THE death of Matthew Shepard shocked the world in 1998. Publicised as one of the most brutal gay hate crimes to come out of Laramie in Wyoming, Shepard’s end was horrific: dying alone tied to a fence, freezing cold, vulnerable and defenceless. This brutality galvanised a community to fight for equality and end gay hate. Without his death, the gay rights movement may not be as advanced worldwide as it is today.
However, questions have been raised about what actually happened leading up to and on the fateful night of October 12, 1998.
Shepard’s legacy is a million-dollar foundation built on a premise of a murder because of gay-hate. It is a narrative of all that is wrong with homophobia. Stephen Jiminez disagrees with this, though.
In his recently-released work of long-form journalism The Book of Matt – the Hidden Truths of the Murder of Matthew Shepard, he explains why he believed the story of Shepard has been mistold. He has been praised and pillared for his 13-year investigation.
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The accepted version of events is that Shepard was a young, innocent gay man lured to his death by two homophobic rednecks “motivated by anti-gay hate”, according to the Matthew Shepard Foundation website.
However, this is a misconception of events according to award-winning US-based journalist Jiminez, who first sniffed something might not be as it seemed, while on a fact-finding mission in preparation of a planned screenplay on Shepard. While sifting through Shepard’s legal file, he saw an anonymous note that indicated one of the accused was known to Shepard prior to his murder. This would change the course of his research and Jiminez’s life, and he is now ostracised by some powerful figures both in and outside the gay community.
It would also uncover what the journalist indicated was a misuse of the “gay panic defence” by the accused murderers, a legal strategy that resulted in the fictionalising of Shepard’s death, as it was alleged one of the assailants was a
sexual partner of Shepard.
In 1998, Jimenez had told the Star Observer that there were different versions of what happened on the night of October 12, and that “they were related one way or another” to Shepard being gay as the primary motive in the murder.
The original account of the lead-up to Shepard’s murder told the story of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson going to a bar where they decided to target Shepard with the intention to rob him that night – but it resulted in his death.
“Within just a few days Aaron McKinney’s girlfriend stated on national television that… Matthew Shepard had come onto Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson and that he had humiliated them in front of their friends and they decided to take him out and beat him up to teach him a lesson not to come onto straight people,” Jiminez said.
Later, that version was changed again during Aaron McKinney’s trial when he tried to introduce a ‘gay panic’ defence. He then said that Matthew had not made a sexual advance in the bar, but that it was after the three men left the bar, when they were in the truck, saying Matthew had put his hand on Aaron McKinney’s leg and that this caused him to explode violently.”
Despite this, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which Matthew’s mother leads, still believes that his murder was a gay-hate crime. In a statement, they dismiss Jiminez’s work as being flawed and fuelled by rumours. “Attempts now to rewrite the story of this hate crime appear to be based on untrustworthy sources, factual errors, rumours and innuendo rather than the actual evidence gathered by law enforcement and presented in a court of law”.
However, Jimenez said he learned that Shepard had a past with McKinney, the principal perpetrator. It was originally reported in the media that they had never met before the night of the murder, but through later interviews with McKinney and several sources that came forward and have gone on record, Shepard had known his killer, and some had seen him and McKinney socialise together, including Shepard’s on-again, off-again lover at the time, Ted Henson.
Jimenez claimed his research also revealed that McKinney had engaged sexually with Shepard. With this admission, the gay-panic defence, the gay-hate crime notion, the image and legacy goes – if the author’s version is accepted. The boy-next-door, whose image is a symbol of all that is wrong with homophobia, is misplaced according to Jiminez, as he alleged the murder was no longer a case of random targeting of Shepard because he was gay.
“What I can say is this, Aaron McKenny was up on meth for a week prior to this crime,” he said, indicating he was desperate and in crisis.
Jimenez also claimed that Henderson never laid a hand on Shepard: “He was just a scared, frightened accomplice” and later “there is absolutely no evidence that Russell Henderson ever struck Matthew or intended to hurt him.”
When asked how he felt about taking challenging the dead icon that Shepard had become, Jimenez said: “There are a lot of complexities here and what I tell people when I am doing appearances, I say to people, that I loved Heath Ledger as an actor. Because I learned that he had been involved with heroin does that diminish him as a human being to me? Do I want to know the truth or do I want to know a fairy tale?”
The facts today are strongly debated, much of which are statements from experts, or from people who claim to be knowledgeable without proper basis – a charge levelled by the Shepard camp on Jiminez as well. The author highlighted an excerpt in his book from a 2004 interview with then-friend of Shepard, and now Shepard Foundation executive director Jason Marsden.
“The quick and easy description of Matt Shepard gay bashed… is about as far from the actual nuanced truth of what happened as it can get,” Marsden said in the excerpt.
“I remember thinking at the time that the Matthew Shepard case would forever go down in history as, you know, one of the saddest examples of gay bashing, but what it also was, was one of the saddest examples of the desperate lengths that people on methamphetamine will go to.”
When the Star Observer asked Marsden about his quote in Jimenez’s book, he responded: “The quote you reference is from an interview I gave nine years ago, and I spoke to Stephen Jimenez for two and a half hours, and he took two-and-a-half sentences out of that. So the context of what I was talking about was the methamphetamine situation in Wyoming in general at the time, and had nothing to do with Matt’s life at all.
“The six and a half full time equivalent staff and the limited resources in the organisation dedicate their time to providing outreach programs for community organisations, schools, and businesses, as well as the US Department of Justice, providing assistance in making sure that hate crime laws are implemented with sensitivity to LGBT persons who are victims.”