Twenty-one year old University of Wyoming college student, Matthew Shepard, died October 12, 1998 at 12:53 a.m. after spending five days in a coma due to massive injuries and head trauma in a robbery and hate crime assault.
The 5’2, 102 pound, Shepard never emerged from his coma and died the morning after America’s celebration of National Coming Out Day.
Shepard had met Aaron McKinney (22), and Russell Henderson (21) of Laramie in a local bar on campus called Fireside Lounge. Henderson had said that he and McKinney had already been drinking beer when they went to the bar and ran into Shepard. Fireside bartender Matthew Galloway later testified at Aaron McKinney’s trial that he served drinks to Henderson and McKinney and said they did not seem drunk (this countered the McKinney defense that liquor and drugs incited the attack on Shepard.) Galloway told the court he watches for intoxication and said McKinney drank very little.
“He had no mannerisms or actions that would lead me to believe he was in a state of intoxication.” The two had led Shepard to believe they were gay. Matthew, believing they wanted to discuss the politics and struggle of the gay movement, followed McKinney and Henderson into their truck. After getting in the truck, Henderson said “McKinney pulled out a gun and told Matthew Shepard to give him his wallet.” McKinney said “Guess what. We’re not gay. And you’re gonna get jacked.” When Matthew refused, McKinney hit him with the gun. With Henderson behind the wheel, they drove more than a mile outside Laramie, as Matthew begged for his life, McKinney struck him while Henderson laughed. “He (McKinney) told me to get a rope out of the truck,” Henderson said. According to Henderson, McKinney allegedly tied Shepard’s beaten body to a wooden split-rail post fence, robbed him of his wallet and patent leather shoes, continued to beat him and then left him to die for over 18 hours bleed profusely in near freezing temperatures “with only the constant Wyoming wind as his companion,” stated Prosecutor Calvin Rerucha in a McKinney hearing held November 10, 1999.
A bicyclist, Aaron Kreifels, happened by chance to discover Matthew’s body October 7, 1998 and rushed to the nearby home of University of Wyoming professor Charles W. Dolan to phone police. “He sounded to me like his lungs were full of blood. He was breathing hard,” Kreifels testified October 26, 1999 at the Aaron McKinney trial. Dolan and Kreifels then both went back to Shepard and waited for help to arrive. Dolan also testified during McKinney’s trial that “I made the call (to 911). He (Shepard) was bloody. There was a large pool of blood in his right ear.”
Patrol Officer Reggie Fluty described in her report that when she found Shepard’s body, his hands were bound behind his back so tightly to a buck fence that it was difficult to cut him free. Her only duty at the time was not to gather evidence but to assist Shepard. Fluty tried to cut the ropes from Shepard’s hands and when she bent him over he stopped breathing so she turned him back over. “His hands were tied tight and I wanted to free him.” She also noticed that he wore braces on his teeth. And though his face was caked in blood, his face was clean where streaks of tears had washed the blood away. “The only white skin I saw (on his face) was where he had been crying.” A watch and Matthew’s school ID card was found near the crime scene. In her testimony in the Aaron McKinney trial Tuesday, October 26, 1999, Fluty testified that trying to comfort Shepard while waiting for the ambulance she told him “Baby boy, I’m so sorry this happened to you.” During Fluty’s testimony, Prosecutor Cal Rerucha showed the jury pictures of Shepard’s face and the blood stained ground below where Shepard had been left for 18 hours. Some jurors winced as they viewed graphic photos of Shepard’s injuries, including his bloodied face and ear.
Matthew Shepard was taken to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, where doctors determined Matthew’s full extent of injuries. What was earlier reported as burns, turned out to be welt marks from beatings via a blunt object. Matthew’s skull was so badly crushed that his brain stem was seriously damaged. Meaning that vital functions including his heartbeat, breathing and temperature control were critically impaired, and doctors were unable to operate.
Hospital staff inserted a drain in his skull to reduce pressure caused by his swollen brain, used a ventilator to keep Matthew breathing and inserted a tube in his throat to keep his airway open.
Even with these measures, Matthew’s blood pressure began to dive around midnight. His parents had flown in from Saudi Arabia where his father worked. They remain at his bed side until Matthew passed away.
McKinney and Henderson were charged with first-degree murder, which carried with it the possibility of the death penalty. They were also charged with kidnapping and aggravated robbery.
Two women described as the suspect’s girlfriends, Chasity Vera Pasley (20) and Krista Lean Price (18) were charged as accessories after the fact of first-degree murder. On December 23, 1999, Pasley pleaded guilty to her charges. The two women allegedly hid the bloody shoes of Henderson in a storage shed in Pasley’s mother’s home and provided the suspects with alibis. Shepard’s shoes, coat and credit card were found in McKinney’s pick-up truck. His wallet was later found at McKinney’s home, wrapped in a dirty diaper in a garbage pail.
A .357 Magnum is suspected of being the weapon with which Shepard was beaten with, was found in McKinney’s home, police said.
Dr. Patrick Allen of the Larimer County, Colorado coroner’s office which performed the autopsy on Matthew Shepard testified in the Aaron McKinney trial that some of Shepard’s injuries were caused by fists, “but the skull fractures were caused by a blunt instrument consistent with that of a gun. Matthew Shepard died as a result of the blunt trauma injuries he sustained to his head and face.” Albany County District Attorney Cal Rerucha questioned Dr. Allen “When Matthew Shepard was tied to the fence, could he feel the pain? Could he be thirsty? Could he feel the cold?” “Yes, he may have felt pain because he may never have completely lost conciouness,” Dr. Allen said.
Shepard’s brutal murder has sparked outcries from all political organizations. The Conservative Christian Right have denounced accusations that their homophobic rhetoric of hate is the reason for the savage beating. Nationwide gay and lesbian organizations have likened Shepard’s being tied to a wooden fence as being crucified on a cross as Jesus had.
Matthew’s small size and genuinely non-judgmental and accepting personality have sent the citizens of Laramie, WY, the United States and many people world wide into mourning. Many cities held candlelight vigils after Shepard’s death and gay organizations are rallied for the passage of a Hate Crimes Prevention Act in the Senate and Congress.
Adding fuel to the fire, The Reverend Fred Phelps and his followers out of Topeka, Kansas protested the funeral of Matthew Shepard in Casper, Wyoming where Shepard was raised. Phelps’ ministry carried signs of varying messages from “God Hates Fags” to “Fag Matt Burn In Hell.” Public Safety Director Art de Werk took precautions to prevent any disruption of the family’s mourning. The anti-gay Phelps and his ministry were in full force again at Henderson’s hearing April 5 with similar verbal epitaphs and vulgar signs. A peaceful counter protest was held against Phelps. Young people dressed as angels stood silently in front of the protesters trying to block from view the Phelps followers. “I could no longer sit idly by and watch others bring forth messages that were nothing more than vindictive and hate-filled, ” said Romaine Patterson, 21, a friend of Shepard’s who organized the angels’ counter demonstration. “As a young person, I feel it is necessary to show the great nation that we live in that there doesn’t need to be this kind of violence and hatred in our world. ”
Shepard’s family has asked that Matthew’s death not be turned into a political agenda for either party and have stated that it would not be what Matthew wanted. Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, urged parents to hug their children and enjoy every day with them.
“He came into the world premature and left the world premature and we are most grateful for the time we had with them, ” Mrs. Shepard told through a statement issued through the hospital soon after Matt’s death.
Friends have also spoken to the media remembering their friend. “Matt wasn’t openly gay,” Walter Boulden, a long-time friend said. “He didn’t tell people in his class he was gay. He was the kind of guy who would just walk into a room and people would think he was gay just because he was slightly built, rather feminine. He certainly didn’t hide his sexuality if someone asked him.” Boulden said Shepard was “not the kind of person who goes to bars and tries to pick up people. Matt absolutely did not do one night stands. He likes meeting other gay people, so he could talk about the experience and the struggle. ”
Shepard was born and raised in Casper, Wyo. He attended Natrona County High School until his sophomore year. When his parents moved to Saudi Arabia because of his father’s employment as an oil rig safety instructor, Matthew finished his high school career in Lugano, Switzerland and spent time on the East coast and in Denver before deciding to attend University of Wyoming.
“Just last week he was talking about how glad he was that he had made the decision he made, that he was incredibly comfortable here, felt safe for the first time,” Boulden said soon after Matthew’s death.
Shepard majored in political science at UW and wanted to pursue a Foreign Service career, perhaps moving forward gay rights internationally.
Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis, stated that Matthew “would emphasize he does not want the horrible actions of a few very disturbed individuals to mar the fine reputations of Laramie or the university. ” Dennis Shepard reportedly relayed through Wyoming governor Jim Geringer, that he did not want his son’s death to become “a media circus” and that “we should not use Matt to further an agenda. ”
Geringer said that Shepard’s father also said: “Don’t rush into passing all kinds of new hate-crimes laws. Be very careful of any changes and be sure you’re not taking away rights of others in the process to race to this.”
Russell Henderson pleaded Guilty April 5 and was sentenced to two life terms in prison with virtually no possibility for parole, while Henderson’s girlfriend Chastity V. Pasley was sentenced to 15 to 24 months in prison.
At Henderson’s sentencing trial April 5, 1999, appearing solemn and wearing gray pants and a light gray shirt, he rose and made a brief apology to Shepard’s parents. “I hope you never experience a day or night without experiencing the terror, humiliation, hopelessness and helplessness my son felt that night,” Judy Shepard told him through her tears. “He was my son, my first born, but more, he was my friend, my confidant, my constant reminder of how good life can be,” she said. Dennis Shepard described Matthew as a son “blind to people’s differences,” a friend to people of all nationalities, religions and lifestyles. “Who will be their friend now? ” he asked Henderson. Recalling moments from his son’s child hood, Shepard described how he taught Matthew to sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” “Frere Jaques,” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Turning to face Henderson at his sentencing he said: “You, Mr. Henderson, sank the boat, ruined Jaques and shot down the star.” Judge Jeffrey Donnell told Henderson he did not believe he (Henderson) was truly sorry for the “savage and brutal” crime. “Quite frankly the court does not believe you really feel a true sense of remorse for your role in this matter.” Prosecutor Cal Rerucha said after the hearing, “My hope is that Russell Henderson will die in the Wyoming State penitentiary. ”
In a March, 1999 interview with Vanity Fair, Judy Shepard discussed that while Matthew was on vacation in Morocco during his senior year in high school, a gang there raped him. “He was never the same after Morocco, ” his mother said. “And neither were we. We were always worried about his physical safety and his mental state. It seemed to him it was taking forever to feel safe. ”
The Vanity Fair article also reported that Matthew tested HIV-positive in the hospital after the October attack. Mrs. Shepard said that since her son was raped in Morocco, he had been tested periodically for HIV and the results had been negative. The magazine article did not give any sources other than the interview with Mrs. Shepard. Albany County Coroner Julie Heggie told The Associated Press that she had no information about whether Matthew was HIV-positive. “I know that’s not in the autopsy report, ” Heggie said.
In the Vanity Fair issue, Mrs. Shepard said that her son had suffered periodic clinical depression and had been taking an antidepressant and an anti-anxiety drug. She described her son as a sometimes-naive young man who was often too trusting for his own good. “It’s a very frightening concept as a parent that your son now becomes a martyr, a public figure for the world. He’s just our son, ” Mrs. Shepard stated. She said she was disturbed that some sympathizers had compared her son to Jesus Christ. “You must understand, it’s like putting him on a pedestal that just won’t work. I’m concerned that if people find out he wasn’t a saint, they’ll be disappointed or angry or hate him, ” Mrs. Shepard declared.
Friend Walter Boulden said Shepard’s parents knew of his sexual orientation, but “I don’t know how accepting they are of it, and I think that’s been and issue between them, and I think i