By Jeff Walsh
It is hard to minimize the impact that the brutal death of Matthew Shepard had on the gay community in 1998. Even this site was flooded with a constant stream of poetry and other submissions in the days after his death, totally unsolicited, so much that we had to add a separate page to that month’s website as a special tribute to Matthew.
A few months later, I interviewed Alex Trout, one of Matthew’s best friends in Laramie, and that following June, got to hang out with Alex for a night of drinking and cruising in the Castro, as he and Matthew’s other friend, Walt Boulden, were honored as grand marshals in the San Francisco gay pride parade.
I’d really never given any further thought to Matthew Shepard since then, except for when his name came up in 2009 when federal hate crimes statute finally added LGBT protections with the Matthew Shepard Act. The most common touch point I’ve had to this 15-year-old case is that I often see my friend Garrin Benfield perform live in NYC, and his sets often include “What You're Hiding,” which has a chorus that ends, “Matthew, you lived your final hours, with the butt of a gun smashing in your brain.”
The case seemed simple and the justice swift. Matthew was the frail, baby-faced guy out in cowboy country of Laramie, Wyoming, who made a sexual advance on two guys, and they killed him for it. The lack of complexity was what made the case so perfect, and how everyone could easily put themselves in Matthew’s shoes, and imagine that simple gesture turning tragic.
In The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, journalist Stephen Jimenez reveals how little of the narrative we’ve all come to know is accurate, as he spent more than a decade slowly peeling away protected layers until the real picture emerged.
This book came to my attention because I adore Andrew Sullivan, and am a subscriber of his website, The Dish. Sullivan’s site has been running videos featuring Jimenez unpacking some of the mysteries and revelations of this case, and I was floored to have something so assuredly resolved be completely upended. I was also intrigued because in the mid 90s, I worked at a daily newspaper where my daily job was covering criminal trials. I’ve spend hours watching entire murder and rape trials unspool, and am always fascinated watching people online jump to wild conclusions based on scant information, but be completely assured that they have locked in on the crucial bit of information.
So, as I became fascinated by the existence of such a narrative-changing book, it was interesting watching the online world pick it apart based on Sullivan’s videos. On one of many sites online masquerading as journalism, where people just puff their chest and vomit their opinion everywhere, an entire thread arose because Jimenez mentioned what started him down this process: an anonymous letter he found by accident in the previously-sealed court records.
The letter said the anti-gay nature of the crime was completely wrong, because Aaron had been a male hustler who was no stranger to sex with men. This, of course, set the comments flying about how irresponsible it was to write a book based on an anonymous letter.
But, having been a journalist for years, this didn’t seem strange to me at all. Anonymous tips were a normal part of the job. They aren't sources, they are things to investigate, and sometimes prove to be true. Mystery is often a part of journalism. I know I personally received criminal files that were sealed in some cases, after they would miraculously find themselves in completely unrelated county offices with my name on them, if either side of a case wanted that information to find its way into the public realm. And, let me be clear, if the proof of Jimenez’s theory were merely an anonymous letter, I’d agree with the online trolls that he was a bloviating hack who found a perfect case to inflate his notoriety.
I took a different path when faced with my gut reaction of “How could this be true?” I read the book. (I know, it’s very old school of me.)
The important thing to note here is that, when you remove the gay element from the story, the rest remains factual: Shepard got into a car with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson; they took him out past a housing development to a remote area to rob him; he was tied to a fence, pistol-whipped, and left for dead; he was found 18 hours later by someone who thought Shepard was a scarecrow initially, until they got closer; Shepard died at a hospital shortly thereafter.
That narrative, minus Shepard coming on to them, remains true throughout the book.
The other online speculation that made me interested to read this book was people saying that Jimenez had to be making things up, since the prosecution already told the whole story. Now, this also set me off, since I know the prosecution’s job isn’t to paint a complete picture. Nuance is the enemy of prosecution. Their job is typically to show evidence linking the defendant to the criminal charges they brought against that defendant. That’s it.
Entire pre-trial motions, on both sides, seek to limit the scope of what can be brought up at trial. The prosecution because it wants to tightly shape a narrative, and the defense to keep their client’s past run-ins with the law and other negative things out of testimony.
So, no one’s job at trial is about painting a complete picture. Often, the media is where you find more of a complete picture of a victim, or a crime, but in the case of Matthew Shepard, the press not only didn’t have much to go on, they often embellished and added details about the crime (from bad sources, one imagines/hopes) that proved untrue.
Matthew was never strung up on the fence like he was being crucified. His hands were tied behind his back. He was also not burned with a cigarette, as some articles offered. Instead, the press ran full steam with the story of this being a hate crime, to the point where then-President Bill Clinton was even publicly commenting on the case.
I apologize again for the tangential nature of this book review, but just to remove any seeming bias here, I will point out that I oppose the notion of hate crimes. I don’t really like the idea of the government putting someone in jail longer because they think that, not only was that person killing someone, they were also thinking bad thoughts while they did it?! It is silly to think a murder case where the death penalty was involved also has to question whether the killer was thinking bad things at the time of the murder. And hate crimes only exist once an actual crime is committed.
And, to be clear, despite being the media martyr, poster boy, and public face of hate crimes, there was no hate crime angle pursued in Shepard’s case. The media was the only party trying McKinney and Henderson for hate crimes, not the state of Wyoming.
So, what did happen that night? And why?
Jimenez does a masterful job of unspooling this haunted narrative like a puzzle, giving you seemingly disparate pieces that take a while to form a larger picture, but the slow build only heightens the tragedy once the complete picture begins to reveal itself.
The most interesting element of the book to me is that Jimenez is pursuing a story that no one wants him to tell.
Part of the slow reveal of the truth as the book unspools is that no one can benefit from it. McKinney and Henderson are serving life sentences with no chance of parole. The prosecution did their job by getting Shepard’s killers locked up. The defense purposefully stayed away from a drug angle that seems to paint the real picture.
No one seems to give him a complete information dump about the case, only guarded responses with an occasional clue that lead Jimenez to more information, and another clue. He really had to work to unearth this story.
Even the Matthew Shepard Foundation has decried this book with the following statement: “Attempts now to rewrite the story of this hate crime appear to be based on untrustworthy sources, factual errors, rumors and innuendo rather than the actual evidence gathered by law enforcement and presented in a court of law. We do not respond to innuendo, rumor or conspiracy theories. Instead we recommit ourselves to honoring Matthew's memory, and refuse to be intimidated by those who seek to tarnish it.”
It is disconcerting to think that Matthew’s memory can be tarnished by the truth, and that sustaining potential lies would honor it.
The truth seems to be that Shepard was involved with crystal meth, as both a user and dealer. McKinney was also a meth user and dealer, and had been on a multi-day meth bender leading up to Shepard’s murder. Shepard and McKinney were not strangers, and both had seemingly exchanged sex for both drugs and money in the past, including both of them having sex together for both business and pleasure.
The book alleges that Shepard’s murder did start as a robbery, because he had been transporting meth into Laramie, and the night of his murder he was supposed to have made his regular run and either had the meth on him or money. But Shepard didn’t make the run that night.
McKinney’s robbery went off the rails when Shepard only had around $20 on him, but the violent nature of his murder might owe a lot more to McKinney’s mental state due to days and days on meth, and the delusional state it put him in. None of which absolves him, of course.
Both McKinney and Shepard were seemingly small fish in the Laramie drug scene, and both may have been messing with forces bigger than they might have been aware. To that end, a lot of sources in the book are pseudonyms, and many are still fearful of opening up this can of worms.
Henderson comes off as another victim of McKinney in the book, serving life in prison for a crime in which he barely participated, and judging from the gun-barrel scar on his upper lip (similar to ones on Matthew), may have tried to stop the beating, short of being McKinney’s second victim that night.
Anyone interested in the Matthew Shepard case needs to read this book, and not just the distilled takeaways in Jimenez’s videos or reviews like this one.
While I always felt horrified for Shepard, his family, and by his senseless murder, I think his martyr status was so easy to buy into because it was all we were told. It also kept him out of reach. At the beginning of this review, I said that nuance is the enemy of the prosecution, but it is also messy baggage for martyrs.
I no longer think of Matthew as the perfect, All-American kid who had to lose his life because he made a sexual advance to the wrong people.
But if that isn’t who he was, why should I want to preserve that lie?
After reading Jimenez’s book, Shepard is still a tragic figure. But now I know more about his life, and that he was loved, that he was a good friend, that he was interesting and curious, that he had dreams and goals that conflicted with how he lived his life, that he was troubled, that he was imperfect, and that he still aspired to be better than his life and situations in a future that never happened.
After 15 years of knowing Matthew as a martyr, his pointless death isn’t any less sad or tragic knowing him merely as a flawed human.
The real irony, of course, is that if he had been murdered in a field in Wyoming because of a drug dispute, it would be unlikely that any of us would have ever heard of him, and his attackers would probably be out on parole by now.
I’m just not sure what to do with that thought.