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?
Stephen Jimenez seeks to clear up these questions and much more in The Book of Matt. In the process, he’s raised the bar for dogged, courageous investigative reporting and journalistic excellence in a world awash with media half-truths and instant shallow sound bites. We need more truth-telling like this and the persistent critical thinking that goes into making it. This book is investigative journalism at its dead level best as the author slowly, methodically brings down myth and fast-fiction, puts the crime in local and national context and rehumanizes the actors and complex relationships in this tragic passion play outside Laramie. Jimenez proves that reality resides in the gray areas of life, not in the more immature black-and-white scenario devoid of critical thinking. In accomplishing this, the Matthew Shepard murder story yields life lessons for all of us, regardless of political, religious or sexual persuasion.
In closing, the many reasons the Matthew Shepard’s heinous murder story needs to be retold and the record straightened out is best described by Jimenez himself in the final chapter of his book:
During the years that I’ve been preoccupied with Matthew’s murder, I’ve come to believe that the complex truth of this tragedy — and the parallel tragedies of Aaron and Russell — have a universal meaning that defies and transcends the politically correct mythology that’s been created as a substitute. There’s no doubt that the violence inflicted on Matthew triggered a national awakening about the harsh realities of anti-gay hate, just as there is no doubt that other positive developments followed on the heels of his murder, including a long-overdue expansion of civil rights — a mission that remains incomplete as of this writing. But the more I learned about Matthew’s life and his suffering, the more convinced I became that clinging to a partly false mythology could never yield the subtler, more powerful meanings of his sacrifice. It would also be a disservice to Matthew’s memory to freeze him in time as a symbol, having stripped a way his complexities and frailties as a human being … and I grew suspicious of the truncated portraits of him that I found in media accounts and official records. … Over time, a handful of Matthew’s friends — together with insightful public testimonies of his parents — persuaded me of the value that could be gained from peering into those corners of his life that had been invisible or mostly cast in shadow, and attempting to understand the part they may have played in the tragedy of October 6, 1998.
— The Book of Matt, page 347
Two other quotes from the book are worth repeating here, first from a friend of Matt and then from the prosecuting attorney who looked back years after putting Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson in prison for consecutive life sentences without chance of parole:
I had (also) heard Doc and Aaron talking about pimping Matthew out … so I knew (the attack) wasn’t because Matt was gay and it made me angry. It made me really angry that it just blew over as a hate crime, because, you know, Matthew Shepard was gay. It had nothing to do with Matthew Shepard being gay, nothing. It was about drugs and money. … They were all friends … but Russell wasn’t even involved in that little clique … the main thing was — with Matthew and Aaron — was sex. And drugs.
— Elaine, a friend of Matt, page 321
Cal Rerucha (prosecutor in Matthew Shepard’s murder) who spent most of the last decade (after the murder) on the front lines of the meth crisis as both a state and federal prosecutor, called crystal meth “the worst drug this country has ever seen.” He also acknowledged, “Meth probably played a far greater role in the Shepard case than anyone understood at the time, including me.”
— Cal, page 329
Stephen Jimenez has not only written an outstanding book but also has the courage to publish it and let the journalistic chips fall where they may. He’s ready and willing to take the hits that surely come with taking down precious myth while being discredited as an ambitious egomaniac trying to rewrite history, a sloppy reporter, and a bad writer who’s in it for nothing but a fast buck.
No one who reads this book — and not just some cockamamie review with political or cultural axes to grind — can come away believing any of these criticisms. The long journey towards truth-telling by Jimenez and the people in the story of Matthew Shepard may not yet be over. I eagerly look forward to seeing what comes of this book — and the influence it has on every aspect of public opinion and the media — in the years to come.