Remembering Matthew Shepard: 1976 – 1998

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Matthew Shepard
Matthew Shepard

WARNING: This article contains homophobia, along with graphic injury and violence detail, which readers are likely to find distressing.

 

Matthew Shepard

“It was reported that Matthew was beaten so brutally that his face was completely covered in blood, except where it had been partially washed clean by his tears.”

 

On October 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard, an openly gay 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally attacked, tied to a fence in a field outside of Laramie, Wyoming and left to die.

 

On October 12, five days later, Matt succumbed to his wounds in a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Matthew Shepard
Matthew Shepard

On October 7, 1998, Matthew had met up with friends to plan LGBT awareness week on the town’s campus.

He wanted to get drinks afterwards but reportedly couldn’t persuade pals to join him.

 

Later, at a venue called The Fireside Lounge, the 21-year-old ended up chatting to two roofing workers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, who were both around the same age as him.

 

Albany County Sheriff Dave O’Malley, who was lead investigator in the case, said:

“McKinney’s own statement said he and Russell went into the bathroom at the Fireside bar and they planned to act like they were gay to try to gain Matthew’s confidence.”

“And so the sexual orientation issue started right at the beginning of that contact.”

 

The killers later told police that they intended to lure Shepard into McKinney’s pick-up truck so they could rob him.

 

Once in the vehicle, after offering him a ride home, McKinney pulled a gun, beat Shepard and seized his wallet, which contained $20.

 

The two attackers then took Shepard to a remote spot outside of town and tied his naked body to a wooden fence, tortured him, and left him in the freezing cold. All because he was gay.

 

Henderson used a clothesline to tie Matthew, weighing just over 100 pounds, to a log fence, at which point McKinney began to ferociously pistol-whip him.

 

Sheriff O’Malley said the 21-year-old student was “struck in the head and face between 19 and 21 times with the butt of a very large Smith and Wesson revolver”.

“The only time I’ve ever seen those dramatic of injuries were in high-speed traffic crashes, you know, where there was just extremely violent compression fractures to the skull.”

 

McKinney and Henderson then stole their victim’s patent leather shoes and left him to die. It was reported that Shepard was beaten so brutally that his face was completely covered in blood, except where it had been partially washed clean by his tears.

 

Eighteen hours later, a young mountain biker, who initially thought Matthew’s mutilated body was a scarecrow, discovered him. 

Matthew Shepard
Image: Gina Van Hoof

Policewoman Reggie Fluty, who responded to the scene, recalled:

“Matt was on his back with his arms behind him. His respirations were far and few between.”

“And I thought he was way younger than what he was just because his stature was so small.”

 

Fluty attempted to open Shepard’s mouth to clear his airway, but said it was clamped shut. She would later recall trying to revive him, by saying: “Baby boy, I’m here kiddo, you’re going to be OK, hang in there, don’t give up, come on, you can do this.”

 

As well as a crushed brain stem, Shepard suffered four skull fractures from the blows of McKinney’s .357 Magnum hand cannon. 

He never regained consciousness and died five days later, in hospital. 

 

His attackers, Henderson and McKinney, had gone on to attack two Latino youths later that same evening, also beating and pistol-whipping them.

 

Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney

Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney
Russell Henderson, 21, and Aaron McKinney, 22. Photograph: Ed Andrieski/AP

The two men responsible for Matthew’s death were convicted of first-degree murder and given two life sentences.

They were not charged with a hate crime, as that wasn’t possible under Wyoming’s criminal law at the time. 

 

To avoid a death sentence, Russell Henderson pleaded guilty to kidnapping and murder in April 1999 and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Later that year, Aaron McKinney attempted to use a “gay panic” defense at his own trial, claiming that Sheppard’s advances disgusted him.

When McKinney sought to introduce evidence that a man had molested him as a child, the Judge, Judge Barton Voigt, would not allow it.

He ruled that the defense was too similar to temporary insanity, which is not an option in Wyoming.

 

Matthew Shepard’s death sparked national outrage and renewed calls for extending hate crime laws to cover violence based on a person’s sexual orientation.

Then-president Bill Clinton implored Congress to pass the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in the wake of Matthew’s killing and the public outpouring that followed.

 

Eventually, after lengthy wrangling in congress, in October 2009 the United States Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (commonly the “Matthew Shepard Act” or “Shepard/Byrd Act” for short).

 

 

On October 28, 2009, President Obama finally signed the Matthew Shepard Act in 2009, a law which defined certain attacks motivated by victim identity as hate crimes.

 

His parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, formed The Matthew Shepard Foundation two months after his death to “erase hate by replacing it with understanding, compassion and acceptance”.

Matthew’s last words to his parents, on a phone call, were “I love you”.

 

Inspired by the tragedy they endured, the initial purpose of the Foundation was to teach parents with children who may be questioning their sexuality to love and accept them for who they are, and to not throw them away.

Through their personal appearances across the country and around the world, Judy and Dennis Shepard share Matt’s story to highlight the importance of standing up for the LGBT community.