The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard

The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard

by Stephen Jimenez
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The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard by Stephen Jimenez

What role did crystal meth and other previously underreported factors play in the brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard? The Book of Matt is a page-turning cautionary tale that humanizes and de-mythologizes Matthew while following the evidence where it leads, without regard to the politics that have long attended this American tragedy.

Late on the night of October 6, 1998, twenty-one-year-old Matthew Shepard left a bar in Laramie, Wyoming with two alleged “strangers,” Aaron McKin­ney and Russell Henderson. Eighteen hours later, Matthew was found tied to a log fence on the outskirts of town, unconscious and barely alive. He had been pistol-whipped so severely that the mountain biker who discovered his battered frame mistook him for a Halloween scarecrow. Overnight, a politically expedient myth took the place of important facts. By the time Matthew died a few days later, his name was synonymous with anti-gay hate.

Stephen Jimenez went to Laramie to research the story of Matthew Shepard’s murder in 2000, after the two men convicted of killing him had gone to prison, and after the national media had moved on. His aim was to write a screenplay on what he, and the rest of the nation, believed to be an open-and-shut case of bigoted violence. As a gay man, he felt an added moral imperative to tell Matthew’s story. But what Jimenez eventually found in Wyoming was a tangled web of secrets. His exhaustive investigation also plunged him deep into the deadly underworld of drug trafficking. Over the course of a thirteen-year investigation, Jimenez traveled to twenty states and Washington DC, and interviewed more than a hundred named sources.

The Book of Matt is sure to stir passions and inspire dialogue as it re-frames this misconstrued crime and its cast of characters, proving irrefutably that Matthew Shepard was not killed for being gay but for reasons far more complicated — and daunting.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781586422264
Publisher: Steerforth Press
Publication date: 09/16/2014
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 823,908
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Stephen Jimenez is an award-winning journalist, writer and producer. He was a 2012 Norman Mailer Nonfiction Fellow and has written and produced programs for ABC News 20/20, Dan Rather Reports, Nova, Fox, Court TV and others. His accolades include the Writers Guild of America Award, the Mongerson Award for Investigative Reporting, an Emmy, and fellowships at the Ucross Foun­dation in Wyoming. A graduate of Georgetown University, he has taught screen­writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and other colleges. He lives in New York and Santa Fe.

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The Book of Matt

Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard

By Stephen Jimenez

Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2013 Stephen Jimenez
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-58642-215-8


Father and Son

In February 2000 I went to Laramie, Wyoming, to begin work on a story whose essence I thought I knew before boarding the plane in New York. What I expected to find in the infamous college town was an abundance of detail to flesh out a narrative I had already accepted as fact. I went to research a screenplay about the October 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard — a crime widely perceived as the worst anti-gay attack in US history.

At the time I was teaching screenwriting at New York University and producing documentary films. Like millions of others who followed the news of Matthew's beating and the subsequent trials of his assailants, I was appalled by the grotesque violence inflicted on this young man. According to some media reports, Matthew was burned with cigarettes and tortured while he begged for his life. As journalist Andrew Sullivan later recalled, "A lot of gay people, when they first heard of that horrifying event, felt punched in the stomach. It kind of encapsulated all our fears of being victimized ... at the hands of people who hate us."

By the time I arrived in Laramie I was a Johnny-come-lately. For more than a year the story of Matthew Shepard's savage beating and "crucifixion" on a remote prairie fence had been told again and again in the national media. The murder trials had ended by early November 1999 and Matthew's killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, both twenty-two, had been sentenced to two consecutive life terms with no chance of parole. As far as the media was concerned, the story was finally over.

From the very first reports of the October 6, 1998, attack, major news organizations provided a generally uniform account of the crime and the motives behind it. A sampling of newspaper and magazine stories painted a harrowing picture:

Shepard, 22, a first-year student at the University of Wyoming, paid dearly ... allegedly for trusting two strangers enough at the Fireside Lounge to tell them he is gay. What followed was an atrocity that ... forced the stunned community [of Laramie] to painfully confront the festering evil of anti-gay hatred, as the nation and its lawmakers watched.

The Boston Globe

[Police] investigators turned up the following sequence of alleged events ... Sometime Tuesday night, Shepard met Henderson and McKinney while at the Fireside Bar and Lounge. Shepard told them he was gay. They invited him to leave with them. All three got into McKinney's father's pickup, and the attack began.

The Denver Post

Hungry for cash, perhaps riled by Shepard's trusting admission that he was gay, they drove to the edge of town, police say, pistol-whipped him until his skull collapsed, and then left him tied like a fallen scarecrow — or a savior — to the bottom of a cross-hatched fence.


Albany County Sheriff Gary Puls, who suggested ... that the beating was being investigated as a hate crime, said ... the investigation ... is "aggressively continuing" ... Laramie Police Commander Dave O'Malley told the Associated Press that while robbery was the main motive, Shepard was targeted because he was gay ...

The Washington Post

What people mean when they say Matthew Shepard's murder was a lynching is that he was killed to make a point ... So he was stretched along a Wyoming fence not just as a dying young man but as a signpost. "When push comes to shove," it says, "this is what we have in mind for gays."

Time magazine

While some gay leaders saw crucifixion imagery in Mr. Shepard's death, others saw a different symbolism: the Old West practice of nailing a dead coyote to a ranch fence as a warning to future intruders.

The New York Times

The chilling ordinariness of McKinney's and Henderson's small-town backgrounds reminded me of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the murderers in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. In glaring contrast, Matthew Shepard was characterized as "well educated" and "well traveled." He was "a slight, unassuming young homosexual," Newsweek said, "shy and gentle in a place where it wasn't common for a young man to be either ... [he was] sweet-tempered and boyishly idealistic."

I was curious about who Matthew was as a person, just as I was bewildered by the warped motives of his killers. But what compelled me as a writer and a gay man to go to Wyoming was neither the brutality of the murder nor its suddenly iconic place in the national landscape. I first began to feel a visceral pull to Matthew's story when I read the words of his father in a New York Times report on Aaron McKinney's sentencing.

In a hushed Laramie courtroom on November 4, 1999, Dennis Shepard delivered a wrenching soliloquy that brought the tragedy home with fresh impact. His words made it clear that his life had been shattered; that nothing could undo the magnitude of his family's loss. With TV satellite trucks and throngs of journalists lining the streets outside the county courthouse, and a SWAT team with high-powered rifles standing guard on nearby rooftops, Matthew's father searched his soul for clues:

How do I talk about the loss I feel every time I think about Matt? How do I describe the empty pit in my heart and mind ...

Why wasn't I there when he needed me most? Why didn't I spend more time with him? ... What could I have done to be a better father and friend? How do I get an answer to those questions now?

Minutes later he faced his son's murderer:

Mr. McKinney, your agreement to life without parole has taken yourself [sic] out of the spotlight ... No years of publicity, no chance of commutation, no nothing. Just a miserable future and a more miserable end. It works [for] me.

My son was taught to look at all sides of an issue before ... taking a stand ... Such a stand cost him his life when he quietly let it be known that he was gay ...

I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. McKinney ... You robbed me of something very precious, and I will never forgive you for that ...

That Matthew's parents did not seek the death penalty for Aaron McKinney seemed to be a gesture of utmost compassion. Instead they were instrumental in forging an agreement that would allow McKinney to serve two consecutive life terms with no possibility of parole. Months earlier his accomplice, Russell Henderson, had already received the same sentence after agreeing to a last-minute plea bargain.

In exchange for life in prison, McKinney relinquished all his rights to appeal. He also agreed to refrain from talking to the media and was required to transfer any future earnings from his story to a foundation the Shepards had established in Matthew's name. For media and public alike, the horrific story of Matthew's murder came to its conclusion that day. As a screenwriter, I, too, saw a natural ending in McKinney's imprisonment for life. Justice had been served, even triumphed, in a fair trial before a jury of his peers in his own hometown. Like many others, I experienced a somber catharsis when Dennis and Judy Shepard demonstrated mercy after McKinney had shown their son only hate.

* * *

On a cold February afternoon in 2000, I picked up a rental car at the Denver airport and made my way north on Interstate 25. I had only been to Wyoming once before, more than a decade earlier, under circumstances that I continued to savor despite my shaky arrival there. The night flight I had taken from Denver to Sheridan ended in an emergency landing after one of the two engines sputtered noisily, then stalled in mid-flight. As the plane jolted and rattled in the inky darkness over the prairie, a lone female flight attendant instructed us to tuck our heads between our legs and grab our ankles tightly because we would be descending fast. No one told us to pray but I could hear frightened murmurs throughout the cabin, including my own.

Somehow the pilots skillfully managed to bring us down on an airstrip in Cheyenne — a breathtaking landing that left no one injured but saw our plane surrounded by rescue crews. Welcome to Wyoming, I remember thinking as everyone on board broke into applause.

The next morning I flew on to Sheridan and began a five-week writing residency at a twenty-thousand-acre cattle ranch in the red-clay foothills of the Big Horn Mountains, home of the Ucross Foundation. Ucross, a speck of a town where a bullet-pocked highway sign still reads POPULATION: 25, has been unchanged for decades. Coming from my native Brooklyn, populated by more than 2 million, I immediately felt my senses being blown open by the boundless solitude and a quiet disrupted only by the lowing of cattle and the bleating of sheep or the occasional truck rumbling along Highway 14.

After several weeks there, an unusual inner tranquility merged with my sometimes-distracted yearning for social contact. Some nights, to offset the lonesome silence after hours at my typewriter, I walked over to Porky's, a homey watering hole just across the blacktop from the ranch. Porky's was also a single-pump gas station serving the local ranchers and people passing through. Along with a handful of other cowboy bars at the edge of the Big Horns, the place was bona fide Wyoming. Icy cold longnecks. An old jukebox stacked with Hank Williams, Vince Gill, and Loretta Lynn. Well-worn pool tables. And on Saturday nights a live musician or band cranking out pure honkytonk. Fresh-faced cowboys and cowgirls barely old enough to drink thought nothing of driving forty or fifty miles for what had to be the sexiest two-stepping in the world.

Even as an outsider it was easy to blend in. People were friendly and unassuming and didn't hesitate to jump into small talk with no introductions. From my spot at the bar I'd watch the couples swaying and gliding across the floor, slowly getting tipsy, flirting coyly like teenagers at a high school dance. A perfectly timed mating ritual, I thought with envy. Most of the cowboys were beefy and well defined. In no time they'd be carrying good-sized guts over their big shiny belt buckles, but right now they were perfect specimens of ruddy virility.

Returning to Wyoming more than ten years later, with still-vivid recollections of its starkly beautiful landscape and bighearted locals, I struggled with the unspeakable brutality of Matthew Shepard's murder. I tried to remember if I had felt safe during my earlier stay in Ucross when I was in my mid-thirties and single. Within the confines of the ranch and surrounding community, yes, I had felt blissfully protected. But I also recalled those nights when I wandered out alone to a few bars and one particular weekend at Porky's when I'd come wildly close to tempting fate. It was my last Saturday night in Ucross, and everyone in the bar seemed to be suffering from a welcome case of spring fever. Brisk wintry smells had disappeared from the air overnight, replaced by something sweeter, more fragrant. I didn't know if it was sagebrush or new grass, but I sucked in the delicious air in long gulps. In a few days I would be back in New York riding the subway.

A good-looking guy named Ron and his winsome girlfriend, Mary Lou, somewhere in their twenties, invited me back to their trailer for more drinking and partying after Porky's closed. Before we left the bar, though, Ron asked me to hop on the back of his motorcycle for a quick spin, while Mary Lou waited. He wanted to show me what a hot bike he had.

Barreling down Highway 14 on that balmy, moonlit night, gripping Ron around the waist as he told me to, I felt exhilarated — all the more so when he pulled off the road onto a dirt trail and cut off the engine. To look at the stars, he said.

Only then, alone with him on the empty prairie, did I realize the danger. It was apparent that Ron was waiting for me to make the first move. Had he ever been with a guy before? Did Mary Lou know this side of him? Maybe he was just shy? Or had he lured me out there to rob me — or worse — under the guise that I'd come on to him?

The two of us stood awkwardly alongside the bike. Even in my light-headed state, something told me to forgo my lust and get back to Porky's as soon as I could. After a long silence I said, "It's amazing out here, Ron — thanks."

He nervously kicked the dirt a few times with the tip of his boot. "Gives you something to remember about Wyoming, huh?"

"We better get back," I answered. "Mary Lou will be sending out a search party."

With a shrug of resignation Ron fired up the bike. "She's back there havin' some fun, I guarantee it."

As we turned onto Highway 14 heading south, the fear lodged in my gut began to dissipate. But there was no way I was going back to their trailer. I'd tell them that I had a lot of packing to do for my trip home.

Back at Porky's the three of us exchanged good-byes with hugs all around. Ron made me promise to look them up the next time I was out that way, but I noticed he never offered a phone number or address.

On my last day in Ucross, I stopped by Porky's to say my farewells to Buzzy, the world-weary bartender, who teased me about "the rollickin' good time" I seemed to be having on Saturday night. I asked him about Ron and Mary Lou. From the way they had monopolized the pool table and dance floor I'd assumed they were regulars.

"Never seen them two before," Buzzy shook his head. "Tell you this, they're not from these parts. No way."

Now as I drove on the outskirts of Cheyenne and veered west onto I-80 for Laramie — a wide-open, gently undulating terrain — I tried to hold those decade-old memories at bay. But with thoughts of Matthew Shepard's beating still churning inside, I was sobered by the knowledge that it could have been me. I also could not shake off what I'd read about "the Old West practice of nailing a dead coyote to a ranch fence as a warning to future intruders."

Several miles before Laramie, the highway curved and descended sharply from a peak I would soon come to know as the Summit, where tractor-trailer accidents are common in icy weather and a massive bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln sits on the top of a thirty-five-foot-tall granite base. As the road dropped, it wound through a rocky canyon, giving no hint of the flat, sprawling prairie that lay ahead until it almost reached the valley floor.

I took the first Laramie exit for Grand Avenue and the University of Wyoming, noticing the usual string of fast-food restaurants, an assortment of suburban-style houses in what looked like a new subdivision, and the ubiquitous Walmart. Sitting smack in the heart of the Rocky Mountain West, Laramie has long been dubbed "Wyoming's hometown." One magazine journalist who reported on Matthew's murder wrote that the town "sits in a flat, treeless sweep of high plains bruised by bad weather," yet she also described Laramie as "the friendliest place I have ever been in America."

But as I drove down the Grand Avenue strip that afternoon, past Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, and Taco John's, I could have been in Anywhere, USA.

Aaron McKinney's highly publicized trial had ended three months before and the entire court record in the Shepard case had recently been unsealed, with the exception of McKinney's and Henderson's juvenile files and Matthew Shepard's psychiatric and other personal records. A court-imposed gag order had also been lifted. Although trial witnesses and other principals in the case, other than McKinney, were finally free to talk, the army of journalists that had inundated the town for more than a year had long since departed.

The following morning, while looking through stacks of case documents in a busy reception area at the Albany County Courthouse, a stately limestone building in Laramie's refurbished downtown, I recognized Cal Rerucha, the prosecutor who had won McKinney's and Henderson's convictions. A robust man with thinning hair, then in his late forties, Rerucha had come across in news reports as stern and uncompromising. He also had a reputation for remaining aloof from the media. But as I watched him move about the third floor of the courthouse, making self-deprecating jokes to his staff and others stopping by on county business, he seemed warm and unaffected. Still somewhat intimidated, I asked if he had a few minutes to talk about the Shepard case.

Rerucha invited me into his spacious but plainly appointed corner office, ushering me past his secretary and others working at their desks, then shut the heavy oak door behind us.


Excerpted from The Book of Matt by Stephen Jimenez. Copyright © 2013 Stephen Jimenez. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Author's Note,
PART ONE: Darkness on the Edge of Town,
One: Father and Son,
Two: Daphne,
Three: The Little Dude,
Four: Spider's Web,
Five: The Letter,
Six: "Life Training",
Seven: Doc's Frontier Village,
Eight: Palomino Drive,
Nine: Wildfire,
Ten: The Bad Karma Kid,
Eleven: The Blue Masque,
Twelve: Indian Springs,
Thirteen: Alibi,
Fourteen: The Mile High City,
Fifteen: Tristen,
Sixteen: The Buck,
Seventeen: Memphis,
Eighteen: Family Circle,
Nineteen: Sleeping Dogs,
PART TWO: The Book Of Matt,
Twenty: One Spring Night,
Twenty-one: The Tornado,
Twenty-two: Friends,
Twenty-three: The Ranger,
Twenty-four: Honor Camp,
Photo Inserts,
Twenty-five: The Library,
Twenty-six: The Fireside Lounge,
Twenty-seven: Sounds of Silence,
Twenty-eight: Witnesses,
Twenty-nine: The Consensus,
Thirty: ACDC,
PART THREE: Rogers Canyon,
Thirty-one: The Little Bastard,
Thirty-two: Shadow People,
Thirty-three: Soldier Girl,
Thirty-four: The Angel of Death,
PART FOUR: The Circle Unbroken,
Thirty-five: Closet Case,
Thirty-six: An Easy Mark,
Thirty-seven: Big Stone Gap,
Thirty-eight: Missing Pieces,
List of Sources,

What People are Saying About This

"In The Book of Matt, Stephen Jimenez steadfastly deconstructs one of modern America's more heinous, shocking, and despicable crimes. But as so often happens during great journeys of careful reporting, he discovers that the truth is far more complicated, and far more fascinating, than the headlines ever suggested. In the tradition of In Cold Blood and The Executioner's Song, this is a work of literary true crime that reaches far beyond the case itself to probe deep and troubling recesses of the American psyche."  — Hampton Sides, bestselling author of Hellhound on His Trail

“Stephen Jimenez’s tireless investigation uncovers a shocking new perspective on the murder of Matthew Shepard. A sympathetic but fearless account of what happened on that terrible night outside Laramie, The Book of Matt provides us for the first time with the real story of an American tragedy.” —Kevin Baker, author of Strivers Row

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The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jimenez is bold and detailed in this gripping account of the Shephard case. As a graduate of the U. of Wyo only a year before this crime occurred, I always felt personally invested. The "facts," as they initially given, never added up. Jimenez dared to dive deeply into this case and expose the craftfully hidden truth. Thank you, Stephen Jimenez, for telling the truth.
jhmJM More than 1 year ago
I did not finish this book. I got about halfway through and realized I was not really interested in the outcome of the story. Matthew Shepard was murdered and those responsible for his death are behind bars. The motive of the perpetrators is not really that interesting.
PhoebeD More than 1 year ago
I lived in the area when this horrible crime occurred, and saw the media hype travesty pushed by the gay rights activists and the liberal media. This book is a refreshing study (written by a gay man) over years following the tragedy, to dig deeper into the people, places, motives and actualities of the Matthew Shepard case. I truly appreciated his willingness to pursue people, build relationships, find truth and take the time to write this book setting many things straight. I hope that many who were propagandized and influenced by the media's lies will read this book and see "the rest of the story."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Book jumps all over the place and puts out things that really aren't new, but wants the reader to think so. Not well written and bored me early on. Finished it, but was not capturing my interest. Didn't like it but had nothing to do with the topic. I think this author's facts are not documented well and not backed up but seemed to be chasing random characters. Wonder if they are really affiliated with Matthew. Anyone can say anything after years and author seems to disregard everything that was done in the past by reports and law enforcement, like what he says is the "Gospel" on Matthew's murder. I agree mainstream media went on a blitz and the story was misreported by many.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This Book Could Have Been Better I have only visited Laramie a few times.  I never thought it fair to paint the entire place as a bunch of gay hating rednecks.  Mr. Jimenez started the book with an interesting premise and interviewed many interesting characters.  I can't remember Russell's last name, but it was interesting how he delved into this character's life and how even prison officials feel he doesn't belong there.  He spends way too much time, though, on methamphetamine users, "methheads", who are basically boring people.  I left the book with a dislike for the Shepherd family, basically feeling bad for the lesser known younger brother.  I would be willing to give the author a second try, though.