My last blog post discussed the case of Christopher Wilder, an Australian serial killer who terrorized the United States in 1984. This week, we look at the murder of Matthew Shepard. In 1998, two young men abducted Shepard, tortured him, and left him to die.
Matthew Shepard was born in 1976 in Casper, Wyoming. He and his younger brother attended schools in Casper through Matthew’s junior year in high school.
In 1994, Matthew’s father took a job with the Saudi Arabian Oil Group and moved the family to a residential camp in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Matthew studied at the American School in Switzerland for his senior year of high school, graduating in May 1995.
After high school, Matthew first studied at Catawba College in North Carolina and Casper College in Wyoming. He then enrolled in the University of Wyoming in Laramie as a political science major.
Murder of Matthew Shepard
On October 6, 1998, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson approached Matthew in Laramie’s Fireside Lounge. McKinney and Henderson offered to give Matthew a ride home. Instead, they drove to a remote area and proceeded to rob, pistol-whip, and torture him. They concluded the attack by tying him to a split rail fence and leaving him to die. (News reports erroneously identified the fence as barbed wire.)
McKinney and Henderson returned to town after attacking Matthew, leaving him tied to the fence in near-freezing temperatures. McKinney proceeded to pick a fight with two men, nineteen-year-old Emiliano Morales and eighteen-year-old Jeremy Herrara. The fight resulted in head wounds for both Morales and McKinney. Police officer Flint Waters arrived at the scene of the fight and arrested Henderson. When he searched McKinney’s truck, he found a blood-smeared gun. He also found Shepard’s shoes and credit card. Henderson and McKinney later tried to persuade their girlfriends to provide alibis for them and help them dispose of evidence.
Eighteen hours after the attack, a cyclist, Aaron Kreifels, discovered Matthew still tied to the fence. (Kreifels first thought the young man he saw was a scarecrow.) Shepard was in a coma but still alive—barely. First responders took him to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie. However, doctors soon transferred him to the more advanced trauma ward at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Matthew’s head injuries affected his body’s ability to regulate his vital functions and were too severe for doctors to operate. He died six days after the attack on October 12, 1998. He was twenty-one.
Matthew Shepard’s Killers Face Justice
Police arrested McKinney and Henderson and charged them with attempted murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. After Matthew died, they upgraded charges from attempted murder to first-degree murder. Authorities charged their girlfriends, Kristen Price and Chasity Pasley, with being accessories after the fact.
There was some controversy over the motivation for this heinous crime. Sergeant Rob Debree testified that McKinney had stated in an interview that he and Henderson had identified Matthew as a robbery target and pretended to be gay to lure him out to their truck. McKinney further stated that McKinney had attacked Shepard after Shepard put his hand on McKinney’s knee. Price told another detective that McKinney told her McKinney’s feelings about gays triggered the violence against Matthew.
In December 1998, Pasley pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to first-degree murder. Henderson avoided going to trial by pleading guilty to murder and kidnapping charges on April 5, 1999. District Judge Jeffrey A. Donnell sentenced him to two consecutive life terms despite Henderson’s lawyer arguing that he had not targeted Matthew because he was gay. Henderson avoided the death penalty by agreeing to testify against McKinney.
McKinney’s trial took place in October and November 1999. Prosecutor Cal Rerucha alleged that McKinney and Henderson pretended to be gay to gain Shepard’s trust. McKinney’s lawyer attempted to put forward a gay panic defense, arguing that McKinney was driven temporarily insane by Matthew’s sexual advances. The judge promptly rejected this defense. Rerucha argued that the killing had been premeditated, driven by “greed and violence” rather than Shepard’s sexual orientation. The jury convicted McKinney of felony murder.
Matthew’s parents brokered a deal that resulted in McKinney receiving two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.
Following her testimony at McKinney’s trial, Price pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor interference with a police officer.
Despite disagreements over whether Matthew’s being gay was a motivation, his murder is generally considered a hate crime.
Today (2023), Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson are forty-five years old. McKinney resides at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, while Henderson is at the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington.
In 2009, Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard, wrote a book, The Meaning of Matthew, about her son’s life and death.
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