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.
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
Vanity Fair: The Crucifixion of Matthew Shepard (Mar
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
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
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
"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!"
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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."
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."