A review of “The Book of Matt,” by Stephen Jimenez (Steerforth, 383 pages, $19.95)

Protecting the Official Myth of Matthew Shepard

On the night of October 6, 1998, the robbery and beating of a University of Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard put a microscope on the quiet college community of Laramie, Wyoming. Shepard, small and fragile in build and openly gay, had been found by a mountain biker tied to a fence “like a Halloween scarecrow.” 

Six days later, after attempts to keep him alive failed, Shepard died and forever entered the public mind as a martyr and a namesake of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009). 

Two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were arrested and charged with Shepard’s murder. The motive of the crime, thanks to conflicting statements by McKinney and his girlfriend Kristen Price, was assumed to be homophobia. The murder sent shockwaves through the country, as gay rights activists protested nationwide in response to unverified media reports about the motive, while both gay and anti-gay activists such as Reverend Fred Phelps picketed the trial of McKinney. By 2000, theaters across the country were performing the play The Laramie Project based on statements of locals and people who knew Shepard. The play was later adapted as a film in 2002 by HBO.

But, in 2004, ABC’s “20/20” aired a one-hour report with anchor Elizabeth Vargas that in numerous ways contradicted the accepted story about the murder. Based primarily on the investigative work of Stephen Jimenez, the report showed that, far from being a hate crime, Shepard’s murder likely was the result of his and McKinney’s activities within the local methamphetamine trade. 

Price also recanted her hearsay statement about Shepard attempting a sexual advance on McKinney, and it was further revealed that both Shepard and McKinney may have been involved in male prostitution. In 2013, Jimenez released The Book of Matt, the product of more than a dozen years of his research into the evidence known at the time of the murder as well as other pieces only revealed later thanks to his numerous interviews with prosecutor Cal Rerucha. 

I interviewed Jimenez in March in anticipation of the June 30 release of an updated edition of his book.

Russell Henderson, an Accomplice Not a Murderer

In our conversation, Jimenez was clear on several points that are central to the book. He made a bold separation between McKinney and his accomplice, Henderson, who pleaded guilty thereby foregoing a trial; and in numerous conversations face to face with Jimenez during prison visits, Henderson reiterated his remorse over Shepard’s death. 

According to all evidence available, Henderson’s role in the murder was limited to following McKinney’s instruction to tie Shepard to the fence. But indeed, as Jimenez points out both in our interview and in the book, McKinney had assaulted several other people within the same 24-hour period, including two Hispanic men in Laramie, fellow meth cohort Monty Durand at the home of his cousin Dean McKinney, and Henderson himself during Shepard’s murder when Henderson tried to stop the beating. 

According to Jimenez, who continues to keep in touch with various contemporaries of both McKinney and Henderson, there is no evidence of an underlying motive of hate, nor that Henderson had any intent to murder Shepard.

The theme of homophobia and hate crimes, thick in the dialogue of The Laramie Project and in media reporting on the murder, is also refuted by Jimenez. 

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Wyoming, over decades. Remember that in connection with this book I went there . . . it was in the early winter of 2000 that I went to begin working on this case. And I’ve got to say that I don’t find Wyoming any more or less homophobic than any other place,” he said. (Jimenez is a native of Brooklyn, New York.)

The Symbol vs. the Secrets

Jimenez’s award-winning investigative work with ABC News and the subsequent publication of his book have not gone unanswered by those who have made Shepard’s life and murder a sanctified rallying point, and who see the journalist’s revelations as defamatory. 

In response to his critics, Jimenez repeated several crucial points. Nine law enforcement officers and prosecutors connected to the murder case overwhelmingly support the conclusions of the book regarding McKinney and Shepard both being involved in using, buying, and selling meth. Federal agents sent in 1998 to investigate the crime as a violation of Shepard’s civil rights were unable to find evidence to support it and left empty-handed after several weeks of investigation.

McKinney and Shepard were seen together in the company of Laramie limousine driver Doc O’Connor in the months prior to the murder, according to multiple named sources. All of these circumstances contradict the notion that McKinney and Shepard were “strangers” and that McKinney became enraged at him over a sexual advance on the night he was killed. 

Perhaps least surprising was the politicization of Shepard’s murder. 

According to Jimenez, two Clinton White House VIPs were dispatched to the funeral, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Togo West and then-deputy staff secretary Sean Patrick Maloney, who is himself gay. For Maloney, the murder became the springboard for him to become the legal advisor for the Matthew Shepard Foundation. 

According to one profile, Maloney’s interview with Vargas was edited out of the “20/20” broadcast in order to fit the investigation’s portrayal of the murder being motivated by drugs. I asked Jimenez about Maloney and his comparison of Shepard’s murder to the legendary lynching of Mississippi black teen Emmett Till in 1955. His response was sharp:

[Maloney’s] attempt to instruct me that Matthew Shepard is to gay civil rights what Emmett Till is to the civil rights movement, is pure baloney. First of all, the cause of gay civil rights does not hang somehow on the tragic murder of Matthew Shepard.

Jimenez also told me that during Judy Shepard’s interview with Vargas, Maloney admonished Jimenez to “tread lightly here . . . because of what Matt is as a symbol.” In the 2000s Maloney made a failed bid for New York State Attorney General and was a staff member of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, before being elected to Congress in 2012 for the state’s 18th district.

Jimenez analogized the willful ignorance or suppression of the facts in the Shepard case that did not get reported by the media to the type of irresponsible and misleading reporting that led to the Iraq War, or to those who have objected to investigations into the sordid but verified details of Thomas Jefferson’s private life and his sexual relationships with his own slaves.

The Underground Addiction

The topic of methamphetamine and its impact on crime and violence were strong themes both of The Book of Matt and our discussion. 

Jimenez reiterated over and over that the meth epidemic was already in full bloom in late-1990s Wyoming, and law enforcement was hopelessly behind in addressing it. He also agreed that while the nation at large has been hard hit by the rise of meth and opioid addiction, that “crystal meth in particular has been a very serious problem in the gay community.”

Jimenez told me during a follow-up that in his new edition he is including new witness accounts and research that further supports his findings against the critics of the book. Laramie County Sheriff Dave O’Malley, who was the lead police investigator of the murder, consistently has denied that Shepard was dealing meth. But in a new chapter, Jimenez cites a 2004 interview of Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, in which she admits that she was at least aware of his meth use when he lived in Denver. This point of contention is just one example of how tightly the official myth of a hate crime is protected.

True Crime Journalism as It Once Was

Jimenez’s brand of reporting is an endangered species in the wasteland of modern media. As an outsider responding to the Shepard murder, Jimenez gained the trust and confidence of prosecutors, police, and acquaintances of the three main figures in the case over several years. He did not ignore the inconvenient facts that dispelled the myth of a murder driven by raging bigotry and took many risks to his own physical safety in meeting dealers who knew the truth of McKinney and Shepard’s deep involvement with crystal meth. 

In responding to my highlighting of skeptics’ criticism of The Book of Matt, Jimenez answered, “If you want to believe that this was simply about homophobia, OK, then you’re just opening yourself to having many, many other drug-related [crimes]; because you don’t want to look at how this one actually happened.”

About Ray McCoy

Ray McCoy is a freelance journalist from the Midwest

Photo: Kevin Moloney/Getty Images

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