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. I had a hunch they’d known each other. Something about their reported behavior as they left the bar that night. Something in the coincidence that Shepard and McKinney had befriended the same limo driver, Doc O’Connor, a menacing figure beneath the folksy scrim, who monitored a police scanner and peeled off from interviews to have shady-looking dealings with men who came and went.
It turns out, Jimenez found, Shepard and McKinney did know each other. Shepard, too, was a drug dealer and user. He and McKinney worked for rival drug circles to support their habits, and were occasionally forced to pay their debts in sex. Shepard’s elective family was based in Denver and moved product from Mexico; McKinney’s was in Laramie, along the route from California. McKinney had hustled in a popular Denver gay club. Shepard had risked rough trade. They may have had sex together. O’Connor ran male escorts. McKinney was his boy.
McKinney, high, had spent the day of the murder desperate for money and a fix, finally itching to rob a connection of an expected six ounces of meth. Shepard was scheduled to make a run to Colorado that would have brought six ounces to Laramie. He reserved the limo but broke the date. At the Fireside bar, he and McKinney met in the bathroom before their last ride.
So was it a hate crime, or a robbery gone bad? Reporters working on anniversary stories always ask the same question. And every time, one mangled sentence of my reply is wedged in a mountain of rubbish. This year was the same, so here I am again, with a clip-and-save view.
McKinney and Henderson were ordinary guys, turned murderous by a toxic combination of drugs and need and cowardice, by the delusions common to all three and a too-easy familiarity with violence. McKinney might have killed anyone given the same alignment of forces, and Henderson been anyone’s follower. Such was not their nature but their condition.
Like Shepard, they had not been totally unloved as kids, but, like him, they made early acquaintance with pain. Laramie isn’t (or wasn’t in the 1990s) the thoughtful, easygoing place of The Laramie Project, which Moises Kaufman deliberately crafted as a redemption fantasy. It was also a violent, drug-and-alcohol-soaked town where desperation and denial spread amid the appearances of college and cowboy down-homery.
McKinney had once enjoyed money, but he ran through it quick. He and Henderson worked as roofers, bang-bang-bang. He might have enjoyed the sex he had with men, but wouldn’t have admitted it in his world, and he broke off communication with Jimenez once the conversation went there.
It’s hard to say homophobia played no role in the murder when McKinney hated his queer self, his hooker self, his exploitation. When Doc, who exploited him and Shepard, was a semi closet case. When McKinney and his girlfriend and his father all thought invoking gay panic would win Aaron more sympathy than saying he was a meth addict and hustler. When Henderson’s grandmother preferred, at least at first, to believe that Russell had done anything rather than be zonked on drugs or alcohol.
The Shepard family controlled the prosecution as they did Matthew’s image, and Judy Shepard now has a job for herself based on it. In court Mr. Shepard gave the impression his queer son had to struggle against the father’s disappointment, that is until death allowed both mom and dad to expiate their various sins by loving the image they, I’ve no doubt, have come to believe is true. Their devotees, the flaks that made Matthew’s legacy an eponymous law whose only function is more punishment, attack Jimenez as a self-hater and conspiracy nut. It’s hard to see complexity win out when simplicity has profited so, but one tries.
JoAnn Wypijewski is co-editor of Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.