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The Vexed Histories of Matthew Shepherd and His Killers

The Laramie Projection

by JoANN WYPIJEWSKI

I thought I was done writing about the complexity of Matthew Shepard’s murder. Last year Steve Jimenez published The Book of Matt, the bracing result of a decade-plus investigation, which should have rescued the case and its protagonists forever from caricature. Instead, the book’s enemies (notably the Matthew Shepard Foundation and allies who benefit from the story of a guileless good boy killed because he was gay) have hewed to the hate crime line, while some of the book’s friends (notably figures in Laramie, Wyoming, and rightists quick to dismiss homophobia) have replaced one formula with another: the killing was nothing but a drug-fueled robbery gone bad. Jimenez’s work deserves better, as does the memory of Matthew Shepard.

Fifteen years ago Harper’s sent me to Laramie, where Shepard had been tied to a fence, bludgeoned beyond recognition and left to die on October 6, 1998. I was interested in the world of his killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Something about the relentless bang of McKinney’s .357 Magnum against Shepard’s skull, about the bang of the same gun, now bloody, against the skull of Emiliano Morales, a punk whom McKinney and Henderson encountered several minutes later, made me think, Drugs. Their crazed ferocity and Wyoming’s drug-use profile resounded, Meth. The assertion of their friends that these two were not especially homophobic – sure, their vocabulary was peppered with “bitch,” “wuss,” “faggot,” but whose wasn’t? – suggested the murder might have less to do with the homosexuality of the victim than with the heterosexual culture of the killers, the ordinary violence beneath the surface of straight (or straight-ish) male life that needed only the juice of inebriants and the mulch of circumstance to burst forth with deadly effect.

It was quick work to discover that McKinney, who’d wielded the gun, was a drug dealer and user. It took a bit longer, haunting trailer parks and following tattoo shop leads etc., to find a fellow who said he’d traded McKinney the murder weapon for a gram of meth, and said McKinney and Henderson had both been tweaking in the days up to the murder. Meanwhile, I spent a lot of time in bars, talking to young men about pain, insecurity and their antidotes. “That’s why God created whiskey, don’t you think?” a guy who knew the killers from high school half-joked. “You get drunker than a pig and hope it drains away – or you go home and cry.”

I learned what I could of the killers’ vexed histories, talked with gay men and lesbians about the stinginess of “tolerance” and Laramie’s liberal illusions, watched, listened and thought about what it took to pass as a man – for Shepard and his killers....

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