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Author shifts perceptions on Matthew Shepard case
Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The gruesome death of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard catapulted hate crimes into the American spotlight, ultimately influencing major gay rights legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. But a recent book dismantles everything we know about the slain University of Wyoming student. Specifically, it purports that it wasn’t Shepard’s homosexuality that motivated assailant Aaron McKinney to savagely beat him, tie him to a fence and leave him to languish in the night.
After 13 years of research, renowned journalist Stephen Jimenez completed The Book of Matt last year – picking up, Jimenez said, where his 2004 exposé for ABC’s 20/20 left off.
The book plunges readers into the murky waters of methamphetamine trafficking and alleges Shepard was brutally beaten, sustaining the injuries that resulted in his death, because of his involvement selling and using crystal meth and his entanglement with some of the drug’s unsavory players.
When Jimenez, who is openly homosexual, first found himself in Laramie it was to create a screenplay based on the Shepard case. “The interest was personal: I’m a gay man and I was shocked by the violence of this anti-gay hate crime in Wyoming … it was also a seminal moment in America, awakening the country about anti-gay bigotry,” Jimenez recalled. Arriving in Laramie approximately one year after the murder, Jimenez sifted through newly released court documents the media didn’t have access to during the trial; a gag order had also recently been lifted. Six months into his investigation, Jimenez realized a narrative very different than the story disseminated by the media was converging.
“I believe that a journalist has a responsibility to seek out the truth in a professional, moral and ethical fashion,” Jimenez said. “I went there with the idea of writing one story and I discovered something else and felt the responsibility to really tell the story that I saw.”
During his investigation, Jimenez’s intensive efforts to uncover the facts included interviewing more than 110 named sources and visiting more than 20 states as he infiltrated the squalid depths of the drug world.
While the defense portrayed the assailant a stranger to Shepard, Jimenez uncovered clues that pointed to Shepard and McKinney’s romantic involvement, the book explains.
This is antipodal to the “gay panic” defense used by McKinney’s attorneys during the trial, arguing that McKinney lashed out when Shepard made a sexual advance at him and accomplice Russell Henderson. The Book of Matt also outlines how McKinney, coming down from a weeklong meth binge, assaulted two other straight males in close time proximity to Shepard’s attack.
Considering the robust impact Shepard’s case has had on the gay rights movement in America, it’s not surprising that Jimenez’s book has been met with some controversy. The Matthew Shepard Foundation, a gay rights activism group founded in memory of Shepard, released a statement denouncing the book and a flurry of skeptical reader comments precedes some internet reviews. National Public Radio reported that lead police investigator Dave O’Malley also refutes Jimenez’s investigative findings. “If Matthew had been a methamphetamine dealer, we’d had found that out,” O’Malley said. “We would have investigated that part of it. That doesn’t cause justification for what happened to him ultimately. If McKinney would have been under the influence of … in a meth-fueled rage of sorts, you know, that would have been appropriately investigated, and reported, in that manner.”
Proof of crystal meth in McKinney’s system could decidedly help settle this dispute. However, NPR reported that although O’Malley and investigator Rob Debree allege that a toxicology report indicated no drugs in McKinney’s system, neither has been able to produce that report.
Jimenez gives two readings in the valley next Wednesday, July 23. A lunch book reading and discussion happens noon to 1:30 p.m. at Jackson Whole Grocer in the community room, second floor. An evening reading and wine reception will be held 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Teton Pines. Both events are free.