“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of the facts and evidence.” — John Adams
Q & A
Like millions of people everywhere — not just Americans — I was shocked and appalled by the violence of the attack on Matthew in October 1998. As a gay man, it sucked the wind out of me. It made me wonder how the men who beat him could have that much hate. As journalist Andrew Sullivan said at the time, the crime encapsulated all our fears of being hated as gay people.
But it wasn’t until a year after Matthew’s murder that I decided to go to Laramie. My intention was to write a screenplay about this all-American tragedy. What inspired me was a speech that Matthew’s father had delivered in the courtroom on the day Aaron McKinney, Matthew’s killer, was sentenced to two life terms, with no chance of parole. Dennis Shepard bared his soul to the world. He said things like—and I’m paraphrasing here — Why wasn’t I a better father and friend [to Matt]? Why wasn’t I there when he needed me most? How will I ever get an answer to those questions now? Those words, which sons and fathers everywhere could relate to, just took hold of me. I wanted to know more about Matthew’s life and to try in some way to understand the human aspects of this tragedy that destroyed him and inflicted so much pain on his family.
That was the beginning of the journey of this book — thirteen and a half years ago.
But after about eight months working on the story, I stumbled on some documents at the courthouse that made me begin to question everything that I believed about the crime and the motives behind it. Like most people, I’d felt certain it was a clear-cut anti-gay hate crime, a gay bashing: Matthew had been beaten to death because he was gay.
It was simply a stroke of good fortune. I was in the county courthouse going through stacks of case files, taking notes, just trying to begin educating myself about the case — and I noticed Cal Rerucha, the county prosecutor, talking to staff people in the office. I’d seen his picture in news stories and on TV. I was a little nervous about approaching him, but I thought if there’s anyone who could help me understand the case and figure out how to make my way through all this material piled up in front of me, he was the man.
What many people don’t realize — unless you were a reporter covering the story in Laramie — is that the court had sealed all these files while the case was going on, for a full year. So the media never had a chance to examine this material until the case was over. By then nobody cared; it was old news to them. Also, all the key players in the case, including witnesses, had been placed under a gag order for a year. But now that gag order was lifted.
I asked one of the assistants if the prosecutor might have a few minutes to talk about the case. He came back and said yes, Mr. Rerucha could do that. When I was shown into his office, he shut the door and we talked for almost an hour. He was very curious about why I’d come all the way from New York and what I was up to. He seemed to be circling me like a fox. He told me he had very little confidence in the media and said pretty forcefully that Matthew Shepard’s family had suffered a lot and that I shouldn’t write anything that would hurt them further.
That was in February 2000. At that point, I began a series of interviews with Cal Rerucha. I asked him to teach me everything he could about the case, and I interviewed him many, many times. But none of this happened overnight. He was adamant that I get my facts straight and that I not repeat the media’s earlier mistakes. Today I consider him to be a good friend.
It wasn’t until I knew Cal Rerucha for about four years that he agreed to an on-camera interview for a story I produced with Glenn Silber for ABC News 20/20. That was the first time that Cal acknowledged publicly that the drug methamphetamine had been a factor in Matthew’s murder.
Ironically, one of the defense attorneys in the case—Russell Henderson’s lawyer, Wyatt Skaggs—claimed at the time of the trials that drugs played no part in the case. The attorneys for Aaron McKinney, on the other hand, argued that Aaron’s drug addiction had been an important factor. But now you have the prosecutor, who had fought against Aaron’s attorneys on this very point, stating on the record that meth had, indeed, been involved.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. In The Book of Matt, I’m looking at a confluence of factors that were behind this horrifically violent crime — complicated human factors — and also how the media reported the crime to us. Drugs are just one aspect, but it was an aspect that was seriously misunderstood and even misrepresented by several people involved in the case, including some law enforcement officers.
After the huge amount of news coverage surrounding the Shepard case, I assumed that neither man would be eager to talk with me — or with any other journalist. With two life sentences and no chance of parole, what did they stand to gain?
But there were only three people who knew what happened after Matthew left the Fireside bar with Aaron and Russell that night — and one of them, Matthew, had been murdered. At least that’s what I believed at the time, that no one else had information about what really happened. So I decided to make every possible effort to talk with Aaron and Russell.
I began by getting to know Aaron’s father and Russell’s grandmother, both of whom were very skeptical. But eventually they intervened on my behalf, in the belief that I was serious about getting to the truth. Russell’s grandmother said she would only give me ten minutes to talk in her living room. Later she told me that she had her phone on the arm of her chair and was ready to call the police if I upset her, as other reporters had. It’s understandable, once you realize how the media invaded the lives of almost everyone involved in this case. Matthew’s family and friends were also besieged constantly.
As far as Aaron’s agreement not to talk with the media, I thought long and hard about that and sought the advice of several people, including someone at the American Civil Liberties Union. I was surprised to learn that some legal experts thought it was unconstitutional to have required Aaron — as part of a sentencing agreement — to give up his right to free speech. I decided that if Aaron was willing to talk, it was important for me, as a journalist, to hear what he had to say. I was suspicious, of course, but since he’d never testified during his trial I was eager to hear his version in his own words.
I also wondered why that silence had been imposed in the first place. What could Aaron possibly say about the crime that hadn’t already been heard in a year’s worth of media stories and court proceedings? That intrigued me. Evidently there were some things he wasn’t supposed to talk about. But again: Why? What were they?
The first thing I’d say — and I’ve known them for about eleven years — is that they’re a study in contrasts. They have strikingly different personalities and, more importantly, their characters are very different. Like night and day. And those differences are apparent in their actions during the crime itself.
Yet you’d never know that from most of the original media coverage. It was reported that both men beat Matthew, both men pistol-whipped him, both hated gay people, and that both were equally responsible for Matthew’s death. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, the evidence shows that it was only Aaron who beat Matthew with the gun and that at one point Russell tried to stop the beating. Aaron then struck Russell with the murder weapon. Aaron himself has always admitted that it was he who inflicted all of the physical violence on Matthew.
Is Russell responsible for his involvement and for not doing more to stop it? Absolutely. He’s also culpable for not telling the police what happened immediately after the fact. That might have saved Matthew’s life — although the brain damage he’d sustained was probably irreparable.
In The Book of Matt, I examine the evidence that existed while the case was going on and show that Aaron’s trial left a number of unanswered questions. I also introduce new information and sources.
As far as Russell is concerned, he never had a trial or the chance to present his side of the story. My research suggests that Aaron had a set of reasons and motives for robbing Matthew, and that Russell did not. On the most basic level, Aaron and Matthew had a troubled relationship before the night of the crime. The two men were friends before Aaron and Russell became friends.
I haven’t found a shred of evidence that Russell had ever met Matthew previously or that he wanted to hurt him. But Aaron had previous run-ins with Matthew.
The idea that Russell hates gay people is preposterous to me. I’ve spent a good deal of time with him in four different prisons and I’m familiar with his essentially spotless prison record over the past fourteen years. I don’t believe Russell is a violent person — not at all
I wrote the book for many reasons. First, to satisfy my strong personal need to understand the tragedy that destroyed Matthew’s life. He was a young man with dreams and aspirations, whom many people loved; he was also lonely and suffered a lot of inner struggle, as many young people do. And it wasn’t all about being gay, as some would have it. Matthew was a complicated human being.
His murder haunted me but so did his life. It was a naïve thought perhaps, but I wondered if this violence could have been avoided. If so, how? When did things begin to take a dangerous turn, not just for Matthew but also for Aaron and Russell — and so many other young people like them?
On the surface, and in the shorthand of the media, their lives seemed so different. But the closer I got to their stories, the more parallels I noticed, especially emotionally and psychologically. All three felt somewhat lost and ungrounded in their lives — to varying degrees, of course. There was also an undercurrent of desperation there. That helped explain in part how they got involved in some of the relationships they did, and how they eventually got in way over their heads.
The impact I hope to have on readers is to encourage a new round of conversations about how we “initiate” our young into the adult world that awaits them — a world of many hidden challenges, especially where personal identity is concerned. But this is not simply a matter of sexual identity — the issue of whether one is straight, gay, bisexual, or transgendered. Most of us encounter many “closets” in the course of our lives and we need to learn what it takes to free ourselves from them. It’s a fraud to suggest that all we need is sexual liberation and then we’ll live happily ever after.
How do we decide the kind of person we want to be in the world? And how do we develop the skills to get there?
In the aftermath of the attack on Matthew, there were a lot of conversations, both public and private, about how gay people were treated in America. There was a lot of important soul searching. But what was left out? What was missed? I hope The Book of Matt is an opportunity to resume a part of the conversation that got dropped at the time.
It was the media that, for the most part, shaped the history of Matthew’s murder and the court cases that followed it. And it all happened very, very quickly, without much in-depth reporting or reflection.
But as one judge in Wyoming told me — a judge who knows the Shepard case well — “The media didn’t give a rat’s ass about the truth.”
Time and again, we Americans have learned that we can’t always trust the information fed to us by the media. We were told there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as the basis for sending our soldiers there, into harm’s way. More recently, we’ve learned that the government has been prying deeply into our personal communications. It wasn’t the media that revealed this to us, however — not initially anyway. It was a whistleblower.
Similarly, the public was given a version of the tragedy in Laramie that was too simplistic, incomplete in some respects and downright wrong in others. Do we want to know what really happened to Matthew and understand why, or do we want to console ourselves with a mythologized version that leaves out important truths? I wrote The Book of Matt in order to grapple with some of these questions.
Again, if we’re serious about how we raise generations of our young people, who can still be vulnerable at the age of twenty-one — as Matthew was — what are we willing to do to help guide them more effectively? These are just some of the issues touched on in the book.
Ten years ago when I began to grasp the corrosive impact of meth not just in Laramie but also throughout the whole state of Wyoming and the Midwest, I was stunned. At that time, the topic was of little interest to the national media. But then when I realized that crystal meth was a big problem among some of Matthew’s friends as well — and in urban gay exclaves — I knew that I had to dig deeper. As it turned out, the meth underworld in Laramie and the meth underworld in Denver, where Matthew had lived previously, were connected.
One of the reasons I decided to write The Book of Matt is to make readers aware of the devastation caused by meth in the lives of so many people, including several characters in the book. Chronic users will tell you that the drug makes you feel a hundred-feet-tall and very powerful, until you start crashing and the psychotic thoughts and paranoia take over your life, and you’ll do anything to feed your habit.
What shocked me most was learning about meth-fueled rage and violence – the kind of uncontrolled rage that Aaron McKinney inflicted on Matthew Shepard. The fact that this drug had become an epidemic in the gay community wasn’t something I could remain silent about.