Since it’s the end of Pride month, I figured to post my first informative true crime blog about someone who unknowingly paved the way for the LGBTQ+ movement way back at the end of the 90’s. This is the story of Matthew “Matt” Shepard.
I’m sure that you’ve heard of this story in one form or another. I know that Ellen DeGeneres had Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, on the show in October of 2009, just eleven years after Matthew’s death. I had never heard of Matthew’s story until sometime last year. I was doing the usual endless scroll on Netflix until my eyes caught the quick bio of a special called, ‘Matt Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine’. By the end of the movie, I was crying. I had a pit in my stomach because of how sad this story was. As a mother, I connected with Judy Shepard. I can’t imagine the pain that she went through. The plot of this whole story has all the juicy details one would only find in a critically-acclaimed suspenseful drama. It wasn’t something you would ever want to happen to a real person. But, it did.
Let’s start from the beginning. Matthew Wayne Shepard was born on December 1st 1976 in Casper, Wyoming to Judy and Dennis Shepard. In 1981, Judy and Dennis had another son named Logan. Logan and Matthew were tight-knit brothers. In fact, for the most part, the Shepards’ were your typical happy family. Matthew went to public school in Wyoming until his junior year of high school. Matthew and his family were Episcopalian and active members of their church.In the summer of 94’, his father accepted a position in Saudi Arabia on an oil rig. At the time, there were no American schools in Saudi Arabia, so Matthew was then enrolled and completed his education at the American School in Switzerland. While there, he participated in theater and took both German and Italian courses. While enrolled in school, he was voted by his peers as a peer counselor because he “was easy to talk to”, made friends easily and fought for acceptance for all people. Michele Josue; Shepards’ friend and creator of ‘Matt Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine’ described him as “a tender-hearted and kind person.” Dennis Shepard described his son as “an optimistic and accepting young man who had a special gift of relating to almost anyone. He was the type of person who was approachable and always looked to new challenges. Matthew had a great passion for equality and always stood up for the acceptance of people’s differences.” Unfortunately, during his senior year, Matthew and some friends attended a senior trip in Morocco. Sometime during that trip, Matthew was beaten and raped. According to Judy Shepard, this trauma caused depression and panic attacks. One of his friends feared that his depression had driven him to drugs, more so when he attended college. Multiple times, Matthew was hospitalized due to clinical depression and suicide ideation. After graduating in 1995, Matthew attended Catawba College in NC, and Casper College in Wyoming before settling for a short time in Denver, CO. Eventually, Matthew made his way back to Wyoming and enrolled at the University of Wyoming. He excelled there and became a student representative for the Wyoming Environmental Council while being a first-year political science major.
October 6th 1998 will always be the date that changed Judy, Dennis and Logan’s lives. Matthew Shepard was at a bar called the Fireside Lounge in Laramie. At some point in the evening, he was approached by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. McKinney and Henderson eventually offered Matthew a ride home and all three men left the bar together. They subsequently drove to a remote and rural area and proceed to rob, pistol-whip and torture Matthew. They tied him to a barbed wire and wood fence and left him to die. Matthew Shepard was beaten so brutally that his face was completely covered in blood except where it had been partially cleared by tears. Matthew was left with a fractured skull- mostly to the back of his head and in front of his right ear. He experienced severe brain-stem damage which affected his body’s ability to regulate his heart rate, body temperature and other vital functions. There were also about a dozen small lacerations around his head, face and neck. Still tied to the fence, Matthew was in a coma for 18 hours after the attack. The temperatures were near freezing and it’s no doubt that his body went into shock. Meanwhile, McKinney and Henderson returned to town. I don’t know exactly the timeline of events, but if I’m correct, McKinney & Henderson stopped to see their girlfriends, or got a hold of them shortly after returning to town. You see, McKinney & Henderson tried to persuade their girlfriends’ to provide alibi’s and dispose of evidence. The girl’s later testified that both men were not under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Obviously, that wasn’t true because Henderson later confessed that they had been bar hopping earlier in the evening and had at least at two pitchers of beer. Eventually, the same night of the attack, for whatever reason, both men then got into a fight with two Hispanic youth- Emiliano Morales and Jeremy Herrara. Police officer Flint Waters responded to the fight and arrested Henderson and searched McKinney’s truck. There, he found Matthew Shepard’s shoes and credit card… and a blood-smeared gun.
I’m not here to preach. My father does that. But I am here to let you know that there is something out there. Whether it’s God, or whatever, or whomever you believe; I believe that God sent Aaron Kreifels out on a morning bike ride so that Matthew could come home. Aaron Kreifels was a cyclist who went on a seemingly normal, and aimless bike ride. At one point, he either stopped to tie his shoes, or had fallen- whichever, is when he spotted something off in the distance. At first, Aaron mistook Matthew as a scarecrow (it is during October afterall) and began to get a closer look. It didn’t take him too long to figure out that it was a human body, and he immediately called the cops. He made a quote that you can find on ‘The Laramie Project’- “…That the reason that God wanted me to find him is, for he didn’t have to die out there alone, ya know? And if I wouldn’t’ve come along, they wouldn’t’ve found him for a couple weeks, at least…” The first police officer to arrive on scene was Reggie Fluty. It’s important to note that the medical gloves that were issued by the Albany County Sheriff’s Department were actually faulty and her own supply had run out. Reggie decided to use her bare hands to clear an airway in Matthew’s mouth so that he can breathe a little easier. A day later, she was informed that Matthew was HIV-positive. She was tested, and eventually her tests came back negative. Judy Shepard later wrote that she had found out about Matthew’s HIV status while he was lying in the hospital. Matthew was transported to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie before being moved to the advanced trauma ward at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, CO. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate and was then placed on life support. Unfortunately, Matthew never regained consciousness, and six days after the attack he was pronounced dead on October 12th 1998 at 12:53AM. He was just 21.McKinney and Henderson were arrested and initially charged with attempted murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery. After Matthew’s death, the charges were upgraded to first-degree which mean that both McKinney & Henderson were eligible for the death penalty. The girlfriends’- Kristen Price and Chasity Pasley were also charged with being accessories after the fact. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church led by Fred Phelps, received national attention when they decided to picket Matthew’s funeral with signs of homophobic slurs such as “God hates Fags”, and “Matt in Hell!” Church members also attended the trial hearings of McKinney & Henderson and mounted anti-gay protests. Countering the protests and verbal attacks, Romaine Patterson, one of Matthew’s friends, organized a group that assembled into a circle around the protesters. The group wore white robes with gigantic wings (resembling angels) and blocked the protestors from getting to the Shepard family. However, Judy and Dennis have said that even though Romaine and her group tried to “hide” the Westboro nutcases, they still heard the slurs and anti-gay remarks. Angel Action was founded by Patterson in April of 1999.At McKinney’s November 98’ pretrial hearing, Sergeant Rob Debree testified that McKinney had previously stated in an earlier interview that Henderson and himself had targeted Matthew Shepard. They pretended to be gay in order to lure him out of the bar and into his truck. McKinney then attacked Matthew after Shepard put his hand on McKinney’s knee. McKinney had told his girlfriend Kristen Price- who later told Detective Ben Fritzen, that he was triggered by how he “felt about gays.” In December 1998, Chasity Pasley pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact and was sentenced to 15 months to 2 years in prison. She had gone on to say that she was sorry for helping to dispose of the bloody clothing that her boyfriend, Henderson had worn during the attack. On April 5th 1998, Henderson avoided going to trial by pleading guilty to murder and kidnapping. In order to avoid the death penalty, he agreed to testify against McKinney. Henderson was sentenced by District Judge Jeffrey A. Donnell to two consecutive life terms. At Henderson’s sentencing, his lawyer had argued that Shepard wasn’t targeted due to his sexual preference. McKinney’s trial took place in October and November of 1999- one year after the attack. His lawyer attempted to put forward a gay panic defense, arguing that McKinney was driven to temporary insanity by alleged sexual advances brought on by Shepard. The defense was rejected. (Thank God that Judge was smart because victim blaming in this case is bullshit!) The jury found McKinney not guilty of premeditated murder, but guilty of felony murder and then began to deliberate about the death penalty. Matthew’s parents are better than I. I mean, I pray that I never have to endure anything they’ve gone through, but Judy and Dennis ended up brokering a deal that resulted in McKinney receiving two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. McKinney and Henderson were incarcerated in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, but then later transferred to other prisons due to overcrowding. Following her testimony at McKinney’s trial, Kristen Price pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor interference with a police officer (uh… what, that’s it?) Requests for new legislation to address hate crimes gained momentum during the coverage of the attack and aftermath. Under existing US federal law, and Wyoming state law, crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation could not be prosecuted as hate crimes. On March 20th 2007, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act was first introduced to the US Congress as federal bipartisan legislation. It wouldn’t be until October 22nd 2009 that the Senate would pass the act by a vote of 68-29. President Barack Obama signed the measure into law on October 28th, 2009.Matthew’s life, death, trials and aftermath have been the inspiration for numerous creative works, including “The Laramie Project”- a play made into a movie. Additionally, NBA player Jason Collins wore the jersey “98” in honor of Matthew Shepard during the 2012-13 season with the Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards, and came out as gay the following season. ‘The Meaning Of Matthew: My Son’s Murder In Laramie, and a World Transformed’ is a 2009 biographical book written by Judy Shepard about Matthew. The story follows the Shepard family in the days immediately following the deadly attack, how he was kept alive on machines, the huge public response, candlelit vigils and memorial service, and their struggles to navigate the legal system.On October 26th 2018, just over twenty years after his death, Shepard’s ashes were interred at the crypt of Washington National Cathedral. The ceremony was presided over by the first openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson, and the Bishop of Washington Reverend Marianne Edgar Budde. Matthew’s ashes were the first of a national figure at the cathedral since Helen Keller. We are almost twenty two years from Matthew Shepard’s vicious and heinous attack. Even though the country has made strides when it comes to accepting those with different sexual preferences, there’s still a job to be done. In the years following Matthew’s death, Judy Shepard has become an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, especially when it comes to gay youth. She was the main force behind the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which she and Dennis founded in December 1998. In June 2019, Matthew was among the inaugural fifty American “pioneers, trailblazers and heroes” that were inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall Of Honor within the Stonewall Monument in NYC’s Stonewall Inn.
We can’t stop. We won’t stop. Bottom line, everyone deserves to live a long life. Everyone deserves love. It shouldn’t ever matter with who. Love is too beautiful to be hidden in a closet. More equality. More hope. More humanity. More acceptance. More love. More PRIDE.
Where Matthew’s body was found
Henderson, left; McKinney, right
Dennis and Judy Shepard
President Obama with Judy and Dennis Shepard