Matthew Shepard was brutally attacked and tortured by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson on October 6th, 1998. His attackers tied him to a fence, and he died in a hospital a few days later. His death set off a nationwide debate about hate crimes and homophobia that led to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009).
Matthew Shepard liked to be the center of attention, but he was also empathetic and was able to feel what other's around him felt. In the book, his mom says that the world knows him as Matthew, but he was always Matt to them. When he was a kid, he wanted to lift his neighbors spirits, so he wrote poems and drew little stick figure drawings. He left these in different mailboxes, but had to change tactics and put decorated rocks in mailboxes when he learned it was illegal to put unauthorized mail in people's boxes. At age 7, he got involved in politics and would stuff envelopes for a local candidate and he campaigned for an environmental group that was working to start a recycling program. Matt's mom, Judy says that she knew her son might be gay at a very early age and he did dress up as Dolly Parton for Halloween two years in a row when he was in elementary school. He loved to dress up and wear curlers at home too. It didn't matter what he wore though, Judy said she just had a sense, mother's intuition.
Judy decided to keep her thoughts to herself because she didn't want to out her son and she didn't want anyone to ever treat him different. She also wanted to give him the space to tell people his truth. Matt already had a target on his back at school. He was overly sensitive, much shorter than the other kids his age, and he was having trouble academically and was diagnosed in high school with attention deficit disorder.
When he was in high school, he was voted peer counselor. Kids in his class felt comfortable sharing information with him that they didn't want to talk to an adult about. His friends in school said that the best thing about Matt was the way he made everyone feel, like they were the only ones in the world at that moment. He would focus entirely on them. Since he was so empathetic, it actually made things really difficult for him. His classmates would tell him their problems and he would worry and cry about the situations that he couldn't help with. He wanted to become a psychologist someday, so he needed to find a way to channel his overwhelming emotions and he realized he loved being on stage. He craved that creativity.
When Mat was finishing his sophomore year I high school, the jobs in Wyoming were drying up and it was clear that the family needed to move. His father, Dennis had two different job offers. One would take them to New Mexico and the other would be Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Judy and Dennis were shocked when both their sons jumped at the idea to move overseas. The company Dennis would be working for had a tuition program where the employees' high school kids could attend boarding school anywhere in the world. Matt was already interested in a career in international relations and he was taking German in school. Logan wasn't in high school yet, so he would attend classes near the compound and pick a boarding school when he was ready.
Matt initially wanted to go to a school in England, but there had been some recent truck bombings in the center of London, so his parents didn't know if this was the safest choice. It worked out fine because Matt found out that Switzerland would have many foreign language opportunities, so his new campus was going to be in Lugano, near the northern border of Italy. It was extremely difficult for Matt to be away from his family and he actually pleaded for his parents to come get him, but they knew he needed to stay put and try to make friends. The phone calls between Switzerland and Suadi Arabia were very expensive, so his family had to fax him. Over the next few months, the faxes from Matt turned into stories about the adventures he was having with his new friends.
When he went home to Saudi Arabia, his parents noticed that he was now incredibly restless, always looking for something to do. He also had a bit of a temper or attitude and the compound wasn't the place for him. In Saudi Arabia, all the stores close after noontime prayers for 3-4 hours and they reopen in the evening. During the second semester of his senior year, the students were allowed to take a trip without a chaperone. Matt and a group of friends went to Morocco and he had just an awful experience. One night, after a full day of sightseeing, the group returned to the hotel, but Matt wasn't ready to turn in, so he walked to a cafe and had some cappuccinos with a group of German tourists. When he headed back to the hotel, a gang of men attacked and raped him. The men did not take his watch, but took his shirt and his Doc Martens. The police actually did try to help Matt, but they were never able to find his attackers. Matt called his parents and cried the next day. He said he was so embarrassed and ashamed and he blamed himself. Since it would take too long for his parents to get to him, the school actually arranged for a teacher to fly to Morocco to stay with Matt until he was able to fly home.
Matt's mom Judy said that he arrived home in Saudi Arabia 3 days after the attack and they had him do a series of physical exams and he was also tested for HIV. The tests came back fine, but Judy noticed that he lost his confidence, his optimism and his sense of purpose in the world. He started wearing really baggy clothing, like he was trying to hide his body and he lost all interest in acting. He didn't want people staring at him because it made him uncomfortable. The nightmares were the worst though. He would wake up screaming, drenched in sweat. His family took him to psychiatrists and they said he was suffering from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety attacks. He was prescribed many different prescriptions, but nothing helped and he hated therapy because he didn't feel that he was being heard. He interviewed many therapists and finally found one that he trusted, but the doctor died a month later in a car accident.
Matt graduated high school in the spring of 1995 and he enrolled in a private college in Salisbury, North Carolina. This school was small and it ranked among the top ten theater colleges, he was ready to get back into acting. His parents were thrilled for him and they took this as a sign that he was starting to fell a little better. They got a call in the middle of the night and it was Matt. It was 7PM for him in North Carolina and 3 AM for his parents in Suadi Arabia and he blurted out that he was gay. His mom said, what took you so long to tell me? She told him she had known for a long time, but Matt wasn't ready for his father to know yet. Judy did end up telling her husband about the conversation because she didn't want to keep secrets. They were both on the same page, Matt is their son and they loved him no matter what.
While Matt was at school in North Carolina, he started dating, but the relationship seemed to be a bit rocky and he had some really shitty roommates. One of them was a Gulf War veteran who was six years older and homophobic. So he would say really nasty things and throw beer cans at him. His next roommate grew pot in the dorm, but this stressed Matt out too much and he just stopped going to classes. He fell into what his family says is an undiagnosed depression. Matt did want to feel better, so he found an article about a therapist that was trying new therapy for PTSD and it was about 150 miles east. So, he moved, got a job at a video store and started seeing the therapist. Matt started exploring the gay bar in Raleigh and he would wear makeup and flashier clothes. It didn't take long for Matt to realize this wasn't the place for him either. He noticed that there was a lot of racism in the area he was in and he even witnessed a Ku Klux Klan rally in Salisbury, so he decided to go back home to Casper where he grew up.
At this time, Matt's brother, Logan was old enough to choose his boarding school, so he was leaving Saudi Arabia and chose a school in Minnesota. So, Judy was actually going back to Wyoming to pursue a master's degree in Elizabethan history and US constitutional law at Casper College and Matt was thrilled that he was going to be living in the same city again. They each got their own apartment in the same complex and everything was great. Matt was restless though and 6 months later, he wanted to follow a friend out to Denver. He felt that he'd be much happier in a big city. He got a job right away, but he lived in a really bad neighborhood where police surrounded the block in drug busts on a weekly basis. The plan was to gain residency in Colorado so Matt could get in-state tuition and go back to college. The depression didn't get any better in Denver. Matt was prescribed antidepression and antianxiety drugs, but he would forget to take them on the days he felt good and he would take too many on his bad days. His mom moved back to Saudi Arabia and Matt started calling his parents to say he was unhappy. It was difficult to get around the city and he didn't like his job. Sounds like normal stuff, but then he didn't show up for Christmas. He was supposed to fill out paperwork to visit Saudi Arabia and he didn't do it. Instead, he spent Christmas in bed, with the covers over his head.
In January of 1998, Matt's parents learned how bad things were getting with their son. Dennis' sister-in-law got a call from Matt saying he was scared and she needed to come get him, he was in trouble. Matt's aunt went to the apartment and found out that he hadn't been bathing or eating and hadn't left the apartment in days. It was messy and smelled like rotten food. They later found out that Matt tried to get help from the St. John's Episcopal Cathedral across from his apartment and they told him there was nothing they could do and he needed to leave. Matt's aunt brought him to the hospital and he was diagnosed with depression and given more drugs. In the spring of that year, Matt decided he was going to move again. He moved to an apartment in Laramie and enrolled in school.
In August of 1998, the family was going to get together and do a family vacation. They all met in Casper and headed to Yellowstone National Park. They checked into a Holiday Inn for the night and would go to Yellowstone first thing in the morning. Dennis and Judy called Matt and Logan's room and Logan said, “Matt's not here; he's at the police station.” When Logan was heading to bed, Matt decided he was going to head to the bar for awhile and promised he'd be back in time for the trip. The bar closed at 1:30 AM and the bartender asked Matt to join him and a few friends, they were driving to a lake to watch the stars. Matt agreed to go and they all continued drinking at the lake. While they were there, a man and woman started making out and Matt felt that they needed privacy so he asked the bartender to take a walk with him, but he said no. Matt tugged on his shirt and said they should leave the other two alone and the bartender thought Matt was making a pass at him, so he punched him. The party was over and they brought Matt back to the hotel, but it seems that he may have had some flashbacks and asked the front desk to call the police and said he had been raped. He was tested at the local hospital, but showed now sign of sexual assault, he just had the bloody lip. Matt realized he clearly had too much to drink and he didn't press charges on the bartender.
The cat was already out of the bag. Matt knew that his father would wonder why a male bartender would think he was flirting with him. He had already told his mom a few years prior that he was gay, so he finally was able to say the words to his father too. Dennis made it clear that it didn't matter, he would always love him. Matt was really pleased about this reaction, I think it was weighing heavy on him for a long time, so he decided he could tell more of the family now too. He told his grandma when they were in Minnesota and she said she didn't know what all the fuss was about, it you're gay, you're gay. Once Matt was back home, his parents found out that his landline phone had been turned off. They had been sending him money to pay his bills so he could focus on school, so there really was no excuse, but he was clearly being careless and spending it on other things. His mom called his cell and they got in a fight which was on a Saturday. Matt called him mom on Monday and apologized. Thank goodness he did. His last words to his family were I love you.
It started with the dreaded phone call at 5AM on Thursday, October 8th, 1998. Judy and her husband, Dennis Shepard were living in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where he was working as a construction safety manager. They were used to getting a call at this time of morning from their son, Matt, who was living in Laramie and studying political science and international relations at the University of Wyoming. Their family and friends were typically able to calculate the nine hour time difference, but not Matt, he lived in the moment and when he wanted to share some news, it was right now. Matt loved to talk to people, even strangers. He would meet people in coffee shops and talk their ear off. He was very close with his family, especially his mom. He was a colicky baby and his dad was always on the road for work, so he had that special bond with his mom.
Since Matt was living so far from his mom, they couldn't have those long conversations anymore because it cost 5 dollars per minute. The call on this particular moment wasn't from Matt though. It was about him. The man on the phone said he was an emergency room doctor from Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie. Judy said her mind went completely numb at this point, Dennis grabbed the phone and found out that Matt had been attacked. He sustained injuries to his head that were extremely critical and his chance of survival was very low, or nearly impossible. Dr. Cantway said, “Matt's wounds are so severe that he had to be transported forty miles south of Laramie, to a hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, that was better equipped to deal with head injuries.” The only reason they were able to contact Matt's family was because they found his University of Wyoming ID card with his emergency contact, Matt's godmother, who was a nurse at Ivinson and had the family's contact information. This had to be extremely terrifying. Not only is their son in the hospital and has a low chance of surviving, but they were 8,000 miles away.
The flight to Denver, by way of Amsterdam and Minneapolis, wasn't leaving for 19 hours AND they had to get the proper documentation from Saudi Arabia to leave. Dennis and Judy had to wait almost an entire day before they were allowed to leave. While they waited, they called several relatives from the States, so they were able to make sure Matt wouldn't be alone. Dennis and Judy waited 19 grueling hours before they were able to begin their journey to Matt and they stayed in constant contact with the hospital, but no one could understand why he had been attacked.
Twenty hours after Judy and Dennis left Saudi Arabia, they landed in St. Paul Minneapolis to pick up Logan, The family still didn't know the extent of Matt's injuries at this point. When the plane landed, they were walking past a newsstand and saw the New York Times and Minneapolis Star Tribune: Gay Man Beaten and Left for Dead; 2 are charged. The family got on a plane together and headed to Denver. When the plane landed, the flight attendant passed them a note and asked them to remain in their seats. Once all the passengers left, they were told that the press may be waiting for them at the gate and police officers were going to meet them outside. At the hospital, reporters were everywhere, it was complete chaos. They were getting so many calls to the room that the family actually had to come up with a password. No password, no call, but they did make an exception when President Bill Clinton called and couldn't provide the password. Matt's father made the President promise that nobody at the White House would speak to the press about the call. Unfortunately, a few days later, the Clinton call was leaked. Dennis called a man who worked as Clinton's liaison and he tore him a new one. The man promised to get the news off the web and he says that was a very memorable day for him.
Matt's mom says that he was motionless, covered in bandages and tubes everywhere. His face was swollen and covered in stitches and his ear was stitched and still bleeding. The man they looked at had no resemblance to their son that they had just seen a few weeks prior. The doctor informed them that he had more than 30 bruises, abrasions, and broken bones...including several fractures where his skull had crashed in on itself. His brain stem, which controlled his heartbeat, breathing, temperature, and other functions, was severely damaged and he had hypothermia. The damage to his head appeared to be the result of repeated blows with a blunt and heavy object. It was nearly impossible that Matt would ever come out of his coma. His parents mentioned that Matt had told them he wanted to be an organ donor and they were informed that he was HIV positive.
A neurosurgeon assessed Matt's injuries and said that the damage to his brain was so severe, he could no longer feel pain. His family tried everything they could to make him more comfortable. They played his favorite music, sprayed his favorite cologne and perfume and they talked to him about their memories of him growing up.
Matt had been discovered by Aaron Kreifels, a student at the University of Wyoming. Aaron said that he saw Matt falling, but he thought he was a scarecrow at first, but as he got closer, he realized he was seeing a person on the ground. He was out for a ride on his motor bike and was rushing to get back to his dorm before dark. He hit a rock, crashed, and that's when he saw Matt. Matt was unconscious, barely breathing, and blood was everywhere. Aaron ran to the nearest home and called the police. When the police arrived, they believed Matt was about 13 or 14 years old because he was so small and the rope that tied his hands to the fence was so tight, they needed a double bladed boot knife to cut it. There was a pool of blood under his head, matted in his hair, and there were tracks on his cheeks from his tears. His right eye was open and the left eye was shut. Sheriff's Deputy Reggie Fluty said there there was a gash above his right ear that was, “caved in and bubbled up on both sides with a film over it where it had bled continuously.” She tried to keep Matt's airway clear of blood and he was transported to Ivinson Memorial Hospital by 7:04 PM on October 7th and Dr. Cantway realized this wasn't the best place for him, so he was sent by ambulance to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins.
The police were tracking two suspects. Aaron Mckinney and Russell Henderson, they were both 21 year old roofers that were cited in connection with another assault that took place early Wednesday morning, just minutes after Matt was attached. Detectives looked through Aaron McKinney's 1976 Ford pickup and they found a Smith and Wesson 357 pistol with an 8 inch barrel and it was covered in blood, they found a pair of shiny black shoes which they later realized were Matt's and an ATM card with the name Matthew Shepard on it.
This case was blowing up in the media and so many people were sending food, flowers, stuffed animals and other gifts to the hospital. It was so much, that they actually had to distribute the stuff to other patients. Matt's family was stuck in this hospital bubble where all they could think about was their son and rightfully so, but they didn't know what was happening outside. There was a candlelight vigil of about 100 people gathered outside the hospital and Matt's mom slipped into it very quietly because she wanted to understand what was driving people to be there. They had no ties to her son, but she realized they were driven be fear and anger. Their loved ones could have been attacked or could be next. People took turns speaking and praying for Matt's recovery and they wanted to get a bill passed to protect gay people against hate crimes.
Matt's parents wrote their first press statement on Saturday, October 10th and it read:
“First of all, we want to thank the American public for their kind thoughts about Matthew and their fond wishes for his speedy recovery. We appreciate your prayers and goodwill, and we know they are something Matthew would appreciate, too. Matthew is a very special person, and everyone can learn important lessons from his life. All of us who know Matthew see him as he is, a very kind and gentle soul. He is a strong believer in humanity and human rights. He is a trusting person who takes everybody at face value, and he does not see the bad side of anyone. His one intolerance is when people don't accept others as they are. He has always strongly felt that all people are the same-regardless of their sexual preferences, race, or religion. We know he believes that all of us are part of the same family called humanity, and each and every one of us should treat all people with respect and dignity, and each of us has the right to live a full and rewarding life. That is one lesson which we are very certain he would share with you, if he could.”
On Sunday night, a nurse called the family to say that Matt's blood pressure was very erratic and starting to fail, so they rushed to the hospital to gather around his bed and say goodbye. His mom grabbed his hand and whispered, “Honey, it's time for you to go home.” Matthew Wayne Shepard died at 12:53 AM on Monday, October 12th. The family had all had a previous discussion about what they wanted when they died and Matt made it clear that he didn't want to be buried. He wanted to be cremated and he wanted his ashed to distributed somewhere special, but he didn't say where that would be.
The charges against Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were now changed to murder. Matt had only been enrolled in his new school for about a month and he joined a group LGBTA Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Alliance. He and other members of the alliance had gathered on campus to make plans for Gay Awareness Week and this was supposed to kick off with National Coming Out Day. One of the leaders, Jim Osborn said he had been verbally harassed on campus about being gay. Gay Awareness Week was supposed to help educate people at the school. They were going to do a lecture using a children's book called Heather Has Two Mommies, they would watch a movie called In & Out, and they would discuss safe zones that were set up. Matt was having a lot of fun at this meeting and he didn't want things to end so he begged the members to go to the Fireside Lounge with him afterwards, but it was a weeknight, so they didn't want to. The members of the group didn't really know Matt yet, so they assumed he would never go there by himself.
They all drove back to campus and Matt headed to the bar alone. He was drinking beer by himself and chatted a bit with the bartender. After about an hour or so, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson walked up to the bar and ordered a pitcher of beer. This stood out to the bartender because they paid for it with quarters and dimes. Aaron McKinney had many run-ins with the law over the years. After he flunked 7th grade, he stole a cash register and went to a detention center. Two years later, his mother died due to a botched surgery, so he ended up with almost $100k from a malpractice suit and blew it real fast on drugs, jewelry, a sports car and he got a vanity plate that said Dopey because he was small and had big ears.
Russell Henderson dropped out of high school when he was 17 even though he was an honor student, a member of Future Farmers of America, and an Eagle Scout. Once he dropped out, he started hanging around Aaron McKinney and he got arrested twice for drunk driving and arrested again for fighting with a police officer.
After the two of them paid for their pitcher of beer, the bartender said they headed towards the back of the bar and he is not sure how they came in contact with Matt that night. The bouncer saw the three of them leaving between 11:45 PM and midnight and the all got into Aaron McKinney's pickup and Matt was sitting in the middle. Neither Aaron or Russell had a valid driver's license, so they took a roundabout route so they wouldn't get pulled over. Aaron claims that Matt was hitting on him in the truck, grabbing his crotch, touching his leg, and licking his ear. Russell said he never saw any of this happen. As they got close to a Wal Mart, Aaron announced that they weren't gay and Matt was getting jacked. He ordered Matt to hand over his wallet and there was $20 inside.
Aaron told police that he couldn't remember if he hit Matt first with his fist or with the butt of the Smith & Wesson and he claims this is because Matt had been hitting on him, but this is ridiculous because Russell admitted to the police that the two of them pretended to be gay to lure Matt into the truck. Aaron hit Matt in the face, neck, and chest and Russell kept driving about a mile past the Wal-Mart. They went down a dirt road and Aaron drug Matt out of the vehicle. Matt fought back and kicked him in the chest, but Aaron got him to the ground, beat him with the pistol and punched and kicked him and Russell stood by and laughed.
Matt begged for Aaron to stop and he tried to offer money to him. He said there was $150 in his apartment and they could have it if they stopped. He gave them a false address, but they didn't stop. Aaron kept hitting him and Russell grabbed some rope from the truck. They tied Matt's hands behind his back and Russell claimed he realized things had gone way too far at this moment and he asked Aaron to stop. It wasn't because he felt guilt about what they had done to Matt, he was worried about how much trouble they would be in. Aaron didn't like being told to stop, so he actually hit Russell in the face with the butt of the gun.
Aaron did also realize that he was probably going to get in a lot of trouble for what he had done, so he tried to give Matt false information about himself. He had tied him to a fence and told him that he was from California, then he took Matt's shoes. He wanted to make sure he would have a tough time walking the four miles home if he ever managed to free himself from the fence. When they were getting ready to leave, Aaron asked Matt if he could read the license plate on this truck and unfortunately, he could and read them back perfectly, so Aaron struck him three times with the pistol and crushed his skull, knocking him unconscious. It was the three blows that put him into a coma and ended his life.