It’s October 6, 1998, and in a Wyoming city a crime is being committed that will change America. Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student, is enduring a horrific attack at the hands of two strangers. The sheer brutality of the crime, coupled with the hate-filled motivation for it, would send shockwaves around the country.
Shepard, who stood at just five foot and two inches, hadn’t had an easy journey to college. Prone to depression, he had suffered a horrendous ordeal during high school. During a trip to Morocco in 1995, the senior was raped by a group of local people. A couple of years previously, his family had moved to Saudi Arabia, and he’d been going to school in Switzerland at the time.
Later, after finishing college, Shepard eventually made the decision to go to the University of Wyoming to study politics. His parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, had both gone there, and thought their son would be happy at the university. However, as fall rolled around, the student increasingly felt pressure to succeed.
Although Shepard had known his sexuality for a long time, he didn’t come out to his parents until school had ended. According to his friends, the teenager had become increasingly worried about their reaction. For his mom, Judy, though, it was simple. “He said, ‘Hi, mom. I’m gay,’” she told ABC News in 2018. “And I said, ‘What took you so long to tell me?’ Rejection was not ever an issue in our family.”
The University of Wyoming is located in the town of Laramie. The city was “welcoming, open [and] family oriented,” police chief Bill Ware told Vanity Fair in 1999. But there were, at the time, some worrying attitudes about the gay community. Resident Karla Brown added that for some in town, homosexuality elicited “a viscerally negative response. People are revolted by the idea.”
With this in mind, perhaps it’s unsurprising that there were no gay-centric bars around. In fact, Shepard and his friends would have to leave the state to find one. Laramie itself is about 50 miles from Wyoming’s capital, Cheyenne, and is surrounded by barren scrubland, making it a vision of the Old West. “We are what America used to be. And we want to stay that way,” Ware told Vanity Fair.
On October 6, 1998, Shepard decided to stay local. He had failed persuade any of his friends he’d met with that afternoon to join him for a beer. They had been planning that year’s Gay Awareness Week. So, the 21-year-old had gone to Laramie’s Fireside bar alone.
While at the bar, Shepard got talking to two men. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson both worked as roofers. What Shepard didn’t know was that the two were posing as gay men. The trio chatted for a while, however, before leaving the bar together. Be warned, the following content is graphic.
McKinney and Henderson persuaded Shepard to get into their truck, offering him a lift home. Once there, McKinney brandished a gun. They then beat the 21-year-old and stole his wallet, which held just $20.
Shepard’s ordeal didn’t end there, though. Having already stolen his wallet, McKinney and Henderson decided to drive him out of town. Stopping around a mile away from Laramie, they forced the student out of the truck. They then tied him to a wooden fence using some clothesline.
With Shepard tied up in the dark, the men proceeded to beat him about the head and face with the gun. The firearm, a .357 Magnum, described by the BBC as “a hand cannon,” weighs more than two pounds. In total, the politics major received around 20 blows before his shoes were stolen and he was left for dead. Shepard spent the next 18 hours bound and bleeding.
The next evening, a passing unnamed cyclist saw what he thought was a crumpled scarecrow. On closer inspection, however, he discovered it was, in fact, a person. It was Shepard. And he was barely alive. Responding police officer Reggie Fluty told the BBC in 2018, “His respirations were few and far between.” She recalled “trying to revive him, saying, ‘I’m here, kiddo. You’re going to be okay.’”
When officer Fluty had arrived, she’d found Shepard “on his back, with his arms behind him.” Talking to the BBC, the now-retired cop went on, “I thought he was way younger than he was, just because his stature was so small.” The student was taken to a hospital in Colorado, where the extent of his injuries were soon revealed.
The student had suffered multiple fractures to his skull and his brain stem had been crushed by the force of the blows he had taken. His mom Judy told the BBC, “His face was swollen, unrecognizable till you got closer.” Dave O’Malley, the sheriff for Albany County, told the broadcaster that the only time he’d seen “such dramatic injuries” were in victims of “high-speed traffic crashes.”
Shepard died just under a week later. It was Gay National awareness week, and his heart had given out on its first day. After Henderson and McKinney were picked up for the killing, they revealed their motive. O’Malley told the BBC, “… They planned to act like they were gay to gain Matthew’s confidence. And so the sexual orientation issue started right at the beginning of that contact.”
Actor Greg Pierotti interviewed McKinney for the epilogue Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. “The night I did it, I did have hatred in my heart for homosexuals,” the killer told Pierotti., “He was obviously gay, That played a part. As far as [Shepard] is concerned, I have no remorse.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, his murder sent shockwaves through America. With the student’s death, he had unwittingly highlighted the kind of violence experienced by the LGBTQ community.
Henderson and McKinney both received double life sentences for their crimes and will spent the rest of their days behind bars. Shepard’s legacy, however, continues to grow and influence both culture and law. After his murder, the 21-year-old’s parents set up the Matthew Shepard Foundation. It works to support and give a voice to LGBTQ people in America.
Thanks, in large part to the foundation, then-President Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard Act in 2009. The bill extends hate-crime legislation to include attacks motivated by sexual orientation, disability or gender. Parents Judy and Dennis were invited to see Obama sign the law inspired by their son.
Just after the 20th anniversary of Shepard’s death, something incredibly special occurred. His ashes were interred at Washington’s National Cathedral. One of America’s highest honors, he joined the likes of former president Woodrow Wilson in the hallowed building. “For the past 20 years, we have shared [Shepard’s] story with the world. It’s reassuring to know he now will rest in a sacred spot where folks can come to reflect on creating a safer, kinder world,” Judy wrote on the cathedral’s website.
Two decades on and America is indeed a changed place. In the 20 years since Shepard’s murder, LGBTQ rights have moved at an incredible speed. Marriage and employment rights have been expanded to the community. Indeed, what started as a hate-filled attack has led to fundamental positive changes for millions of people. The student, whose parents said “wanted to make the world a better place,” would be proud of what he has helped achieve.