On Wednesday, October 7, 1998, Matthew Shepard was found tied to a fence on the Wyoming prairie, barely alive, his skull fractured and his brain stem crushed. Comatose, he was taken first to a Laramie hospital, then to a better-equipped one in Fort Collins, Colo., where he died five days later. We may never know what his killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, intended to do when they first approached Shepard at Laramie's Fireside Lounge. We only know that, whatever their intention, they ended up murdering him.
Almost instantly, his death became a flash point in this country's reckoning with gay people, and the cute, clean-cut 21-year-old became a symbol of the ravages of intolerance. The tragedy sparked vigils around the world and led to federal hate-crimes legislation that bears Shepard's name, currently pending in Congress. (Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has promised to sign the bill if elected.)
Shepard's impact can also be felt in the work of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, headed by his mother, Judy, whom we spoke with for the following oral history -- along with friends and Laramie residents; the police chief who oversaw the investigation into the murder; and artists influenced by that tumultuous week.
JUDY SHEPARDWhen we got the phone call, they talked to my husband, Dennis. We lived in Saudi Arabia at the time. They just let him know that Matt was in the hospital and that his condition was critical.
TIFFANY EDWARDS Hunt, former Laramie Boomerang reporter I was in the newsroom. I had the afternoon/night shift, and I heard some things on the police scanner. They had scrambled it, so I was trying to understand what kind of code they were talking. I had a vague idea of where they were because there's a bike trail out there. I remember thinking, Oh, I wonder if this is a university hazing.
REVEREND ROGER SCHMIT, then-pastor of St. Paul's Newman Center in Laramie I got a phone call from parents of a university student. They lived very close to where Matthew [was found], and they said something like, "This is probably going to end up in your lap: They just found a student really injured badly. Seems to have been beaten out there at that fence." Somehow they knew he had a University of Wyoming student I.D. card. Later I called the hospital and found out they had already taken him to Fort Collins.
ROMAINE PATTERSON, Shep-ard's friend; now a Sirius OutQ show host I was working at a gay coffee shop in Denver that Matthew had frequented. [Shepard lived in the city briefly before enrolling at the University of Wyoming.] One of our regular customers called and left a message for me to watch the evening news. He had seen a story that a young man named Matthew Shepard had been in a fight or something in Wyoming. The idea that Matt was in an altercation seemed absurd to me; I thought he must have a broken arm. I watched the news and called my sister Trish, who lived in Laramie. She said, "These two guys took this kid out to the boonies and robbed and beat him really horribly, and now he's probably going to die." I said, "I think he might be my friend."
SHEPARD We didn't have any information. But I was pretty sure that someone had beaten him up because he was gay.
DAVE O'MALLEY, then-Laramie police chief Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson had been involved in a serious aggravated assault on two Hispanic guys that we had investigated the night before Matt was found. During that investigation Matt's bank card was found in McKinney's truck. About 18 hours later we got the report from a young man who had been riding his bicycle in the country and had found Matt tied to a fence there.
PATTERSONI called all our mutual friends and after that was just alone with my thoughts. The early reports gave some of the basic information: He had been left overnight in the cold, he was possibly beaten with a baseball bat, his body was covered with red welts, he had possibly had his skin burned. I spent that first night just reliving what must have happened. I cried a lot. I didn't sleep.
JIM OSBORN, Shepard's friend; then-president of the University of Wyoming's LGBT organization I got an e-mail from friends who had been in contact with [police chief] O'Malley. They said that it could be a hate crime. I immediately got a second e-mail saying, "Don't say anything to anybody, because we don't want to compromise the investigation. We're still trying to piece together where Matt was." I said, "I need to talk to somebody, because I know where he was Tuesday night: He was at the LGBT meeting with me."
BOB BECK, Wyoming Public Radio news director and University of Wyoming journalism instructor A student in my broadcast news class called and said he needed to go to the hospital in Fort Collins. We had a major assignment due, and I said, "You'd better have a damn good reason." He said, "I can't tell you, but you're probably going to report on it: A friend of mine was seriously beaten up."
CATHY RENNA, then-director of community relations for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation I was in Washington, D.C. I started getting all these e-mails and phone messages. We heard from people across the country; they were outraged.
EDWARDSThe day after Matt was discovered there was a joint press conference between the police and the sheriff's department, and they'd distributed a press release. After reading it I was motivated to ask, "Do you think this is a hate crime?" The sheriff's deputy said yes. The Denver Post called me that night, and they asked me what went on at the press conference. I told the reporter that the sheriff said it was a hate crime. They published that, and that's when the floodgates opened.
BECKWe were covering it like a murder. When you're in Wyoming, you don't have more than 15 [murders] a year. Then to go to the press conference and hear the sheriff call it a hate crime -- whoa. We'd never had anybody refer to anything in Wyoming as a hate crime.
JONAS SLONAKER, current Laramie resident I was 42 then. A friend of mine called me up and said, "Did you hear about Matthew Shepard? This kid was severely beaten because he was gay." I was getting ready to move from Laramie. When it happened I said, "Oh, I'm glad I'm getting out of this place."
OSBORNThursday night I started getting phone calls from the campus paper. By the next day we were getting phone calls from Dateline NBC and Good Morning America.
JASON MARSDEN, Matt's friend; former reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune I was at my desk in the newsroom. The managing editor and editor came to me and said there was this crime in Laramie and the victim was Matthew, whom they understood was a friend of mine. I was shocked. But I didn't go home; I put my two cents in about how to sensitively cover something like this. Sometimes it's difficult for straight journalists to even talk about gay people politely in a news story. Simple things like how to use terms like gay or homosexual in the right way: an adjective versus a noun.
BECK At the press conference the sheriff described an image that turned out not to be true: He told us [Shepard] was tied up like a scarecrow. Someone asked him, "Do you mean in a crucified state?" And I think he actually confirmed that. That's the image we're all left with. It was right on the heels of James Byrd, who was dragged to death in Texas.
MOISES KAUFMAN, playwright; director of The Laramie Project I was in New York. I started getting phone calls--"Did you hear what happened?"--and then I read it in the newspaper and I saw it on television. People have spoken about how we as gay people feel attacked, injured, constantly in our culture. And that image of that boy tied to the fence spoke to so many of us about our pain and about our sense of how we fit into the landscape of this country. The impact of seeing what this was doing to the country--that's when I decided to go to Laramie and do The Laramie Project.
O'MALLEY The other investigators were feeding me bits and pieces of information from interviews, like McKinney coming in, bleeding from the ear, and saying, "You know, I think I just killed a fag." These guys almost got celebrity status in the jail, high-fiving and that stuff. If you've got any kind of remorse for your actions, that's not appropriate. The brutality of it--my son was bigger than Matt when he was in fifth grade. These hulks pulled him out of a truck and tied him to a fence to beat him. That showed a huge amount of cowardice--and a huge amount of hatred.
SCHMIT On the second day, when the details of it all began to become talked about, parishioners and students started coming in and talking about it. Because of how awful and heinous it was, we decided to have a vigil. At first I thought it might be a very small number, but there were way too many people for the number of candles we had.
O'MALLEY The physical evidence was just unbelievable. We had DNA; we had hairs; we had tire impressions, shoe impressions, fingerprints, dirt samples, fiber matches.
SHEPARD The hospital staff told us that even though Matt was in a coma, he could sense things. We tried to keep the atmosphere around him light and not the least bit tragic or dramatic or any of those negative overpowering kind of feelings. None of the heavy stuff you'd think would go on went on, because we were trying to hold it together for Matt.
RENNA I got off the plane in Laramie and drove immediately to the Newman Center vigil. Matt was hanging on in the hospital at that point. You have to understand: This town's population was 25,000 and change--there were 1,000 people at this vigil. I was blown away.
OSBORN The Newman Center vigil was absolutely overpowering. Candles and flashlights and families, people with children, university officials, people from the religious communities. Random citizens who just showed up. It was amazing to see the breadth of people supporting us, just feeling the impact of Matt's attack. People said things that to this day touch me. Dr. [James] Hurst, the vice president for student affairs at the time, said, "I have, in my quiet moments, simply wept." This was someone who had never met Matt but was so saddened by what had happened.
SCHMIT I found out that Matthew was gay. Did it give me pause? No. There was a time when I thought we should call the bishop and let him know what we planned to do, but I thought, The heck with it--what's true and correct is true and correct. We invited some non-Catholic ministers to take part in the vigil, and they said they wanted to wait until it "all kind of worked itself out." I couldn't figure out what that meant. I thought, If you're going to respond to people's needs, you have to do it now. You can't wait.
O'MALLEY Prior to this case I wasn't hugely homophobic, but I was mean-spirited. I bought into the jokes and the myths and stereotypes of the gay community. Because of what happened, I was forced to interact with that community. Quite frankly, I started losing my ignorance. Did I reevaluate my beliefs in that first week? In the old country we'd call that a no-shitter. It didn't take very long at all for me to realize that I was dead wrong.
MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM, author I went to the candelight march in New York City. I'd been working with ACT UP for years; a group of us had experience with moving large numbers of people down the street, negotiating with the cops. There were 4,000 people. Everybody was in front of the Plaza Hotel, and the cops said, "You're going to have to take these people down the sidewalk." We said, "That's crazy, it's not safe. Look, you move traffic to half the street, and we'll take the other half." So 35 to 40 of us went into the street, and the cops arrested us. We were stuck in jail for a couple of days. People were arrested for civil disobedience throughout the night.
KAUFMANAmong those of us in New York, there was a part of us that kept saying, "I hope he makes it, I hope he makes it, I hope he makes it." Praying for his recovery and kind of knowing full well that it was very unlikely.
OSBORN They were surprised that Matt lived long enough to get to a hospital, and then that he lived long enough to see the next day, and then lived long enough for his parents to get there. It was no end of surprises. But I really didn't hold out a lot of hope.
SHEPARD We knew the injuries to the brain stem were irreversible and controlled his involuntary body functions. There just wasn't a lot of hope that he would come back to us as Matt, even if he survived in a comatose state. He just wouldn't be Matt. We knew he was about to pass away because there were blood pressure changes. We'd agreed upon a do-not-resuscitate order. When the fluctuations began, we didn't try to correct them. We just let Matt go home.
OSBORNVery early on Monday morning, 4:30 or 5 a.m., the president of the university called me; I remember seeing his name on the caller I.D. I picked up the cordless phone and just sat down on the floor because I knew. It was the call I'd been dreading for five days.
MARSDEN The day he died I wrote a column for the editorial page outing myself, sort of in passing. I wanted to record my thoughts about Matt and his life and what kind of person he was, the deep sadness I had for the family, and the families of the assailants. There was no point in doing it without coming out. I thought, People really need to know that there are other gay people in this community, how we're reacting. After, the focus very much became "Jason Marsden outed himself in the newspaper," not what I was trying to talk about.
SHEPARD President Clinton called us and spoke to Dennis and my son Logan. I didn't speak with him. He called with best wishes, and it was really very sincere, hopeful. I couldn't help but feel that here was a man who understood the gay versus the straight world and would be instrumental in making things right. It didn't really turn out that way, but I had great hopes.
O'MALLEYTo me, every crime was a hate crime. But I saw the difference with what happened to Matt. We had kids moving out of Laramie, transferring to other colleges. There was a huge amount of terror and fear--I hadn't seen that before. There are people killed during liquor store robberies every day in this country, but I never think twice about going to the liquor store. It's a different kind of a motivation and a different kind of impact. I've now been to Washington to speak about hate-crimes legislation on seven occasions. It's something I believe in, and I'm going to keep working at it. It's been 10 years, but I fully believe that if this election goes the way I believe it's going to go, the Matthew Shepard Act will be a reality in the next 12 months.
MARSDENMatt was someone I met at a birthday party who was interesting and smart; he turned out to be a good friend. I'm gratified the world has maintained interest in him, but it's incredibly painful to lose someone from your life. People always say, "Maybe something good will come from it in the end," and I always say, "Nothing good will come from what happened to Matt. Some good may come from how people choose to react to what happened to Matt." I don't know if that's a distinction without a difference. The word anniversary is used occasionally, and it just jars me. An anniversary is a celebration. This is not a celebration in any way. It's a milestone.