Matthew Shepard: The murder that changed America

By Jude Sheerin
BBC, Laramie, Wyoming


The death of a gay student, tortured and tied to a prairie fence in Wyoming two decades ago, shocked America. As Matthew Shepard's ashes are interred in the nation's spiritual home, those who knew him reflect on his remarkable legacy.

It was the dental brace.

That's how Judy and Dennis Shepard knew it was their son in the hospital bed.

"Bandages and stitches all over his face," Judy says, "and bandages around his head where the final blow had crushed his brain stem.

"His fingers and toes were curled in a comatose position already. Tubes everywhere enabling his body to stay alive.

"One of his eyes was partially open so you could see his blue eyes and the tubes in his mouth. You could see his braces, so of course it's Matt.

"His face was swollen, actually kind of unrecognisable till you got closer."

WARNING: This feature contains language that some readers may find offensive.

Two nights earlier, on Tuesday 6 October 1998, Matthew Shepard walked alone into a dive bar in Laramie.

image captionJudy and Dennis Shepard at the Matthew Shepard Foundation in Denver last week

The openly gay University of Wyoming freshman had just met up with friends to plan LGBT awareness week on the town's campus.

But he couldn't persuade them to join him for a beer afterwards.

At the Fireside Lounge, the 21-year-old somehow ended up chatting to two roofing workers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, both the same age as him.

The pair saw an easy mark in the 5ft 2in, slightly built student.

Albany County Sheriff Dave O'Malley, who was lead investigator in the case, says: "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."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionSheriff Dave O'Malley had the signature of his late fellow investigator on the Shepard case tattooed on his arm

The killers would tell police they planned to lure Shepard into McKinney's pick-up truck so they could rob him.

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

They drove about a mile out of town down a dirt path that ended in a rocky prairie of sagebrush and range grass.

Henderson used a clothesline to tie Shepard to a log fence.

McKinney began to ferociously pistol-whip their captive.

Sheriff O'Malley says the 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 stole their victim's patent leather shoes and left him to die.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe buck fence where Matthew Shepard was left to die pictured back in 1998

He would remain tied to the fence for 18 hours in the frigid cold.

The following evening a teenager fell off his mountain bike and noticed nearby what he thought was a fallen scarecrow or Halloween costume.

He realised it was a person.

Policewoman Reggie Fluty responded to the scene.

Standing at the spot now, the former patrol officer recalls: "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 - now 57 and retired - attempted to open Shepard's mouth to clear his airway. But it was clamped shut.

She remembers trying to revive him, 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."

image copyrightMatthew Shepard Foundation
image captionThe political science student dreamed of becoming a diplomat

Today the buck fence where Shepard was bound and bludgeoned is long gone.

The former crime scene is still a windswept field studded with cacti and criss-crossed by antelope spoor.

But there's nothing to indicate this is the site of a deadly assault that changed America.

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

His parents rushed to the Colorado hospital from Saudi Arabia, where Dennis Shepard worked as an oil rig inspector.

Their son never regained consciousness. He died five days after the attack.

The manner of his killing - the New York Times likened it to the Western custom of nailing a dead coyote to a fence to ward off intruders - detonated national outrage.

image copyrightCBS News
image captionRussell Henderson (left) and Aaron McKinney

Two days after Shepard passed away, tearful politicians and celebrities gathered on the steps of the US Capitol to address a vigil of thousands.

President Bill Clinton condemned the attackers as "full of hatred or full of fear or both".

Candlelit vigils were held across the nation.

Matthew Shepard died as a cultural age of innocence - some would say blissful ignorance - was coming to a close for America's millennials.

The whir and warble of dial-up internet was beginning to be heard in homes around the country. The president had two months earlier admitted an affair with a White House intern. Self-proclaimed "Antichrist Superstar" Marilyn Manson had just topped the album charts. The Columbine school massacre was seven months away.

image captionFormer patrol officer Reggie Fluty at the spot where Shepard was left to die

Few back then could imagine - least of all Shepard's parents - that people would still be talking about him today.

A collection of his personal effects - donated by his family - has just gone on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in the US capital.

His school work, theatre scripts, photos and sandals are among the exhibits.

On Friday, his remains were interred at Washington National Cathedral, spiritual home of the nation.

Shepard now rests in the crypt of the neo-Gothic edifice, alongside the likes of former President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, the pioneering deaf-blind academic, and George Dewey, the 19th Century naval officer for whom the rank of admiral of the navy was created.

It is a momentous honour not even accorded to another prominent gay martyr, Harvey Milk, the San Francisco politician assassinated in 1978.

At the Denver city centre offices of the LGBT rights foundation named after her son, Judy Shepard, 66, is fighting back tears.

She predicted Friday's ceremony would probably be more emotional for her than the funeral because she felt so "numb" immediately after her son's death.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionA vigil for Shepard in New York City in 1998

The original service, amid snow flurries in the family's hometown of Casper, Wyoming, on 16 October 1998, was picketed by an anti-gay preacher from Kansas.

Reverend Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church and his flock, who included children, held placards daubed with homophobic slurs and shouted to mourners that the dead student was burning in hell.

Dennis Shepard, 69, remembers law enforcement making him wear a bullet-proof vest to step outside the Episcopal church, which had been scoured by bomb-sniffing dogs.

Swat teams were positioned at the front and back of the building, police snipers on surrounding rooftops.

The couple have kept their son's urn of ashes at home until now, partly out of concern any memorial might be desecrated.

Judy says: "This is a huge relief to us to know that he'll be safe and protected forever."

She recalls that as a boy Matt always asked her: "Do you think I'll be famous someday?"

"I guess he got there," she adds.

image copyrightAFP
image captionJudy and Dennis Shepard at the interment ceremony for their son

The couple remember how they shrugged it off when he came out to them as a teenager, since they had already guessed.

At the time of his death, Judy says, he was just putting his life back together after being sexually assaulted on a high school trip to Morocco. Shepard was gang-raped there by some locals.

His mother says: "We just felt like he was finally coming around to being himself again. And uh, um, and then this happened."

Shepard was studying political science and dreamed of working as a diplomat for the Department of State.

His family have mixed feelings about his secular sainthood.

They believe he would be uncomfortable with his consecration as some sort of "perfect icon".

Judy points out that her son was not found on the fence in a crucifixion pose, as was wrongly reported at the time.

media captionMatthew Shepard laid to rest in Washington

Wyoming - which has almost as many pronghorn antelope as people (half a million or so residents) - is a rural, conservative heartland.

Shepard's murder stoked the perception of Cowboy Country and flyover states in general as a danger zone for gay people.

But at his office in the city of Cheyenne, McKinney trial lawyer Dion Custis maintains it was a robbery gone bad, even while he accepts sexual orientation was a factor.

"They [McKinney and Henderson] basically were just kind of two lost kids," he says, "that were using meth daily, at least weekly for a long period of time.

"People who use meth, chronic meth users, they lose the ability to rationalise, and [have] all kinds of problems mentally."

However, McKinney's own gay-bashing rhetoric damns him in the eyes of many.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThousands gathered outside the US Capitol for a vigil after Shepard's death

During a police confession, he said he began to attack Shepard because the student had put his hand on his leg during the car ride.

McKinney said he replied: "Guess what? We're not gay, and we're going to jack you up."

Yet in another statement to police, he said Shepard simply looked like he was about to grope McKinney.

From the jailhouse after his arrest, McKinney reportedly wrote to another inmate's wife: "Being a verry [sic] drunk homofobick [sic] I flipped out and began to pistol whip the fag with my gun, ready at hand."

At trial, McKinney's lawyers argued that Shepard had made their client fly into a rage by touching his leg.

But the judge dismissed this "gay panic" claim.

Such a legal strategy - where criminal defendants in cases of violent assault argue they were provoked by an unwanted same-sex sexual advance - is still admissible in all but three US states, according to the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law.

Sheriff O'Malley rejects any attempt to downplay the anti-gay element in the murder.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionRev Fred Phelps and his flock protest in Laramie in 1999

"We have never discounted ever that the initial motivation was robbery," he says. "The robbery motive stopped really early in that contact.

"In my opinion, it was a hate crime."

Both killers are serving two consecutive life terms for kidnapping and murder.

Neither would agree to interview requests, said the Wyoming Department of Corrections.

The court proceedings are also remembered for a counter-protest that is commemorated by a mural in Laramie, just a few blocks from where it unfolded.

When Westboro Baptist Church returned as Henderson pleaded guilty in April 1999, Shepard's friends were not prepared to let them steal the limelight again.

"We had this idea for big ass angel wings that would block out the signs," says Jim Osborn, who was chair of University of Wyoming's LGBT association at the time of the student's death.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionRomaine Patterson leads the original angel action protest

Wearing outfits made of white sheets, duct tape and PVC piping, they stood in front of Phelps and his congregants, turning the other cheek to their bigotry.

Osborn recalls the minister and his flock saying: "You're a disgrace. We can smell the whiff of brimstone about you."

Another counter-protester, Nichol Bondurant, says she could literally feel Phelps' breath on the back of her neck.

The moment was re-enacted as a climactic scene in 2002 HBO movie The Laramie Project.

Dubbed the angel action, it was replicated two years ago in Orlando, Florida, when Westboro Baptist Church tried to disrupt the funerals of gay people killed in a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub.

Shepard's death would go on to inspire plays, a musical and poetry. Elton John penned a song, American Triangle, comparing the slaying to a deer run down by two coyotes.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionDennis and Judy Shepard at one of the killers' court appearances

The dead student's family set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which helped expand federal hate crime law to include offences motivated by sexual orientation, gender or disability.

Judy and Dennis were at the White House with then-President Barack Obama in 2009 to see the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act signed.

James Byrd Jr, a black man, was murdered in Texas in June 1998 by three white supremacists who dragged him behind a pick-up truck.

The Shepards have travelled the US and more than two dozen countries advocating for LGBT rights.

The cause has made a quantum leap in the last two decades in America. When their son died, same-sex marriage was banned in every US state.

Now it's the law of the land.

image captionJim Osborn (L) at the original angel action protest and today at the Laramie mural that commemorates it

But activists say their battle for equality is not over.

Wyoming is among five US states that have no criminal hate crime law.

In another 15 states, hate crime laws do not expressly cover a victim's sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

It also says LGBT Americans can be fired for their sexuality in 29 states.

Judy feels gay rights "took a U-turn" under the Trump administration.

"All of them are in that circle of familiarity of extreme right-wing religious attitudes," she says of the president's cabinet, "in particular to the gay community, to anybody who's not straight white Christian."

Wyoming is celebrated as the home of train robbers Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

With its air of Western romance and cult of the outlaw, it is a place where the line between hero and villain can blur.

Many residents of Laramie - they call themselves Laramigos - believe their town has been unfairly tarnished by the Shepard case.

Some think media coverage was classist - the victim was educated at a Swiss alpine boarding school; the culprits were labelled "trailer trash" and "rednecks".

A number of townsfolk assert the murder was actually a drug deal gone bad, as the court heard Shepard - like many a student - had dabbled in illicit substances.

However, Sheriff O'Malley makes clear that theory is not supported by the evidence.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionJudy Shepard (L) at the White House in 2009 for the passage of the anti-hate crimes bill named after her son and a black man killed by white supremacists

The Old Buckhorn Bar & Parlor in Laramie has a mirror pocked by a bullet hole, and walls that bristle with mounted antelope, buffalo and bobcat.

One patron, Justin Brummet - who proudly describes himself as "third class white trash" - says US progress on gay rights since Shepard's death is to be commended.

But he and his friend Bryce, a lumberjack, are sceptical the murder was ever a hate crime.

"That's the thing about Wyoming," 29-year-old Brummet, a carpenter, says outside the pub as he smokes a cigarette, "is that it's just all about myth and stories and tall tales.

"Who really knows what happened, you know? You have one side of the divide that thinks it was a hate crime, and I think they needed it to be a hate crime.

"Then the other side is the kind of shit that happens in the state all the time."

More on this story

Across town is a different world - in the middle of the University of Wyoming's impressive $1bn sandstone campus stands the state's only public memorial to Matthew Shepard: a bench.

His family had to be persuaded to agree to that dedication, fearing it might be vandalised. It hasn't.

Some LGBT students gathered by the seat say they generally feel safe in Laramie, though tend to be more vigilant when venturing beyond college safe spaces.

Jess Fahlsing, from Rock Springs, Wyoming, says she would not dare walk around town holding hands with a partner.

Gem City, as it is known, has no gay bar, though its second annual PrideFest last summer was deemed a success.

"There's this notion [in Wyoming] that you can live your own lifestyle," says 22-year-old Fahlsing, who identifies as queer and came out a year ago, "and be whoever you are as long as you don't shove it into someone's face."

Back at the end of the last millennium, many Wyomingites apparently thought gay people were as rare on the high plains as jackalopes, the state's mythical antlered rabbit.

image caption(L-R) University of Wyoming LGBT students Jess Fahlsing, Carlos Gonzales and Rihanna Kelver

Shepard's murder - together with the 2005 gay cowboy love story Brokeback Mountain - helped dispel that misconception.

Cathy Connolly, a University of Wyoming gender and women's studies lecturer, explains.

"I think 20 years ago some people in Wyoming honestly didn't believe they had met anyone who was gay or lesbian," she says.

"Today that isn't the case. Everyone understands that there are gays and lesbians in their communities.

"That being said, it doesn't mean that everyone believes gays and lesbians are welcome or wanted in Wyoming."

In 2008, Professor Connolly was elected as the first openly gay member of the state legislature.

She recounts facing a "horrific" backlash last year from angry voters when she introduced a gay rights measure.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionA dirt road near where Shepard was left to die

A Democrat, she is one of a handful of female lawmakers in Wyoming. It calls itself the Equality State - because in 1869 it was the first to grant women the right to vote - but its legislature currently has the lowest female representation in the country.

Shepard's murder is often said to have spurred national soul-searching.

At least one American ended up renouncing his lifelong prejudice.

Step forward, Sheriff O'Malley.

"Prior to this investigation I was pretty homophobic," the mustachioed law-giver admits. "Um, I was mean spirited towards the gay population.

"I would be the first person that would tell a joke about gay Americans and, uh, the word fag rolled off my tongue very easily.

"And when I got involved in the investigation, I was forced to interact with Matthew's friends, many of which were gay and lesbian.

"And I very quickly started to lose my ignorance."

If such a change of heart becomes Matthew Shepard's legacy as he is finally laid to rest, the Equality State will truly live up to its name.

image copyrightGetty Images