With the release this fall of Stephen Jimenez’s controversial magnum opus, The Book of Matt, a decade-long search for truth in the horrific beating-murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998, one of Mark Twain’s best-known aphorisms comes to mind:
A rumor gets half-way round the world before the truth can get its boots on.
Nowhere might Twain’s truism be more aptly applied than in the loss of truth in journalism and the erection of a lucrative myth industry surrounding the murder of Matthew Shepard fifteen years ago.
In the short time between the discovery of Shepard’s unconscious, badly beaten body on the prairie outside of Laramie and his death five days later — before law enforcement could release any preliminary findings or his parents could get back to the United States from Saudi Arabia to be with their dying son — a sensational, emotionally charged rumor was hatched and launched by two of Matt’s gay friends with little or no firsthand knowledge of the case.
Their rumor made glaring assumptions about the method and motives of what must have happened to their friend: Matt was most surely beaten and murdered for one reason alone — he was an innocent, clean-cut gay man living in macho cowboy country and paid the ultimate price when he met a couple of homophobic rednecks in a Laramie bar that infamous night. It would become the sensational lede of the century, overriding and influencing all aspects of the case going forward — law enforcement investigations, media coverage, court proceedings, sentencing, and ultimately federal hate crime legislation. It also started a gay civil rights industry with Matthew Shepard enshrined as the mythic good-guy centerfold.
Once this story was conjured out of mostly thin air, Matt’s friends passed their “news tip” with its crucifixion visual on to the LGBT community in Colorado and Wyoming and, more importantly, to a gay reporter at the Casper Star-Tribune who then fed it on to a hungry national press weary of reporting endlessly about Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
What ensued was a national media spectacle and criminal justice circus of epic proportions. Laramie became a near-riot zone for months as hysterical activists, reporters and federal agents descended on and camped out in this sleepy college town. The American public scarfed it all down like candy. In fact, it licked the media plate clean, imbibing every last harrowing morsel of the gruesome murder. Then America tried to forget its own self-loathing that such an unthinkable act of homophobia could happen in this country
But did it really go down that way? Is it possible the truth went missing in favor of a fast-fiction in the early days of the investigation, never to be seen publicly again? Until now — yes.
Stephen Jimenez, a gay journalist, also had bought into the conventional myth of homophobia in the Shepard case when he first traveled to Laramie in 2000 — two years after the murder. He was writing a screenplay for a TV movie and wanted to make a quick trip to tie up loose ends. But during his cursory research, he unexpectedly got mugged by inconsistent facts, an anonymous letter, hidden agendas and contradictory alibis. Things just didn’t add up in his mind. Twelve years, hundreds of personal interviews, myriad sources in 20 states, many documents, lots of court records and reams of other evidence later, Jimenez would finally be ready to say that much of the Shepard murder legend was fiction and that it’s finally time to set the record straight.
Truth has arrived with its boots on to answer questions as:
Was Matthew Shepard really innocent after all? Was homophobia the motive or something else altogether? Were Matthew Shephard and Aaron McKinney — Matt’s killer — really strangers who met in a bar that night or well-acquainted users and dealers of crystal meth who had traded drugs and money for sex with each other numerous times?
Weighing only 107 pounds when he died, was Matt HIV-positive from drug use or casual sex and did he have a premonition of his imminent murder? Did some lawyers in the case — as well as law enforcement officers — know about and seek to steer the press away from the drug angle because they knew it would be opening a can of worms they were ill-prepared to handle? Was the Justice Department under Janet Reno aware Matt had AIDS and did it then put pressure on local officials to keep that fact hidden from public view, fearing the revelation could lead to another incendiary Oklahoma City bombing scenario? What about Russell Henderson, a complicit and scared accomplice to the crime Aaron McKinney committed? Was Henderson talked out of a trial and into a plea bargain that resulted in consecutive life sentences, after being threatened with the death sentence, never getting to tell his side of the story?