Nadav Spiegelman

The Meaning of Matthew

Judy Shepard
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He was also one of the youngest-ever members of Casper’s community theater group, Stage III, and was cast in a number of productions at Casper College.
When presented with the option, he seemed to prefer the company of adults over that of his peers.
When people ask me about it today, I usually say that I figured it out when Matt was in elementary school and dressed up as Dolly Parton for Halloween two years in a row.
When I was growing up in Glenrock, I didn’t know anyone who was gay (or at least I didn’t know that I did). The very concept of “gay” was something I never really thought about—and I don’t think the people around me thought about it either.
By 1993, when Matt was finishing his sophomore year at Natrona County High School,
His first move was 150 miles east, to Raleigh, where he found a job at a video store and started to see a new therapist. I remember that Matt was particularly excited about this doctor, partly because the psychiatrist was, I believe, one of the few in the country who was using a pioneering new blink therapy to combat post-traumatic stress disorder.
In May he moved himself to an apartment on Twelfth Street—just a couple blocks from campus—and enrolled in summer school classes at the University of Wyoming.
The closest thing was a couple of bars, Nightingales and the Tornado Club, in Fort Collins, Colorado, which is forty miles south of Laramie by way of a winding mountain pass. Matt preferred the Tornado Club, which I understand was the more neighborhood-like of the two, and often tried to hitch rides down there with friends on Friday nights.
So when the doctor told us that Matt would likely never wake, we brought up the DNR order and said that our son had expressed a desire to be an organ donor. That’s when she told us that, as part of the routine blood work the hospital performed after Matt was admitted, they’d learned that he was HIV positive.
At the hospital, the doctor seemed to think Matt’s infection was fairly recent because of the relatively high viral load in his blood.
But Matt was actually found lying on his side, on the ground, with his hands tied to the fence rail behind him.
Sheriff’s Deputy Reggie Fluty was the first to report to the scene. She said Matt looked so small, crumpled at the foot of the fence, that she first thought he was about thirteen or fourteen years old.
Matt was transported to Ivinson Memorial Hospital by 7:04 p.m. on Wednesday, October 7, where Dr. Cantway, who was working in the emergency room at the time, determined that Matt had severe brain damage and hypothermia. Around eight o’clock, after speaking to us in Saudi Arabia, Dr. Cantway sent Matt by ambulance to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins.
So Dennis and I started working with Rulon Stacey, the hospital’s CEO, in order to release regular updates to the public. Writing press releases and organizing press conferences weren’t part of Rulon’s regular job, but his public relations person had quit the week before Matt was attacked. So Rulon had to take on this responsibility in addition to his regular job, and he stayed at the hospital—sleeping in his office when he got the time—in order to take care of everything.
Rulon was more compassionate, caring, and attentive than Dennis and I could have ever hoped for. In addition to ensuring that all our needs were taken care of so we could focus on Matt, Rulon also made sure that we were never bothered by the media commotion.
Once when Rulon was with us in the ICU waiting room, talk turned to where we’d all gone to college. He said that he’d graduated from Brigham Young University, a school run by the Mormon Church. Because the rest of us knew the Mormon Church’s official stand is that homosexuality is both immoral and unacceptable, our conversation kind of ground to a halt after Rulon’s revelation. We didn’t know what to make of the fact that the person who had become the de facto spokesperson for a gay kid and his very supportive family was a Mormon. I don’t think anybody knew how to respond. But
Matthew Wayne Shepard died at 12:53 a.m. on Monday, October 12. But our beloved, opinionated, compassionate, contentious, curious, and loving son had actually died five days earlier, tied to that fence outside Laramie.
At the meeting, one of the leaders, Jim Osborn, told everyone that he’d recently been verbally harassed when he was walking across campus. Osborn later told Vanity Fair magazine that a guy had come up to him and said, “You’re one of those faggots, aren’t you?” Rather than answer, Osborn punched the harasser in the face, and the guy quickly ran away.
Village Inn, a diner-type restaurant a mile and a half east of campus along Grand Avenue.
Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson walked up to the bar and ensured that they’d stand out from everyone else in the Fireside that night by ordering a pitcher of beer and paying for it entirely with quarters and dimes.
Regardless of the provocation, McKinney pounded Matt in the face, neck, and chest. And as he did, Henderson kept driving for a mile or so past Wal-Mart and through a subdivision called Imperial Heights. Then, at the dead end of a paved road called Palomino Drive, he continued for about another four hundred yards along a worn dirt path until he was blocked by both a slight depression in the land and a split-rail fence.
But for some reason they stopped at the intersection of Seventh and Harney streets, where they encountered Jeremy Herrera and Emiliano Morales, two young men who were prowling the business district and vandalizing cars. As Herrera and Morales were slashing tires, they came face-to-face with Henderson and McKinney, who by this time had gotten out of the truck and were walking down the street.
Matt, who was still unconscious and tethered to the fence after spending nearly a full day—including a night with near-freezing temperatures—out there on his own.
Understandably shaken by what he’d found, Aaron ran to the nearest house, about 250 yards south of where Matt was, and asked the home’s owner, university professor Charles Dolan, to call 911. Then Charles and Aaron ran back to where Matt was and waited for the police to arrive.
It’s not that I think Matt was meant to be murdered or that Henderson and McKinney were driven by anything other than their own hatred when they killed my son. That’s certainly not the case. It’s just that, after things went so horribly off track that night—in that typical local bar in that typical American town—it seemed to all of us that somebody, something, or some power stepped in to, as much as possible, set things right.
I’ve never been to the spot where he was attacked or tried, in any way, to share in the experience of that horrible night. Sure, I cried, and I still do, usually when I’m alone. To do it in public seems counterproductive. It was—and still is—critical to me that people pay attention to Matt and what happened to him, but not to me.
Journalists just wanted to see us, the grieving parents, cry. That’s what they needed to set their coverage apart from every other report;
The various cold remedies we found strewn around the apartment suggested that there had been another battle on the horizon, one that Matt didn’t yet know had taken hold of his life.
IT SNOWED SO HARD on Friday, October 16, the day of Matt’s memorial service, that people in Casper still refer to the “October Storm.” In the city park across the street from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, where we held the service, the trees were so overburdened by the weight of the snowfall that their branches came crashing down.
Matt eventually joined my church—St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Casper—and we attended services together on a regular basis when we lived there.
CNN wanted to carry the services live, but we quickly denied the request. Instead we agreed to let a local radio station broadcast it, primarily because the radio feed could be played for people outside. It could also be heard in neighboring churches, where we expected the overflow crowds to gather. There were also calls from the White House and Capitol Hill, from Desmond Tutu and the archbishop of Canterbury—a combination of well-wishes and requests to send representatives to the service. While we appreciated the sentiment, we couldn’t understand why anyone who never knew Matt would want to attend his memorial services. I think we then realized that all this was about more than Matt. It was also about the senseless violence and hate that ended his life.
I was similarly overwhelmed when my hometown paper came out with an editorial denouncing the kind of hatred that led to Matt’s murder. “Prejudice against homosexuals is just as redneck as anti-black bias,” the editors at the Casper Star-Tribune wrote. “Violence against our homosexual friends and neighbors has created a most un-American climate of fear in Wyoming and the rest of the nation.”
Like most Americans, I had never heard of the Reverend Fred Phelps or his Westboro Baptist Church out of Topeka, Kansas, before October 1998, and I don’t think either Dennis or I knew what to make of the news that Phelps and his parishioners would be protesting Matt’s memorial service.
On the night before the memorial service, the city council held a special session and voted unanimously to ban any demonstrations on public property within fifty feet of the service. It wasn’t enough to entirely prohibit the Phelps clan from presenting their hateful stage show, but it limited them to a roped-in area in the public park across the street from St. Mark’s.
How had our private suffering become such a public spectacle?
Eventually someone came to escort us from the crowd because a representative from the Clinton administration, the secretary of veterans affairs, Togo West, was waiting in another room and wanted to speak with my family before the service. Secretary West was one of two White House representatives there that afternoon. The other was presidential adviser Sean Maloney, who at the time was the highest-ranking openly gay man in the White House. He has since become one of my closest friends. Whenever I was introduced to a public official before, during, or after the memorial service, I felt a rush of anger and asked myself, why does he need to be here? Their sincerity seemed so contrived and staged.
I think I now have a better understanding of why people like Sean and Secretary West were at the service that afternoon. As much as Dennis, Logan, and I wanted the service to be about the Matt we knew and loved, it was also about Matthew, the murdered young gay man who millions of people around the world had welcomed into their hearts. What I don’t think I fully appreciated at the time was that there were parts of our Matt in their Matthew, and that the millions of people holding vigils around the world and the hundreds of strangers—including Sean Maloney—gathered at St. Mark’s that day really were, as much as they could, mourning for the loss of my son.
Elton John, who I found out later had tried to contact Dennis and me at the hospital in Fort Collins, had bought out every flower store in town. The church was overflowing with color and the calming, clean fragrance of all those flowers.
Then my niece Anne Kitch Peck, who is an Episcopal priest, gave a very stirring homily.
The Reverend Royce W. Brown, of St. Mark’s, also offered a eulogy:
I’ve occasionally regretted that we didn’t allow CNN to broadcast the memorial service from the church that day. As crass as the request seemed at the time, if we’d said okay, I would have a videotape of the service today and could better remember everything that took place—everything everybody said about Matt that afternoon. But then I realize that if such a videotape existed, I might not have been able to leave that moment in time. I might not have been able to move forward.
It was clear, even when we were still in the hospital with Matt, that one of us would have to stay in Wyoming once the initial madness had subsided—if only to assist prosecutors with their preparation for the trials against Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. Since Logan had to get back to school in Minnesota and Dennis needed to return to his job in Saudi Arabia, I was the one left to stick around. Of course, staying behind in Casper and living alone in a hotel room (or crashing with a friend when I could) was the last thing I wanted to do.
Along with the tens of thousands of cards, letters, and e-mails people had sent us since Matt had been attacked, they’d included nearly ninety thousand dollars in donations—much of it in five- and ten-dollar bills and checks from college students—intended to help us out with hospital bills. Fortunately we didn’t need people’s help to pay for Matt’s medical expenses. Instead we decided to use their very gracious gifts to help ensure that Matt’s legacy was bigger than his murder and that his story continued long after the world’s journalists had turned their attention elsewhere. On December 1, 1998, on what would have been Matt’s twenty-second birthday, his father, brother, and I started the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Our vision for the organization wasn’t yet quite clear; though we knew that we wanted it to focus on young people and that we wanted it to be part philanthropic and part educational. We had nevertheless taken the first step toward defining what would be our family’s focus for years to come.
DENNIS AND I had known of prosecutor Cal Rerucha from the days when we were all students together at the university. Cal was student-body president back then, and I remember seeing his campaign posters around campus and thinking, “What a strange name.”
I sat in the back of the room—I’m not even certain any of the potential jurors knew who I was—and held my breath when Henderson entered, taking a seat in the front, next to his attorney, public defender Wyatt Skaggs.
When he finally walked into the room, I was surprised by how little emotion I actually felt toward him. I think it was more indifference than it was numbness, which again surprised me. If I had any feeling at all, it was pity because I knew that he’d had a troubled childhood, which we had been reminded of just months before when his mother was found mysteriously dead along a snowy rural road north of Laramie.
Cal, for his part, refuted any suggestion that the trial would, in any way, be routine. He told the potential jurors that, if selected, they’d first have to live up to an incredibly important constitutional responsibility. “Whether black or white, rich or poor, Catholic or Protestant or even atheist, whether we have power or no power, whether we are straight or whether we are gay, we are equal because the Wyoming constitution tells us we are equal,” he said. “If any of you cannot follow that element of the constitution, you cannot sit on this jury.”
Albany County officials were predicting that the cost of the trial might eat up a full 10 percent of the county’s budget, resulting in the slashing of funding for social service agencies by as much as $100,000. At that time, there was no recourse for federal assistance because there was no federal hate crime law that included sexual orientation. Therefore, the county could not expect to receive any federal funds to offset the costs of the trial.
Romaine Patterson (the friend Matt met in Casper and followed to Denver), her friends, and others came up with one of the most amazing responses, which the group called Angel Action. It involved using white sheets and PVC pipe to create angel costumes with giant wings. Wearing the costumes, the angels marched up to the Albany County Courthouse and encircled the Westboro Baptist Church protestors, blocking their view and making sure that nobody had to see their hateful signs.
More important, their work has inspired thousands of other people around the country, who download the do-it-yourself angel kit online and launch their own Angel Action whenever the Phelps clan comes to town, whether it’s to protest a gay and lesbian pride parade or a soldier’s funeral.
“Ironically, Aaron McKinney grew up in Imperial Heights, a subdivision right outside of where Matthew Shepard was beaten. And when Aaron was growing up there was a neighborhood bully three or four years older than Aaron. This neighborhood bully was abusing children in Imperial Heights. At age seven, Aaron was forced to suck the penis of the neighborhood bully.
Next Henderson’s grandmother, Lucy Thompson, addressed the court:
As she begged the court for mercy that day, I’m sure she was doing so for the grandson she knew and loved, not the man who killed Matt. I was heartbroken—simply devastated—by her loss. Those two boys, Henderson and McKinney, hadn’t only torn my family apart; they’d ruined their own families as well. Henderson’s grandmother was a very well-respected woman in Laramie. She owned a day-care center, was a very devout Mormon, and everybody loved her.
Further—and less welcome—commotion was created by some Catholic organizations. The groups bought a series of two-page ads in newspapers across Wyoming, campaigning against the death penalty in McKinney’s case. Dennis and I were both very offended by this campaign. In our minds, not only did it violate the incredibly sacred separation between church and state, but it threatened to compromise the jury pools.
Since then, Dennis and I have often wondered how the church could get away with those ads without putting its tax-exempt status at risk.
October 6 screamed, “This is the day Matt was attacked!” And October 12 yelled, “Today’s the day you lost your precious son!” Suddenly I understood the pain people had always described, and I’ve been reminded of it every October since. I hate October.
McKinney’s attorneys, Dion Custis and Jason Tangeman, didn’t deny that their client had killed Matt but instead contended that the murder wasn’t premeditated and was actually provoked by drug use and repressed memories of prior sexual molestation. Apparently those feelings were triggered by what they suggested were unprovoked come-ons from Matt.
According to state statistics, as many as 12.6 percent of Wyoming high school students admitted to using crystal in 1999.
Neither Tangeman nor Custis ever used the words “gay panic” in their argument, but it was immediately clear that that was what they were angling for when Tangeman, in his opening argument, told the jury that their client had been molested as a child:
don’t believe anything that the Cody bartender, the bar patron, or McKinney says Matt did. But even if my son had done all of it, it wouldn’t have justified killing. It wouldn’t have justified McKinney’s decision to hit Matt again and again and again with the butt of a pistol. If making an unwarranted pass were a good excuse for killing someone, there would be a lot more straight men out there getting murdered.
Judge Voigt was as offended by the gay panic defense as Dennis and I were. He suggested as much from the outset—right after Tangeman’s opening argument. “I’m concerned about this and where it’s going,” he told the attorneys. “We [in Wyoming] do not have a gay panic defense, and I don’t know if I’m going to allow it.” Ultimately, the judge decided against allowing the tactic, saying that it was essentially the same as the battered wife and temporary insanity defenses, neither of which were allowed under Wyoming law.
McKinney agreed to never appeal and to never talk to the press or profit from the case in exchange for two consecutive life sentences instead of the death penalty.
Meeting with Tangeman and Custis to discuss the deal proved difficult, though. We worried about Dennis attending because of his temper. So I went instead, accompanied by Commander Dave O’Malley and Detective Rob DeBree.
I find it intolerable that the priests of the Catholic Church and Newman Center would attempt to influence the jury, the prosecution, and the outcome of this trial by the castigation and persecution of Mr. Rerucha and his family in his private life, by their newspaper advertisements, and by their presence in the courtroom.
After all, he was small for his age—weighing, at the most, 110 pounds, and standing only five feet two inches tall. He was rather uncoordinated and wore braces from the age of thirteen until the day he died.
But Elizabeth and David very convincingly explained to me that while random acts of violence against another person are always tragic events, violent crimes based on prejudice have a much stronger impact because the motive for crime is to terrorize an entire community.
Senator Smith, who is Mormon but had always been one of the biggest supporters of hate-crimes protections on Capitol Hill (until he lost his bid for reelection in 2008), addressed head-on the concern of some religious conservatives that support for the bill was somehow endorsing so-called sinful behaviors. “If you want to talk with me about sin, go with me to church,” he said. “If you want to talk about public policy, then go with me to the U.S. Senate. That’s the separation of church and state.”