Six years ago, on a cold October night on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo., 21-year-old gay college student Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead. He was found 18 hours later and rushed to the hospital, where he lingered on the edge of death for nearly five days before succumbing to his injuries.
The story garnered national attention when the attack was characterized as a hate crime. But Shepard's killers, in their first interview since their convictions, tell "20/20's" Elizabeth Vargas that money and drugs motivated their actions that night, not hatred of gays.
While Shepard lay unconscious in a hospital, the
national press quickly arrived in Laramie. Cal Rerucha, who prosecuted the case, told Vargas the media descended on Laramie "like locusts."
"We knew in the newsroom the day it happened, this is going to be a huge story, this is going to attract international interest," said Jason Marsden of "The Casper Star-Tribune."
"I remember one of my fellow reporters saying, 'this kid is going to be the new poster child for gay rights," he added. News of Shepard's death sparked reaction overseas and demonstrations across America.
"I think a lot of gay people, when they first heard of that horrifying event, felt sort of punched in the stomach. I mean it kind of encapsulated all our fears of being victimized," said writer Andrew Sullivan, a prominent gay rights advocate.
But as the push for gay rights found new force, so did a corresponding backlash from anti-gay opponents who came from out of state to grab a piece of the media spotlight.
Tensions were so high that Shepard's father wore a bulletproof vest under his suit when he spoke at his son's funeral service.
"The saddest part of this whole case was at Matthew's funeral, when they, these people, refused to let Matthew be buried with dignity," said Rerucha. "I never saw people that could hate so much."
Local residents Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, both 21 at the time, were charged with Shepard's murder. Henderson's case came before the court first. To avoid the possibility of receiving the death penalty, he pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping and received two consecutive life terms in prison.
McKinney's case went to trial a year after Shepard's death. He was convicted of felony murder, aggravated robbery and kidnapping. Before the jury was about to decide his sentence, he, too, reached a deal that allowed him to avoid a possible death penalty. Both men are serving double life sentences in prison.
Authorities asked "20/20" not to disclose the prison location.
While McKinney and Henderson admit to killing Shepard, both men -- and the man who prosecuted the case -- now say the real story is not what it seemed.
Many area residents were shocked that the crime was committed by two young men from their community. But both McKinney and Henderson came from classically troubled backgrounds.
Henderson was born to a teenage alcoholic and raised without a father. He says he saw his mother being beaten up by a series of boyfriends, some of whom also assaulted Henderson.