Mourners pray during the funeral of Matthew Shepard at St. Mark's Episcopal Church Friday, October 16, 1998, in Casper, Wyoming. (AP Photo/Michael S. Green)
We all want to forget something, so we tell stories. It’s easier that way.
—The Commoner, Rashomon
Fifteen years ago this October 7, in the small hours of the morning, Aaron McKinney swung his .357 Magnum for the final time like a baseball bat into the skull of Matthew Shepard. Shepard was tied low to a post, arms behind his back, in a prairie fringe of Laramie, Wyoming. “That was it. He went out,” McKinney said later. He and his accomplice, Russell Henderson, drove off. The baseball swing had crushed Shepard’s brain stem. He lay bleeding on the ground for eighteen hours, but he was already gone. On October 12, he was officially pronounced dead.
The murder was so vicious, the aftermath so sensational, that the story first told to explain it became gospel before anyone could measure it against reality. That story was born, in part, of shock and grief and the fact that gay men like Shepard have been violently preyed upon by heterosexuals. It was also born of straight culture and secrets.
For different purposes, two sets of friends created what became the hate crime story. Without knowing the circumstances of the crime, Shepard’s friends told reporters, officials and gay groups that the victim’s sexuality was all one needed to know. Meanwhile, McKinney’s friends told police various versions of a gay panic story, in which Matthew made advances and Aaron snapped. McKinney’s 18-year-old girlfriend, pregnant with their second child, told the press that he had wanted just “to teach [Matthew] a lesson.” She thought she was helping him.
In a different time and place—pre-Stonewall America, contemporary Russia—she might have been. As it was, the story McKinney urged his friends to tell as mitigation fortified the story put about by Shepard’s friends. Police and the prosecutor added their own twist, unsupported by evidence: to wit, McKinney and Henderson had pretended they were gay to lure Shepard out of the Fireside bar and into a fatal trap.
Subsequent court proceedings, like all trials, were exercises in storytelling not truth, with the difference that the prosecution was privatized, acting in strict coordination with Shepard’s parents, who had their own reasons to insist that that awful October night was an encounter between strangers, a lamb and two wolves.
Now comes Stephen Jimenez with The Book of Matt, and this most detailed effort to rescue the protagonists from caricature is, with a few exceptions, being coolly ignored or pilloried for “blaming the victim.”
Jimenez does not polemicize or tread deeply into the psyches of the main figures. Rather, he explores the drug-fueled world they inhabited, and evokes its thick air of violence. I grazed the edge of that world in 1999 while reporting on the context of the murder for Harper’s. Laramie was a place of whispered asides then. I’d suspected that drugs figured in the crime. Wyoming’s eighth graders were using meth at higher rates than twelfth graders nationwide. After three weeks talking to people on the precarious rungs of the economy, I met a man in an empty bar in mid-afternoon, a friend of McKinney, who said he’d traded him that .357 Magnum for a gram of meth. He seemed acquainted with his friend’s dangerous combination of anger, insecurity and addiction. I wondered if detectives, then under a gag order, had probed this aspect of the crime. The man across the banquette smiled indulgently.
Jimenez spent thirteen years to tell his story. Where I had rumor or thinly corroborated accounts, he has multiple sources, named and unnamed. His investigation began with two bits of material from freshly unsealed court files: an anonymous letter to the prosecutor saying McKinney had worked as “straight trade” and felt guilty sexually; and a neglected portion of McKinney’s confession in which he told police, “[Shepard] said he could turn us on to some cocaine or something, some methamphetamines, one of those two, for sex.”
In this story, Shepard and McKinney were neither lamb nor wolf; they were human commodities, working for rival drug circles to support their habits, and occasionally forced to pay their debts in sex. Shepard’s elective family was based in Denver and moved product from Mexico; McKinney’s was in Laramie, along the route from California. The two men knew each other. McKinney had hustled in a Denver gay club. Shepard had risked rough trade. The limo driver they both used to travel to Colorado, Doc O’Connor, also ran male escorts. McKinney was his boy. Beneath the folksy scrim presented in The Laramie Project, Doc was menacing. (O'Connor denies having any involvement in the sex or drug trade).
On October 6, Shepard was scheduled to make a run that would have brought six ounces of meth to Laramie. He reserved the limo but broke the date. McKinney, high, had spent the day desperate for a fix to his drug hunger and money problems: trying to trade the gun again; beating a friend/dealer; finally itching to rob a connection of an expected six ounces of meth. Patrons at the Fireside said he and Shepard met in the bathroom before their last ride.
There are many if-onlys in this story, and many blank spaces. McKinney stopped talking once Jimenez reported his sexual activities. There is no evidence that police ever tested him for drugs; ever checked phone logs for Shepard, who changed numbers frequently; ever pursued why the only page torn from the book in which McKinney listed his contacts by first name bore the letter M. McKinney told Jimenez he’d ditched his drug paraphernalia before police arrived, “everything…that [could] get me in any kind of trouble”—an odd phrase from someone who had killed a man. Jimenez only gestures at police corruption, and writes that often while tracking the drug underworld he was scared.
The Matthew Shepard Foundation, the whole machinery that benefited from the story of a desexualized Bad Karma Kid but otherwise happy-in-his-skin Matthew, that used his horrid death as a banner for hate crime laws, have slammed the book. Kinder reviewers have said Jimenez has made the case less political. On the contrary. What impelled McKinney to loathe his desires, and Shepard relentlessly, dangerously to test himself, and Henderson to follow orders? Violence lacerated these young men long before the murder, and it will not be diminished or resisted by myths and vengeful laws. JoAnn Wypijewski
Earlier this month, Michael Bronski, Ann Pellegrini and Michael Amico took a look at the efficacy of hate crimes legislation.