By B. J. Coleman
A little over two decades ago, Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old college student in Laramie, Wyoming. He was interested in the theater, politics, the Episcopal Church, and in standing up for equal treatment of every person without regard to personal characteristics. He was exploring all the possibilities of a bright future.
But on the night of Oct. 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten after being kidnapped during a robbery, sustaining injuries that claimed his life five days later.
Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, dealt with their grief and loss by initiating the Matthew Shepard Foundation on Matthew’s first birthday following his death, Dec. 1, 1998. The foundation persisted through 20 years, dedicated to supporting and providing protections to other LGBT youths.
Judy and Dennis Shepard visited Downtown on Dec. 16, to appear for a forum at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
At the forum, they spoke about their story, memories, and maintaining their lost son’s legacy.
“We had a gay son, and we were proud of him,” Dennis Shepard said. “We have a straight son, and we are proud of him.”
Judy Shepard serves as the Foundation’s president.
“Judy, she is my hero,” Dennis Shepard said. He added that he looks at all young people now as “kids, my kids.” He further noted that his son Matthew made a great impact on the world, and most of that change happened while he was not here.
“It is important to accept your children, no matter what,” Judy Shepard said.
The Shepard parents outlined some of the changes that have occurred over the course of 20 years — things that Matthew was unable to experience himself.
Before his death, Matthew contemplated joining the military, but he could not. He wanted to put a photo of his boyfriend on his workplace desk, without risking being fired, but he could not. He thought of adopting a homeless child, but he could not. He likely would have wanted to put his partner on medical insurance policies and guarantee hospital visits for each other, but he could not.
“Both our sons were born in Casper, Wyoming. Why were they not equal?” Dennis Shepard asked.
Audience members were familiar with the Matthew Shepard story, plying the Shepard parents with well-informed questions.
What about the interment at the National Cathedral earlier this year? Judy Shepard replied that in the spring, the Foundation received a request from the Smithsonian Institution for memorabilia about their son, also suggesting a memorial service for Matthew at the National Cathedral. The Shepard family had the ashes from Matthew’s cremation, because their son Logan expressed deep concern about whether a scattering site or interment location would become a target of vandalism. When the possibility arose of placing the ashes in the National Cathedral crypt, the Shepard’s agreed that it was a “brilliant idea.”
They originally wanted to keep the event private, but Washington representatives requested reconsideration. The ceremony was then opened to the public.
“We found that new friends could attend and become part of our family,” Dennis Shepard said.
One attendee told the Shepards that he often thought of Matthew when he was at church, and he saw Matthew superimposed as the Christ figure in the crucifixion posture.
Judy Shepard replied gently that no, Matthew had not been tied to the fence like that when he was abandoned in freezing Wyoming night temperatures. The true story is perhaps more moving than the symbolism.
Matthew had been tied to the bottom of the fence. He was lying on the ground when a mountain biker found him the next day and reported the incident to local law enforcement officials. The trooper who arrived to rescue Matthew found a wild doe close to him, lying nearby as if to give protection, comfort and warmth to the suffering young man.
Tracks of tears erased blood stains on Matthew’s face.
Other audience questions asked about forgiveness and any moral convictions in removing the death penalty in sentencing the two perpetrators who participated in Matthew’s murder.
“Forgiveness is not part of my process,” Judy Shepard said. “To me, they’re [the murderers] just gone.”
She explained that the family agreed to reject executions as punishment for the sake of convenience, of not being drawn back into the trauma with every death row appeal. Judy and Dennis were worried that their surviving son, Logan, would end up having to deal with the situation after their own deaths.
The pair of men who participated in murdering Matthew Shepard were both 21-year-old young men at the time of their crime. They were working-class men, roofers by trade, and reportedly methamphetamine users who spotted Matthew, at 5 feet 2 inches and 105 pounds, as easy prey in the local college bar Fireside Lounge. The two pretended to be homosexuals to lure Matthew away from the bar so that they could rob him.
Judy Shepard offered one surprising remark.
“In a way, I don’t blame them entirely,” she said. “They were young, and they were influenced by the attitudes then that gay people were treated as less worthy.”
Some people in Wyoming still resist accepting the viewing that Matthew Shepard’s murder was a hate crime. What few dispute, is that Matthew was targeted because he was “a vulnerable gay man.” Judy Shepard repeated that description of her son during her San Diego appearance.
Russell Henderson agreed to plead guilty to charges of kidnapping and murder, admitting that he was accomplice to the primary perpetrator Aaron McKinney. The two corroborated each other’s basic account of their crimes. Matthew did not have much cash in his pockets, but McKinney took his debit card and his shoes. Henderson was at the wheel of the truck used in the abduction. Even after completing the robbery, McKinney continued pistol-whipping Matthew Shepard viciously and repeatedly, as Henderson drove to a remote location. At McKinney’s direction, Henderson brought rope from the truck to tie Matthew to the fence, where he was later found.
Henderson’s mother froze to death a few months after the murder, a victim herself of Wyoming’s freezing overnight temperatures after a night of drinking.
Both men were given consecutive life sentences. They are serving their prison terms in different states outside Wyoming. Each will most likely will die behind bars.
What would Matthew be doing if he were here now?
“Matthew would be doing what we are doing,” Dennis Shepard said.
Shepard Foundation’s plans for 2019 include renewed focus on hate crimes. Five states have no such laws on their books. One area of concentration will be staging conferences to train police and local law enforcement officers about recognizing crimes against marginalized persons as hate crimes, including encouragement of reluctant victims to report criminal acts against them.
“Thank you for being here, for being interested,” Dennis Shepard concluded. “Please stay active. There is still work to be done.”
—B. J. Coleman is a local freelance journalist and editor/staff reporter with 22nd District Legionnaire. B.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.