by Seth Hemmelgarn
A new book purporting that the murder of Matthew Shepard wasn't an anti-gay hate crime and that Shepard had been involved with methamphetamine is stirring controversy.
Shepard, a gay college student, was 21 in October 1998 when he left a Laramie, Wyoming bar with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Less than a day later, he was found brutally beaten and tied to a fence. He soon died from his injuries. A jury found McKinney guilty of second-degree murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. Henderson took a plea deal and pleaded guilty to felony murder and kidnapping charges. Both men are expected to spend the rest of their lives in prison. A national hate crimes law signed by President Barack Obama in 2009 bears Shepard's name.
In The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths about the Murder of Matthew Shepard, gay author Stephen Jimenez, who began work on the book more than a dozen years ago, said he relied on his interviews with over 100 people – including McKinney, Henderson, and numerous law enforcement officials, and several people who knew Shepard – as well as "voluminous public records." However, some have criticized Jimenez for, among other reasons, including anonymous sources.
Jimenez, who's set to appear at a Monday, October 28 event in San Jose, spoke about the book in a recent interview with the Bay Area Reporter.
"I thought the complexities surrounding Matthew's murder were important for us to understand if we're serious about preventing these kinds of acts of grotesque violence and hatred, and we need to understand the factors that came into play, all the factors that came into play," said Jimenez, 60.
He added, "A full portrait of who Matthew was as a person, as a human being, was missing from the public narrative."
The main motive for the murder that Jimenez puts forward is that McKinney, who beat Shepard with his gun, believed Shepard had at least six ounces of methamphetamine, which would have been worth thousands of dollars.
Jimenez said he first learned from McKinney himself that his plan the night of October 6, 1998 had been to steal the six ounces of meth from a dealer.
But Jimenez told the B.A.R. that McKinney didn't tell him directly that he'd thought Shepard had the six ounces the night of the beating.
"To this day" McKinney claims "he did not know Matthew Shepard before walking into the Fireside that night," said Jimenez, referring to the bar Shepard, McKinney, and Henderson had been at before Shepard was attacked. However, the book refers to several people saying that McKinney and Shepard had known each other before that night, and a man named John Earl Baker Jr. said that McKinney "had mentioned something to him about a drug deal and 'getting dope from Shepard. ...'"
At one point, Jimenez produced an ABC News 20/20 story on the case. Some of the material gathered for that story is included in the book. In 2004, McKinney talked to ABC's Elizabeth Vargas about his account that he'd attacked Shepard after Shepard grabbed his leg.
He said he hit him.
"I was already going to rob him," said McKinney. When Shepard grabbed his leg, "I guess that just gave me a jump ... to get it started ..." McKinney told Vargas that he stole $30 from Shepard.
When Vargas asked McKinney why he'd beat Shepard with his gun even after Shepard had given him his money, McKinney described the rage and loss of control he experienced while coming off a meth binge, saying, "I was hallucinating pretty bad ... It was almost like an out-of-body experience ..."
Jimenez also quotes what McKinney said after he'd questioned him "innumerable times" about the gay panic alibi he'd given.
"At the time, that seemed like ... the best way to prove that I didn't mean to kill [Shepard]," said McKinney. Jimenez wrote, "Aaron said the decision to use that strategy in court was 'a little mine ... a little of the lawyers ... [but] it was mostly me."
Shepard Foundation responds
One of the most prominent critics of the book has been the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The nonprofit's staff includes Logan Shepard, Matthew Shepard's brother.
"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," a statement provided by Jason Marsden, the foundation's executive director, said.
"We do not respond to innuendo, rumor or conspiracy theories. Instead we remain committed to honoring Matthew's memory, and refuse to be intimidated by those who seek to tarnish it."
But in 2004, several years before he became the foundation's director, Marsden, who'd been a friend of Shepard's and a newspaper reporter in Casper, Wyoming, essentially agreed with much of what would be put forward in the book.
According to Jimenez, Marsden said at the time, "The quick and easy description of Matt Shepard gay bashed ... is about as far from the actual nuanced truth of what happened as it can get."
As for the possible role of drugs in Shepard's killing, Jimenez quotes Marsden as saying, "... I remember thinking ... especially when it started to come out that McKinney was surrounded by people who were deep into the methamphetamine problem, that this was perhaps the most spectacular methamphetamine-related crime that had ever happened in Wyoming ..." He also said, "I remember thinking at the time that the Matt Shepard case would forever go down in history as, you know, one of the saddest examples of gay bashing, but what it also was, was one of the saddest examples of the desperate lengths people on methamphetamine will go to."
Asked about the comments, Marsden told the B.A.R. , "I was not afforded an opportunity to review any of that interview material before [the book] was published. I can't tell you if I said that or not." He noted Jimenez uses several ellipses and, among other concerns, he said, "I don't recall the context of that interview nine years ago," although he added, "I believe he discussed the fact that there was a rumor about methamphetamine related to this case." Since then, "I have never seen hard evidence from the case record that indicate that rumor was true," said Marsden.
"If [Jimenez] is asserting that I agree with his theory of the case, that is not true," said Marsden, who had said he never knew Shepard to use meth.
Responding generally to critics of his book, Jimenez said, "They're not offering up contrary proof or evidence to what I presented in the book. There's a lot of reaction to the idea of the book itself."
He also noted that he included several sources in the book, some of who were named, who talked about Shepard's drug involvement. Jimenez explained one reason some sources' names don't appear is they fear retaliation from others involved in drug dealing.
In interviews with the B.A.R., law enforcement officials who were involved with the Shepard case offered conflicting opinions of The Book of Matt.
Former Albany County Attorney Cal Rerucha, who prosecuted McKinney and Henderson and is quoted extensively in the book.
Jimenez quotes Rerucha as saying, "I don't think the proof [of a hate crime] was there." Rerucha said the quote is accurate. He said friends of Shepard who apparently didn't want his attack to go unnoticed said, "'You're not going to cover this up, this was a hate crime.' They were on a mission ... it took off from there."
He also noted that Wyoming still doesn't have hate crimes law protecting LGBTs. Meth did come up in court, Rerucha said, but people have asked years later why it wasn't brought up at trial.
"It was you guys [the media] who just chose not to talk about it because the other parts of the case were more interesting," said Rerucha.
Asked if Shepard had used meth, "As far as we were concerned, that was irrelevant to the case, and I didn't speculate on that. It was a brutal killing, and it was without any type of justifiable reason for such an action occurring. I'm a prosecutor. I'm not a speculator."
Rerucha, who's now the Carbon County, Wyoming attorney, praised Jimenez's work. The book recalls how Laramie was flooded with media attention that eventually evaporated. Rerucha said there'd been "an absolute frenzy."
"Everybody wants to talk to people while the trial is going on, and we're ethically not able to do that." When McKinney's trial ended, there were "very few people that were interested, and they just all left."
Rerucha said even though he'd offered to discuss the case and the records involved after it concluded, Jimenez was one of the only people "that really looked at the files." He said The Book of Matt is "fair."
"Certainly, everything that personally, as far as he said about me is probably correct. I've known Steve for a long time. He's worked on this, gosh, for 14 years. ... From a historical standpoint, I think he did a very good job."
Flint Waters is the former law enforcement official who caught Henderson the night of Shepard's beating. He gave the book a five-star review on Amazon.com, saying, "This is an amazing book! A painful story about a horrific event that left one man dead and many lives in pieces. It shines a brutal light on the weakest of human souls like two cops that chose to build their careers on a lie, at least in my opinion. It documents the original failure of the media, the community and the criminal justice system to find the real truth."
In an interview, Waters, who's now the state chief information officer for Wyoming's governor, said he'd investigated many of the people Jimenez referred to in the book for drug crimes.
"I had trouble getting folks in the surrounding community to believe what was going on, to believe how bad" the meth problem was, he said. Jimenez "confirmed a huge amount of the drug conspiracies that I suspected but couldn't prove."
Waters said he didn't know of Shepard, who'd just moved to Laramie months before he was killed, dealing or using meth, but he was "very aware" of McKinney's involvement with the drug.
Like others interviewed for this story, Waters praised the work that's been done in Shepard's name, and said, "I don't want to see that lost."
Dave O'Malley was the Laramie police commander over the investigations division at the time of Shepard's murder and is now the Albany County sheriff.
O'Malley said he still believes Shepard was killed because he was gay. He also said he has "a myriad of issues" with the idea that meth was involved, including the allegations about Shepard.
O'Malley noted Shepard's small build and the braces on his teeth, and said as for Shepard being "a methamphetamine kingpin, that in itself, is almost humorous. Someone that would buy into that certainly would believe almost anything they read."
The sheriff said of the book, "I thought the only good thing about it was I didn't have to pay to buy it."
Rob DeBree, who was the lead sheriff's investigator when Shepard was killed and is now undersheriff, said "not once did [Jimenez] ever speak with me," and he didn't try." (Jimenez said he made multiple attempts to interview DeBree, but DeBree wasn't available.)
DeBree said the book includes "factual errors and lies," including a statement about someone shooting through Rerucha's window. Rerucha maintains the incident happened. DeBree also said the notion that Shepard was a drug dealer was "truly laughable."
Defense attorneys also weighed in.
Wyatt Skaggs was one of the attorneys who defended Henderson. He declined to answer most of the B.A.R.'s questions, including those about the book's accuracy, but he said Jimenez was "a reporter who doesn't know very much" about the case. Skaggs, who's now retired, estimated he'd read about half of the book.
Jason Tangeman, one of the attorneys who represented McKinney during the trial, said he wasn't familiar with the book, but he said Jimenez called him several years ago.
He said, "I can't remember precisely what he asked me," but he generally recalled Jimenez asked whether Tangeman believed the murder involved a "drug deal gone wrong." He said he told the author he didn't know of any evidence to support that.
Tangeman said he doesn't plan to read the book, just as he hasn’t seen TV shows or other projects about Shepard.
"I don't have to be told what happened. I know what happened," said Tangeman.
The Monday, October 28 event is set for 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the San Jose Public Library, Willow Glen Branch, 1157 Minnesota Avenue.