concede that he and Russell had made a plan to rob him. The reason they beat him after he was tied up was that they thought Matthew had seen their license-plate number. When they left, Aaron said, they assumed he was dead.
Aaron and Russell had planned to burglarize Matthew’s house, but they got distracted by a fight with two Hispanic teenagers. Jeremy Herrera and Emiliano Morales, both high-school dropouts, were walking downtown near where Aaron and Russell parked their truck. Jeremy and Emiliano were bored; Jeremy had slashed a car tire “for shits and giggles,” he explained to me. They bantered with Aaron and Russell, who “started talking trash—‘Fuck you,’ calling us bitches and stuff,” Jeremy says—and then, according to the teenagers, Aaron hit Emiliano with a gun, bashing his skull. Next, Jeremy hit Aaron in the head with a big stick he had hidden inside his coat. When the police showed up, Aaron and Russell ran away, leaving their truck, in which the police discovered Matthew’s credit card and small patent-leather shoes, along with a .357 magnum covered in blood.
The afternoon after Aaron’s return to the apartment he shared with Kristen, the two men and their girlfriends allegedly began to coordinate the version of events they would give to police. Then Kristen took Aaron to the hospital, where he was admitted with a hairline fracture to the skull. Then, according to police, she and Chasity decided to get rid of the evidence. They drove the 50 miles to Cheyenne to dispose of Russell’s bloody clothes. For some reason, they hid Russell’s bloody shoes separately, in a storage shed at Chasity’s mother’s house.
As it happened, the construction crew that was working at the new house on the property where Matthew clung to life was off that day. Although the police had Matthew’s personal effects, they had not yet put the crime together. Thus it was not until the following evening that Matthew was seen by the cyclist, a U.W. freshman, Aaron Kreifels, who stopped because he had fallen off his bike.
At the Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, Matthew lay in bed down the hall from Aaron McKinney. Matthew was comatose; his brain stem—which controls heartbeat, breathing, temperature, and other involuntary functions—was severely damaged. He also was suffering from hypothermia and had a red welt on his back, a red mark on his left arm, bruised knees, cuts on his head, neck, and face, and bruising in his groin.
Tina and Phil arrived at the hospital Thursday morning. Matthew’s aunt Roxanne and R.W. Eaten, her boyfriend, were there from Denver, along with some journalists. “There was going to be a press conference,” Tina says, and R.W. “was so frantic; he said he didn’t want word getting around that Matthew was gay.... R.W. and Roxy threatened us that if we talked about it we wouldn’t be allowed to see Matt.”
When Tina was let into Matthew’s room, “it was bittersweet to see what he looked like,” she says. “He had stitches, bad cuts, welts, bruises on his face. I had never seen anything that severe. There was a big white bandage on his head with tubes coming out of it. Because of the respirator his breathing sounded very mechanical. His heart on the monitor sounded very loud—haunting. It reminded me of the incident [in the limousine] where he listened to my heart. It was also a comforting sound—metronome-like. I could feel his essence, his spirit in the room. It was like I could feel angels, very positive comforting spirits in the room—I thought he was going to be O.K., he’s being comforted by all the angels. I could feel that kind of comfort reaching out to him.”
Judy and Dennis Shepard arrived from Saudi Arabia on Friday night. The phone call had come at four in the morning; they had waited 20 hours for a flight to Amsterdam, and then flown on to Minneapolis to pick up their son Logan before continuing on to Colorado. The doctors told them that Matthew would never emerge from the coma, but, Judy says, “we needed to see him and we were afraid he would die before we got there.”
In their son’s room “there was a sense of peace,” she continues. “He looked so little. There were all these cuts on his face. I felt he was with us—but not in the shell. Logan said this must be Matt’s destiny. Everything must have led to this point. This must be part of a larger plan.”
“Perhaps God took him home to heal him,” a friend of Judy’s told her.
Matthew was not the first gay victim of an attack that year, or that week. The most recent F.B.I. statistics on hate crimes in the U.S. showed more than 1,400 attacks on gays in 1997. A 1996 study showed that such attacks resulted in 21 fatalities. Moreover, studies show their deaths are often particularly vicious; many victims are brutalized beyond recognition. In 1996, Dennis Phung was beaten to death with the claw end of a hammer in his Hollywood apartment by two teenagers who left a mask on his head with the words “gay bash” scrawled across it, and Leeanne Keith of Downey, California, was shot and paralyzed by her father-in-law because she was contemplating leaving her husband for a close female friend. Although convictions were obtained, outside the gay press the cases disappeared.
Matthew’s torment, however—from the first reports—evoked an extraordinary response. Across the country, the story drew front-page coverage for days. Time magazine’s cover, which was headlined THE WAR OVER GAYS, was a photograph of the fence. “He wanted to find love. But as he lay near death, Matthew Shepard, through no choice of his own, had found martyrdom,” the article said. The fence had become the crossroads of a civil-rights movement, and Matthew the most significant symbol of violence against gays in the history of the country.
President Clinton spoke about the death, urging Congress to approve the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which would give federal agencies jurisdiction over bias incidents. More than 50 candlelight vigils were held around the country, huge events where strangers wept and embraced one another. The Poudre Valley Hospital lobby was so crowded with flowers that employees began putting them in other patients’ rooms.
When the Shepards discovered that the beating was a national news story, Judy went to the bathroom and threw up. She couldn’t believe that “something so private had become so public—it was just stolen from us.” She “didn’t want it to be exploited,” and she was worried about the press “going after us in an ugly way.”
When the hospital received calls, Judy felt, “Why should we leave our son in order to talk to a stranger?” They were reluctant even to take a call from President Clinton, but they did, and were glad they had. He was warm, and the conversation seemed to help Logan. They told the president that Matthew had campaigned for him twice, which seemed to startle him.
The Internet played a crucial role in connecting people to the tragedy. Poudre Valley Hospital received so many calls about Matthew that twice-daily updates on his condition were posted on a Web site; more than 800,000 hits were logged.
Matthew lay comatose for five days. Shortly after midnight on October 12, the first day of National Gay Awareness Week, his heart stopped. Throughout Wyoming, flags were lowered to half-mast. “The family expressed gratitude that they did not have to make a decision about removing life support,” Rulon Stacey, the hospital C.E.O., told the press, his voice choked with emotion. “They said that like the good, caring son he was he removed from them the guilt and stress of making that decision.”
Parents throughout the country felt that Matthew could have been their son, an idea many had never contemplated before about a gay person. In part, this may have been a result of the fact that while he was described as gay, the press—in unwitting collusion with homophobia—did not portray Matthew as a sexual adult. He was depicted as having parents, rather than partners—loving, affluent, married American parents. He had an allowance; he wore braces. He was a member of the U.W. Episcopal Canterbury Club. He had a fragile, childlike look—a look of pale purity, the translucent beauty favored in religious art.
In the midst of the national grief, there were a few who applauded Aaron’s and Russell’s actions, and it was these voices that created the controversy which made the death a political cause. On Saturday afternoon, a few blocks from the hospital bed where Matthew’s parents were keeping vigil, a Colorado State University homecoming parade passed by. On a Wizard of Oz float sponsored by the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity and Alpha Chi Omega sorority, the scarecrow character had been defaced. Scrawled in black spray paint was I’M GAY, as well as anti-homosexual obscenities. The detail that the cyclist who discovered Matthew had first mistaken him for a scarecrow had been particularly chilling. Even dying was not enough to make Matthew human to some of his peers.
Hours after his death, two gay organizations received the message “I hope it happens more often.” At Matthew’s funeral in Casper, protesters from Reverend Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, stood in the snow and rain, carrying signs and chanting, “Fags die, God laughs.” Mourners blocked them and sang “Amazing Grace.” Inside St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, where Matthew had been baptized as a teenager and became an acolyte, his god-father, Steve Ghering, a pilot for Northwest Airlines, spoke. “There is an image seared upon my mind when I reflect upon Matt on that wooden crossrail fence,” he said. “However, I have found a different image to replace that with and that is the image of another man, almost 2,000 years ago.... When I concentrate on the Son of God being crucified, only then can I be released from the bitterness and anger I feel.”
Imitatio Christi—the paralleling of Matthew’s life with Jesus’s—was a dominant motif in the memorial services of many faiths. For many Laramie churchgoers, reconceiving the homosexual (the outsider to the church) as the true Christian, and the Reverend Mr. Phelps and his ilk as the Pharisees, was a radical idea. At the memorial service in the Laramie Episcopal church, the Reverend Dr. Chuck Denison told mourners that gay Christians had nothing to ask forgiveness for. Meesha Fenimore, Matthew's friend, recalls that it was the first time that she had ever heard that message in church: “It was so amazing—I realized I could walk into the church holding Hauva’s [her girlfriend’s] hand.”
As soon as news of the beating broke, Tiffany Edwards made her way to Kristen and Aaron’s address in North Laramie. Unsure which apartment in the dingy building was theirs, she went into a dark hallway and knocked on the first door she came to; a girl emerged in a cloud of stale smoke. “It was a dump,” the reporter says. “The smell was so disgusting—it was like going into a bar on Sunday morning.” She could hear a baby whimpering. Tiffany told the girl she was looking for Kristen Price, and the young woman said she didn’t know her. “She looked like a cute little high-school girl, but hardened—with a bad attitude.”
The morning of Kristen’s arraignment, Tiffany saw the young woman again and realized who she was. Kristen was dressed in a short pistachio-green skirt and high heels—“looking like a cheap floozy, all dolled up to go to jail. I was like: Girlfriend, get a clue.” A short time later Tiffany saw her in the courthouse, in the regulation orange jumpsuit. Kristen’s mother stood next to her, holding her grandson. When Kristen was led off in handcuffs, Tiffany noticed that she didn’t kiss her baby good-bye—or even look at him. She fears that baby “will be part of the vicious cycle.”
Kristen and Chasity were charged as accessories to murder after the fact (a crime that carries a penalty of up to three years in jail), and Aaron and Russell were charged with kidnapping, aggravated robbery, and first-degree murder, punishable by death. “The news has already taken this up and blew it totally out of proportion, because it involved a homosexual,” Aaron’s father, Bill McKinney, told the Denver Post. “Had this been a heterosexual these two boys decided to take out and rob, this never would have made the national news.”
Tiffany had been shocked by the indifferent expressions on the faces of Aaron and Russell. At a recent court appearance she noted how Aaron’s grandmother waved to him, and he turned, grinned, and winked.
Shortly after Aaron and Russell were taken into custody, Emiliano Morales and Jeremy Herrera were put on the drug AZT. After his fight with Aaron McKinney, Emiliano had gone to the hospital, where he required 21 staples to repair his cut skull. The doctor explained to him that Matthew Shepard had been H.I.V.-positive and that because Emiliano had had blood contact with the gun, which had been covered in Matthew’s blood, there was a small chance that Emiliano could have been infected. The doctor said that he—as well as Jeremy, who had some abrasions on his hands—needed to start an immediate course of medication.
For some of those close to Aaron and Russell the news about the risk of infection helped them persuade themselves that Matthew was actually the dangerous one. Matthew had seduced Aaron and Russell into committing a crime, and now his ghost was trying to poison them. Deanna Johnson, who is a close friend of Russell’s grandmother’s, says that she has “very mixed feelings” about the crime. “You know that murder is wrong, but you feel basically that [the homosexual] lifestyle is not right.... Matthew was not a saint—Matthew and his lifestyle. I heard he was having tests done quite frequently.... I am not familiar with people like that. Sometimes I’ve heard when people have [AIDS] they want to take as many people with them as possible.” She says that she didn’t think “there were many gay people” in Laramie. But after the murder “a lot of them came out of the woodwork.”
Everywhere in Wyoming, homosexuality is so near and so far away—visible and invisible. As with many prejudices, homophobia allows for individual exceptions. Tyler Kern, who dated Matthew for a short time in the fall, was also a friend of Chasity's and occasionally hung out with her, Russell, Aaron, and Kristen (although he never came out to them). According to sources close to the defense, the defense plans to argue that neither Kristen nor Chasity grew up in a homophobic atmosphere, and in fact both had close family members who were lesbians. Chasity’s job at U.W. involved doing some clerical work for the L.G.B.T.A., and she was friendly with Jim Osborn, who at the time chaired the group. There was speculation about repressed homoerotic desire between Aaron and Russell; according to this theory, they were bonding over mutilating a beautiful man.
Aaron's friend Odius doesn’t find the fact that Aaron’s and Russell’s girlfriends have close family members who are lesbians paradoxical. Like many people in Laramie he thinks lesbianism is “much less repulsive” than male homosexuality. At other times, however, he thinks “it’s all wrong altogether ... because of God and what the Bible says.” He says that “Aaron believed in God like most people.”
“A kid on the street, they feel someone opposes them—it’s him or them,” he says. “Anger is in all men’s hearts; some are afraid to do what’s in their hearts.... Nine times out of 10 you’re afraid to do what you say you’re going to do, and this time he wasn’t. Just the right situation, the right time.
“What would I think if I heard all the voices in your head?” he asks me. “What would you think if you heard mine? Haven’t you ever wanted to hit someone?”
It remains to be seen whether Matthew’s death will endure as a symbol of the violence of homophobia, but awareness of prejudice is part of the legacy of Matthew Shepard. Obviously, the killing was about homosexuality, perhaps sharpened by class envy and by drugs as well. But could Aaron and Russell have murdered someone else for some other reason? They cracked open Emiliano’s skull the same night while shouting slurs. At the deepest level, murder is simply about murder, about having the capacity, rage, and will to do it, and about finding a victim who can be dehumanized by the shallowest of spells—“gay,” “faggot,” “fairy.” The spell seems to have been already wearing off by the time Aaron got home that night. “I deserve to die,” he told Kristen, his victim growing cold, his feelings returning to himself.
On December 28, District Attorney Cal Rerucha elected to seek the death penalty against both Aaron and Russell. Some of Matthew’s friends wonder if it was what he would want. Brian Gooden recalls how “when people would make comments, like ‘Hey, faggot,’ he wouldn’t react.... If anyone lived the Christian ideal of turn the other cheek, it was Matt. I sincerely believe that Matt would have forgiven those people.” But Judy says that Matthew believed in the death penalty for heinous crimes. “I believe in my heart that if this had happened to a friend of Matt’s he would think the death penalty was just.”
She recalls the way Aaron appeared at the hearing. “It looks like his eyes are dead—dead inside," she says. “I believe in evil. I believe there are people who have no souls. I believe there are people out there who have no feeling for what’s right or wrong—who enjoy hurting others.”
“Did [Matthew] ask you to stop?” the police had asked Aaron.
“Well, yeah,” he replied, “he was getting the shit kicked out of him.” Judy feels that if Aaron had any remorse he would not have used that phrase to describe what he did to her son. She also thinks about how Aaron and Russell took Matthew’s shoes that night, as the rapists had done in Morocco. “It was one of the tangible things he could point to that had been taken from him in Morocco. He complained about it endlessly—‘my favorite pair of shoes.’ I had this visual image of Matt pleading with Aaron and Russell not to take his shoes.”
For Tiffany Edwards, the idea that Aaron and Russell may have been exposed to H.I.V. from Matthew would be “Karmic, instant, ultimate justice.”
No one close to Matthew knew that he was H.I.V.-positive—or thinks that he himself knew. The infection, detected in the hospital, is thought to have been a very recent one. Judy Shepard recalls that since the rape her son had been tested periodically and the results had been negative. Tina, Romaine, and Brian all feel that Matthew—who supported Romaine through her brother's death from AIDS—would have confided in them. “He wasn’t a secret-keeper,” his mother says. But there is a great deal of concern that, as Brian puts it, the revelation of his illness “could be used against him somehow—make people think his death was less tragic because he was going to die anyway.” H.I.V.-positive people often have to fight against the stereotype of certain doom; Brian and others emphasize that a healthy young person like Matthew might live with H.I.V. for decades, by which time there may be a cure.
Matthew’s friends agree that the stigmatization of people with H.I.V. would not be something Matthew (who worked for AIDS causes) would want to collaborate in by censoring the fact of his infection as if it were shameful. His friends express the same hesitation when speaking about some of his other troubles—his depression and rape—fearing that these things could also be obliquely blamed on the victim. But the people closest to Matthew are committed to remembering him as he was. They have faith that, for most people, troubles make a portrait more, not less, human and deepen the poignancy of a death.
“He wasn’t a saint,” Judy says. “He was just a young man in search of himself.” She is disturbed by comparisons between Matthew and Jesus. “You must understand, it’s like putting him on a pedestal that just won’t work,” she says. “I’m concerned that if people find out that it’s not true, they’ll be disappointed or angry or hate him.”
Since Matthews’s death, his family has received more than 8,000 letters and cards, all of which Judy plans to reply to. Presents continue to arrive as well—mementos from the vigils, a quilt of signatures from a college in Pittsburgh, CDs, original music, poems, stuffed animals, angels, ornaments, books on grief.
Many of the letters have enclosed checks, for small and large amounts, which has led Dennis and Judy to establish the Matthew Shepard Foundation to support things that Matthew believed in—mental health, gay support groups, AIDS causes, human rights, homeless teenagers. Many political groups have been lobbying for their support, but Dennis and Judy want to study issues such as hate-crime legislation before taking a position on them. Judy says she has never seen herself as someone who is comfortable in the public eye. Growing up in the small town of Glenrock, Wyoming, Judy wanted to be just what she became. “I want to go back to my former career as a housewife and mom,” she says, “but I can’t. When Logan said this was Matt’s destiny, I said to him, ‘What is our destiny? What corners are we going to turn?’ Matt’s just pushing me down this path because he thinks I can do it—he’s with me.”
Judy recalls how, when Matthew would overdraw his bank account, “he’d say, ‘Someday when I’m rich, I’ll pay you back for all the overdrafts.’ And then he’d say, ‘Do you think I’ll be rich? Do you think I’ll be famous?’ I would say, ‘Absolutely—God would not put you through all this and not let you be famous.’ ”
She is a strong woman: she cries frequently, while talking about Matthew, but she brushes the tears from her face and keeps talking. Hers is the grief of one confident of love given and received—so different from how one imagines the grief of another mother: Cindy Dixon, stumbling through the snow knowing that her only son—a prisoner—had reportedly refused her visit. Russell Henderson was not allowed to attend his mother’s funeral. It was feared the crowd would hurt him.
In Laramie, elementary-school kids signed and wore yellow cardboard badges which said that they had pledged never to hurt another person because they were different from them. A graduate of Laramie High School says that she used to call her brother a fag whenever she was mad at him, but that recently her mother had told her not to use that word anymore.
“We were the last group it was O.K. to hate,” Kim Nash, a member of the L.G.B.T.A., says. “Because of Matthew’s death it’s a little less O.K.”
The Saturday following the attack, the L.G.B.T.A. marched for Matthew at the homecoming parade after the football game. Although Matt Galloway was apprehensive, he went and marched, along with hundreds of others, wearing yellow armbands and carrying NO HATE IN OUR STATE signs. “It was the greatest experience of my life,” he says. “People came up to me and thanked me.” After the killing, he got caught up in talking to the media, “but I had to come to terms with Matthew’s death for myself,” and on the first quiet day, “I went and locked myself in my house and ... cried for three hours straight.” He decided he wanted to get to know some of the gay community, and he went to dinner with three of Matthew’s gay friends, “and they were some of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met.” After his television appearances he got some calls from gay men asking if he was available, and he found himself telling them that he was straight, but that if they were interested in being friends, he was too.
Tina Labrie struggles not to let herself be consumed by sadness. “There are days I think of joining Matt, but I know he’d be very disappointed if I showed up in Heaven.” After Matthew’s death she got permission from her landlord to adopt Matthew’s cat, Clayton. “I finally found the best friend of a lifetime and then he’s gone. They stole my friend,” she said, her voice pained and puzzled.
Romaine Patterson feels that the press and the national attention have “helped lift me out of the pit of personal sorrow.” In the coffee shop where she works, she hears people discussing the murder—gay people and straight people. At a vigil in Denver the day Matthew died, Romaine stood on the steps of the capitol in front of a photo of Matthew which was attached to a replica of the wooden fence—a fragile defense against loss—and told the crowd: “The person Matthew was shines in all your faces. I am sure Matthew feels your love. Thank you all for being here tonight to help Matthew take one more step towards his goals and dreams.”
Doc O’Connor remembers the phone call he got from his mother the day Matthew was found. “Her voice is teary. I think somebody in my family’s died. She says, ‘It’s such a shame about that Matthew Shepard—and you knew him.’ ”
“I’d only known him four days,” he says, “but the thing is we had a good connection.” He says he remembers how Kristen didn’t seem upset when she told him that Aaron had beaten some gay guy. He knows that “Krissy might have got six months’ probation if I didn’t tell the police what I knew.... I like her—she’s a nice girl—but she’s got to get her just deserts.”
“Matthew knew he was going to die,” Doc says. “He said he was going to get beaten or strangled—he wasn’t sure which. The last time we talked, he said, ‘When I get done in because I’m gay, if one gay person and one straight person come together and stop to think that we’re both people, that would be something’—he would have accomplished something. And then, four days later, the whole country comes together. He’s bigger than kings and queens. One person told me he wanted to look it up in the Book of Revelation. Matthew Shepard—that’s a pretty spiritual name. Who do you know who is as big today—who reached out and touched as many people as Matthew Shepard of Laramie, Wyoming, population 27K?”