Gay Journalist Re-visits Matthew Shepard’s Murder in Explosive Book
The 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming stands as a defining moment in American LGBT history. There were protests, vigils and a nationwide outcry against antigay violence. Some justice did seem to prevail when the killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were each sentenced to two consecutive life terms. The events led, in part, to a Federal hate crimes bill that included sexual orientation and bears Shepard's name.
In 2000, Stephen Jimenez, an award-winning journalist and writing professor at NYU, went to Wyoming to conduct research for a screenplay he was planning about Shepard's life. Like everyone else, he believed what had been reported in the media that the attack was an open and shut case of a gay hate crime.
After several months in Laramie and a cursory review of the court papers, Jimenez became convinced that Shepard's murder was not solely an incident of gay bashing, that there was a whole set of mitigating circumstances.
Jimenez's investigative report was to be a New York Times Magazine piece, but the article was pulled after he had done two years work on it. Instead, Jimenez produced an ABC "20/20" hour-long expose about what he had uncovered about the murder that countered previous scenarios. The broadcast was mostly discredited as unsubstantiated, hearsay evidence by the gay press, GLBT organizations and Shepard's parents.
Now, Jimenez has just published "The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard" with what he puts forth as a full accounting of what led to the murder.
"Matthew is the victim of a horrible murder, nothing changes that," Jimenez said in a phone interview from his current residence in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lives with his partner.
"As a gay man, I had a very sympathetic view of Matthew... My main goal is to expand the conversation. I want to know how and why hate and violence are so present in our culture. What are the origins of horrible tragedies like this. So I go into as much background in the book as possible," he explained.
Within hours of the story breaking, Jimenez writes, "Most of the original news reports said that the killers and Shepard were strangers. These cowboy rednecks walked into a bar and targeted him because he was gay. The other story floating was that Matthew made sexual advances to them in the bar." Jimenez said. "The actual story... involves Matthew and Aaron knowing each other prior to that night and having a history."
Among the most explosive claims in the book, is that Shepard was involved with a dangerous methamphetamine ring and at the time of his death and owed huge sums of money to drug dealers. Jimenez claims this was among many facts purposely left out of the trial by both the prosecution and defense teams.
Another bombshell in the book is that McKinney and Shepard had known each other for a year before the crime, were involved in hustling and drug dealing, and most likely had a sexual relationship.
After the "20/20" broadcast, Jimenez continued his investigation, making frequent trips to Wyoming and traveling to 20 other states to conduct interviews with over one hundred people connected to the case.
Jimenez gained the trust of Shepard’s former boyfriend, who stayed out of the media spotlight during the trial, and eventually told the author that he too, did not believe the incident was a random gay bashing.
What he discovered made it clear to him that the story was more complicated than he initially thought and in his view, and is "even more tragic."
"I started to see there was a suffering human being, and I needed to know all about him beyond this incident. I had mixed emotions. I was shocked and mortified. When I heard things about the extent of criminal activities about this town, I was afraid too go further," Jimenez admits.
He uncovered corroborating evidence that he was completely convinced that gay bashing wasn’t the single motive. "It was not until I found a letter, that made my mind completely flip." This anonymous letter, found in the stacks of previously court-sealed evidence, stated that McKinney was familiar with gay bars and that he even liked having sex with guys.
McKinney’s former girlfriend, Kristen Price, a key witness for the prosecution, admitted to Jimenez that she lied on the stand about McKinney’s "gay panic" defense, a strategy that didn’t work in court, but was a tactic agreed upon by the defendants and their lawyers.
"I heard initially from one of the guys who worked at the Fireside Bar and from several other people who were saying that they didn’t think the story had been reported truthfully. Around that time, an officer commented to me ’Shepard’s murder had nothing to do with his sexual preferences,’ but he didn’t want me to use his name because he was concerned about his family members being a target."
The book also chronicles the huge drug trafficking ring that was taking hold in that part of the country at the time. The conspiracies of silence, according to Jimenez, may have been in play by principals on all sides of the case, including some law enforcement. Jimenez started to feel heat for asking too many questions in drug hot spots and bars in Denver and Laramie. He was even ambushed in a truck stop parking lot, barely avoided being roughed up by thugs possibly connected to the drug network.
"Even the prosecutor, Cal Rerucha, acknowledged on camera that if McKinney hadn’t been involved with meth ’Matthew would be alive.’ That is coming from the prosecutor who sent these two men away,"
McKinney, it is revealed, was on a week-long meth bender leading up to his pistol-whipping Shepard.
Jimenez interviewed Henderson and McKinney in prison many times. McKinney severed the contact when Jimenez revealed that McKinney was bisexual, or at least had sex with men for money or drugs. He still visits Henderson and believes that he was frightened by McKinney’s rage on the night of the murder.
Even before the book’s release at the end of September, Jimenez braced himself for another backlash. He emphatically states that he in no way wants to tarnish Matthew life or his legacy as a posthumous symbol against antigay violence. In a follow-up commentary last week on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, Jimenez writes that the "purpose of the book is not to say hate wasn’t involved; it’s to examine the complex human factors that resulted in such a grotesque murder, and how that murder was reported and perceived."
Stephen Jimenez will be on a national book tour throughout the fall to discuss all aspects of the case and its implications to Shepard’s legacy. For a complete list of his upcoming appearances, including Cambridge, MA, Washington DC, Seattle and San Francisco, The Book of Matt Facebook page.