Facts About The Murder of Matthew Shepard

The tragic death of Matthew Shepard was one of the most publicized contemporary hate crimes committed on American soil. On October 6, 1998, Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was taken to a desolate area, tied to a fence, and beaten. He survived for several days after the assault but eventually succumbed to his injuries. Initially the assailants, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, allegedly only planned on taking Shepard's money, but authorities believe that when they discovered he was gay, they decided to end his life. 

Shepard’s shocking passing paved the way for LGBTQ acceptance. The world was outraged, and many gay celebrities came out in force, speaking out against crimes based on sexual orientation. The case - along with the 1998 case of James Byrd, Jr., who was targeted based on his race - propelled legislation that seeks to punish those who have committed such actions above and beyond the normal punishment. In 2009, Obama passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which now includes victims based on gender or gender identity, sexuality, and disability.

  • Matthew Shepard Was Supposed To "Feel Safer" In A Small Town

    Matthew Shepard Was Supposed To "Feel Safer" In A Small Town
    Video: YouTube

    Matthew Shepard was only 21 years old when two men took his life. Shepard spoke three languages, had lived overseas, and according to friends, was a kind and friendly person. He was studying political science at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, WY, at the time of his passing. Shepard was very interested in politics, and those who knew him thought he might grow up to be the president.

    While he was a bright, outgoing, and benevolent man, he was deeply depressed. He moved back to Laramie to be part of a community and to be surrounded by friends. His mother expressed that Shepard in part moved to the small town because "he'd feel safer there," after the previous assaults he had experienced in his youth. 

  • Shepard Was Barely Clinging Onto Life When He Was Found

    Aaron Kreifels, a fellow university student who was out for a bike ride, discovered Shepard approximately 18 hours after McKinney and Henderson left him. Kreifels found Shepard tied up, still unconscious. There was a giant gash in his head, and his face was covered in blood. Initially, the student thought Shepard’s body was a scarecrow due to his small frame. The first police officer to arrive on-scene, Officer Reggie Fluty, also assumed Shepard to be a teen. 

    Fluty quickly got him off the fence and called for backup. At the time of rescue, Shepard was still alive. However, he passed on October 12.

  • Shepard's Mother Could Barely Recognize Him Due To The Physical Trauma

    McKinney and Henderson, acquaintances of Matthew Shepard, were drinking at a local watering hole called the Fireside Bar, a popular hangout for Wyoming University students. Reportedly, the bar was a more liberal fixture in the area and known for having gay patrons. McKinney and Henderson ran into Shepard, and the three left the bar together. 

    The two drove Shepard to a remote area, tied him to a fence in the freezing cold, and repeatedly beat him with the butt of a gun. Once he was tied up, they took his shoes and money. Shepard was beaten so badly his mother could only recognize him by a distinctive mark on his ear.

    There are multiple schools of thought as to the motivations of McKinney and Henderson. Some argue that Shepard was targeted because he was gay; others argue that he was targeted because he had allegedly made a pass at one of the men. McKinney’s girlfriend, Kristen Price, claimed the two men wanted to teach Shepard a lesson about hitting on straight people, although she later recanted her statements.

  • Shepard Had Been Previously Assaulted On Several Occasions

    This was not the first time that Shepard had been assaulted. Several months prior to his passing, Shepard was involved in a confrontation with a bartender who claimed he was making a pass at him in Cody, WY. During the incident, Shepard got "his jaw busted." When an older friend asked Shepard how he retaliated, Shepard responded that he "forgave them and went on with [his] life.

    During a trip his senior year of high school, Shepard was also a victim of a Moroccan gang. He was repeatedly assaulted by the group of men. As a result, Shepard reportedly experienced symptoms of PTSD

  • McKinney and Henderson Had Another Physical Altercation After The Assault

    After leaving Shepard, McKinney and Henderson initiated a fight with two men who had slashed their tires. They jumped the two Hispanic men, and McKinney bashed one of the men in the head with the same gun they used on Shepard. One of the men hit McKinney in the head with a big stick, sending him to the hospital. McKinney later found himself in the same hospital as Shepard, although he was admitted prior. 

    After the second altercation, Henderson went home and dumped his bloody clothing - with the help of his girlfriend, Chastity Pasley. But as the police processed the scene, they located a weapon and some of Shepard’s belongings. After his release from the hospital, McKinney reportedly went to Price, confessing: “I've done something horrible. I deserve to die.”

  • McKinney And Henderson Were Charged With Two Life Sentences

    McKinney And Henderson Were Charged With Two Life Sentences
    Video: YouTube

    McKinney and Henderson were apprehended and charged on multiple counts. Their girlfriends, Chastity Pasley and Kristen Price, were charged as accessories; the women had helped Henderson trash the bloody clothing, and they also gave their boyfriends false alibis.

    McKinney and Henderson pled guilty and were sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. In a merciful twist, it was Matthew Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard, who asked the judge to take the death sentence off the table. Dennis Shepard, Matthew's father, read a statement to the court, addressing his son's assailant:

    I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney. However, this is the time to begin the healing process. To show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. Mr. McKinney, I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is for me to do so, because of Matthew.