Tied to a wooden fence, tortured. and left to die, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard-a bright, sensitive freshman at the University of Wyoming-has become a national symbol of violence against gays. His killers: Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. products of a grim world of drugs, alcohol, broken homes, and twisted dreams, have been charged with first-degree murder. And the town of Laramie, home to all three, stands revealed as an American paradox: a God-fearing friendly place that harbors deep and lingering prejudice. Melanie Thernstrom explores the hidden topography of a killing.

Matt Alcatraz FREE AT LAST Matthew Shepard in January 1998 on a visit to Alcatraz prison in California. "He had always been different," says his mother, Judy Shepard, "and that difference made him more thoughtful, sensitive, and empathetic.

Vanity Fair: The Crucifixion of Matthew Shepard (Mar 99)



The first time Doc O'Connor met Matthew Shepard, the 21- year-old University of Wyoming freshman approached Doc's silver limousine outside a cafe in downtown Laramie. "Hi,' he said. "My name's Matt. I'm gay and I want to go to a gay bar in Fort Collins. Do you have a problem with that?"

"No, I don't have a problem with that," Doc told him. "I have a problem with people who don't pay!" The limo driver laughs, remembering-a deep belly laugh. Doc, a stout 50-year-old man with a beard, gray-black hair slicked back, and cowboy boots, is the owner of Doc's Class Act Limousine Service, as well as Doc's Western Village, and most of the town of Bosler-a blink of a place 18 miles north of Laramie consisting of boarded-up storefronts and decaying wooden houses.

On Friday, October 2, Doc drove Matthew, who was cautious about drinking and driving, and the young man's friend Tina Labrie the 70 miles to Fort Collins, Colorado, and back. (There are no openly gay bars in Wyoming.) Matthew told Doc to call him Matt, rather than Sir or Mr. Shepard and asked him not to open the door for him. The following Monday, Matthew called from downtown and asked the older man to pick him up. He sat up front in the limousine with Doc, who said he had been on his way to Subway to get a sandwich. Matthew asked if he could go with him.

They stayed at the restaurant for two hours, talking. Doc had recently set up a Web site for his businesses: "Matt was really into computers, and I'm just a 10th-grade dropout," Doc says. "He told me all about Saudi Arabia," where his parents live, and what kind of guy he liked. "He said, 'Doc, don't take offense, but I wouldn't go with you. You're not my type and you're too old!'" Doc recalls, smiling. "He told me about Cody and getting his jaw busted." (Last summer in Cody, Wyoming, he had been beaten by a bartender who said Matthew had made a pass at him.) Doc asked, "'What did you do to the people who beat the shit out of you?' He said, 'I forgave them and went on with my life. Then he paid for my dinner. He was a real nice guy, Matt."

On Tuesday, Matthew called Doc from the Library, a local bar; he wanted the limousine that night to go someplace with some friends. Doc was supposed to attend an Eagles Club trustees meeting, but said he'd try. They spoke again early in the evening, and Doc told Matthew to call back later that night, but he didn't hear from him. Wednesday morning, Doc called him, but Matthew's cell phone rang and rang.

At 4:25 P.M. outside a convenience store, Doc bumped into Kristen Price, a blonde 18-year-old who was carrying her infant son in her arms. Kristen and her boyfriend, Aaron McKinney-who was awaiting sentencing on a burglary conviction-had recently moved out of an apartment attached to one of Doc's buildings in Bosler.

"I'm asking how did Aaron size up to this deal [the sentencing]." he recalls, "and she told me he's getting probation, he's going to pay it off. Then she says there's something else, a new problem. "'They're going to get him for attempted murder for beating some gay guy up.'"

"Honey," Doc told her, "in the state of Wyoming you don't go to jail for beating on a gay guy."

Although Doc had been trying to reach Matthew all that day, it didn't occur to him that Kristen would have been talking about Matthew.

Two hours after Doc's conversation with Kristen, a passing cyclist saw what he thought was a scarecrow lashed to a wooden buck fence on a remote plot of land. The scarecrow turned out to be Matthew, unconscious, a huge gash in his head, his face drenched with blood except where his tear trails had washed it clean. His shoes were missing.

After police questioning, Aaron McKinney confessed that he and his friend Russell Henderson had met Matthew at the Fireside Bar & Lounge on Tuesday night and posed as gay to lure him into their truck. Then they drove him to an out-of-the-way location, bound him to a fence, pistol-whipped him, and taunted him while he begged for his life. Then they abandoned the gentle five-foot-two, 105-pound freshman to hang alone for 18 hours, losing blood as the temperature dropped.

On Friday, Doc picked up the paper and was faced with a horrible realization: the gay guy Kristen had been talking about was Matthew. Moreover, as the story broke on the front pages of newspapers across the country, a chilling chronology became clear: "They found him at 6:30 on Wednesday," Doc says. "So Krissy told me this while Mart was still strung up."

Although the memorial services have passed by the time I arrive in Laramie, 10 days after his death, and the national press has moved on, the tragedy reverberates everywhere. HAS MATTHEW SHEPARD'S DEATH LEFT YOU FEELING CONFUSED, ANGRY, FRIGHTENED... ? posters ask. An enormous banner at the Democratic headquarters proclaims, THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS WITH MATTHEW, beside re-election signs for Cal Rerucha, the district attorney in charge of prosecuting the case. Other businesses announce, VIOLENCE IS NOT OUR VALUE.

"This is a great community: welcoming, open, family-oriented-good people," Laramie chief of police Bill Ware tells me. "people are trusting-that's that western attitude.... We are what America used to be. And we want to stay that way.

"l'm not going to get into the diversity issue," he says, brushing aside questions about Matthew. "That's going to take me to a place I don't want to be." The chief hands me a card with a picture that shows him standing in his uniform, one hand resting on his clean white police car. The back of the card says that Chief Ware is "a proud husband, father and grandfather" who "sings Christian gospel."

"Are you married?" he asks me. "You should move out here, find a cowboy, and have kids!"

While the killing has been interpreted as a sick attempt to preserve the Old West-to rid the town of the intruder whose presence threatens traditional life-the crime's most striking element is the enormity of the change this single act of violence has wrought.

"This is the nicest place I've ever lived. There's something magical here," says Tiffany Edwards, a pretty, part-Cherokee 22-year-old who has written most of the Shepard coverage for The Laramie Daily Boomerang, the town paper. "That's part of what's so upsetting about all this-for me personally and our town."

The magic is not in the scenery. Unlike most of the state, Laramie is not blessed in its landscape. Fifty miles west of Wyoming's capital city, Cheyenne, it sits in a flat, treeless sweep of high plains bruised by bad weather, its mountains mostly hidden. Founded in 1868 as a railway town, the impoverished city is still divided into east and west by a freight line. With the ranching industry in decline, employment here is dominated by the University of Wyoming. About 90 percent of the population is white; the median annual household income is $24,080; reportedly, 20 percent of the residents live below the poverty line.

Laramie is, however, the friendliest place I have ever been in America. When I arrived at the miniature airport, other passengers came up and offered me a ride. Although I'm on an expense account during my stay, people cook me meat loaf.

There is a collective sorrow here: in the week following the death, 1,000 people came to a single vigil on the front lawn of the St. Paul's Newman Catholic University Center. The city council passed a resolution calling "for the community to express sympathy, to reflect on our loss and to begin a healing process."

Mary Elizabeth Galvan, the defense lawyer for Russell Henderson's girlfriend, Chasity Pasley (who pleaded guilty as an accessory to murder), doesn't want to comment on her client, but tears form in her eyes as she speaks about Matthew and his parents. "As a mother, it breaks my heart. The thought of his parents on that long plane ride back from Saudi Arabia, without even privacy, while their son was dying in the hospital."

Amidst the grief, there is an undercurrent of resentment. Some townspeople feel angry that the slaying is being "blamed" on them; they feel it has been "blown out of proportion" and "used by the gay-rights movement for political purposes." U.W. student Shelley Barton puts it this way: "Everyone takes note of it because it happened in Wyoming, and then suddenly it's made to be typical of Wyoming: 'Oh, it's a redneck place-we expected it.'"

"It's like spilling the paint on the clean carpet is a bigger deal than spilling paint on a dirty carpet." a local worker is quoted as saying in the Boomerang. "Like this doesn't happen anywhere else."

Hate-crime legislation has failed to pass in Wyoming three years in a row. The media's linkage of the state's politics and Matthew's death infuriates many townspeople. Yet disavowals are suffused with a sense of inescapable moral responsibility and the necessity for atonement.

Many Laramie residents describe themselves as not homophobic. One resident explains: "We don't have phobias-we have values." But people mock gay reporters sent to cover the crime. "I'm from the San Francisco Chronicle," they imitate unselfconsciously, assuming fey voices. Many people insist that homosexuality is "not for me to judge." But when they are asked, "What's to judge?" their answers become convoluted.

Some people insist on making a distinction between condemning the sin and condemning the sinner, separating "the homosexual lifestyle" from "the gay person." Most people feel that Matthew Shepard did not represent that contemptible lifestyle. A number of residents told me that they consider Matthew Shepard the first gay person they ever "met." And the fact that these "meetings" took place after his death seems to have made them all the more significant.

Milt Green, a 46-year-old U.W. extension-service teacher who works with Native American students, says that he "would hope people take the time to find out who Wyoming people really are." He thinks Matthew's murder was "a useless, stupid crime against another human being-I can't support it."

Nevertheless, he adds, "because of my value system, my background-my family values have a hard time relating to [homosexuality]. I don't understand it." He sees tolerance as "a respect issue: I have to respect [gays] for telling me, and they have to respect me in that I don't understand where they're coming from."

Karla Brown, the 26-year-old manager of the Fireside Bar & Lounge, says that she doesn't know why "thinking about homosexuality evokes such a viscerally negative response in people ... it's almost like watching someone eat rotten food. People are revolted by the idea." Her own view is that "in an ideal world we'd all be able to love each other, right?" But she doesn't think that's realistic. Just as the 1955 murder of Emmett Till (a 14-year-old black who was stripped and shot for saying "hi" to a white girl in a candy store) upset even racist Mississippians, the indisputable barbarity of the Shepard attack is making people think. "I've heard people talking about it who've never talked about homosexuality before," Karla says, and surprisingly, she adds, she hasn't "heard too many ignorant comments, which I think shows that people are basically decent."

Karla's boyfriend, Matt Mickelson, the 28-year-old owner of the Fireside, complains, "Now we're the capital of gay-bashing." But he also says, "If you dent feel sympathy for that kid, then you are one heartless son of a bitch. This will make people more tolerant for sure. Normally you might flip someone some shit-make some off-color comment. Now you're going to be more reserved about it."

Mickelson remembers having seen Matthew come into the bar a few times, and can't imagine he would have done anything to provoke his death. "As nice and polite and quiet as he was, I don't see this kid making random advances," he says. "The gay community is reserved and respectable here." Mickelson adds that, like so many others, he doesn't care for "some guy flaming around and half coming on to you-I don't even like it when girls do that." But Matthew "wasn't a big parader," and it bothers Mickelson that "the media has made him into this gay-rights messiah."

The bar owner confesses sheepishly that, to his surprise, he once "ended up having a gay friend. I didn't know it at the time we became friends, but then, what are you going to say-'You're not my friend anymore'?" In Mickelson's Catholic family he was told that "homosexuality is a mineral deficiency-one step from retardation." He asks if I think this is true.

Most of the churches in Laramie participated in the vigils and memorial services for Matthew; even traditionally anti-homosexuality sects, like Mormons, included prayers for Matthew's family in their services. There was universal disgust at the Reverend Fred Phelps and his followers, who came from Topeka, Kansas, to protest during Matthew's funeral.

Many Laramie churchgoers feel the media has taken their Christian values-good, ordinary values-and twisted them into something obscene, linking them to violence. Jesse Fisher is a 22-year-old Seventh-Day Adventist who works as a night lobby maid at the Holiday Inn. "Christianity," she says, "is about tolerance and forgiveness. It hurts us that [the protesters] are calling themselves Christians. Church is the place that is supposed to take sinners in-church is the place you can go. Everyone has sins. I have sins, like I had a son out of marriage." She thinks that after his death Matthew may have things to reckon for, but "maybe Matthew already made his peace with God--how can we know?"

For members of the gay community in Laramie, however, the killing has a different meaning. Gayle Woodsum says that gay people in the West get the message: "You can be who you want to, but don't tell us what it is." For her, "Matthew's death is a wake-up call that if you tell-if you slip up-we might not let you live."

At precisely this time, when she and other gay people feel the most unsafe, they are faced with an obligation to speak out about Matthew's death-some publicly coming forward as gay for the first time. "When 1 heard, I just wanted to go back into the closet," Meesha Fenimore, a friend of Matthew's and a fellow member of U.W.'s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Association (L.G.B.T.A.), says.

Gayle Woodsum was struck by what she regarded as a revealing typo that appeared in a front-page article in the Boomerang about Matthew's death: "A homocide is a homocide." At Matthew's memorial service at the Unitarian church, Gayle stood up and told people that they had to "keep an eye on the law-enforcement people. This is a very homophobic system."

"Speaking about the murder brought up this intense fear," she tells me, "but it's fear of what they've already done to me." When Gayle headed the Albany County Crime Victim Witness Program for two years, she heard gay-bashing jokes and, she alleges, read memos instructing law-enforcement officials on how to file domestic-abuse charges so that allegedly abusive men could keep their guns.

When someone outed Gayle to the district attorney's office, she was shunned, she says, and then fired without explanation-by the same men who have now been entrusted with prosecuting Matthew's alleged murderers. (In the Boomerang, the D.A. denied that Woodsum was fired because of her sexual orientation.)

The coroner, Julie Heggie, says, "I definitely know that people in Laramie are very homophobic-I know that. I've lived in Laramie most of my life. It's very scary. It was horrible to see his body-and I deal with death on a daily basis. This is going to affect even the coroner's office." She adds, as if trying to talk herself into it, "But if it changes 10 people's attitudes, it's a good thing."

Fence Although the section where Matthew was bound has been taken as evidence by the police, the fence has become a place of pilgrimage. Barren and beautiful beneath the snow-dusted Rockies, the site conjures thoughts of Golgotha. Small yellow stones have been arranged to form a cross; in every crevice of the fence are bouquets, notes, stray tokens. Tiffany Edwards brought a tigereye stone; the day she and I visit she is disturbed to find it gone, along with other offerings she recalls, such as a pair of rubber medical gloves that were said to have touched Matthew's body.

"I brought the tigereye," says Tiffany, "to bring insight and clarity, to see the whole picture, to understand Matthew-his pain and terror and what his life was-to envision him there and be O.K. about it."

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