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.
McKinney's childhood, too, was less than picture-perfect. His father, a long-haul trucker, was rarely home and eventually divorced McKinney's mother, a nurse who later died as a result of a botched surgery. McKinney received a malpractice settlement of nearly $100,000 after his mother's death. He says he spent most of that money on things like cars and drugs.
McKinney admits to Vargas that by the time he was 18 he had a serious methamphetamine habit.
Despite his strong family life, Shepard had troubles of his own. His mother, Judy Shepard, says her son's problems had started three years earlier during a high school trip to Morocco, where he was beaten and raped.
"It made him pull within himself. He became withdrawn, depression, panic attacks," she said.
Some of Shepard's friends say he was still a troubled young man when he enrolled at the University of Wyoming in the fall of 1998.
Tom O'Connor, known as "Doc," who ran a limousine service and sometimes drove Shepard, said just days before Shepard's death, Matt told him he was HIV-positive and was considering suicide.
One of Shepard's college friends, Tina LaBrie, was concerned that Shepard's depression might be somehow connected to involvement with drugs. "He said 'Everywhere I move, it seems like I get sucked into the drug scene,'" LaBrie told Vargas.
As a heavy user and a dealer, McKinney was well-known with the methamphetamine crowd, according to Ryan Bopp, who was one of McKinney's friends and drug associates at the time. By the fall of 1998, McKinney had blown through his inheritance and was now the parent of a new baby with his girlfriend, Kristen Price.
"I think he was really torn because it is the desperation of getting your fix or taking care of your family," Price said. In the days leading up to the attack on Shepard, she said, McKinney was using methamphetamine every day.
Bopp, who says he left Laramie and the drug world behind six years ago, told "20/20" that he and McKinney had been on a drug binge in the week leading up to the attack on Shepard.
"Aaron and I had been awake for about a week or so prior to this whole thing happening ," Bopp said. "We were on a hard-core bender that week."
Bopp also admits that a week before the murder he was so desperate for methamphetamine, that he traded McKinney a .357-Magnum pistol in exchange for one gram of methamphetamine. McKinney would later use that weapon to beat Shepard.
McKinney told Vargas he set out the night of Oct. 6, 1998, to rob a drug dealer of $10,000 worth of methamphetamine. But after several attempts, McKinney was not able to carry out his plan.
Henderson said he thought if he could keep McKinney drinking, he'd forget the robbery plan.
But according to McKinney, when he encountered Shepard at the Fireside Lounge, he saw an easy mark.
McKinney told "20/20" Shepard was well-dressed and assumed he had a lot of cash.
Shepard was sitting at the bar, McKinney recalls. "He said he was too drunk to go home. And then he asked me if I'd give him a ride. So I thought, yeah, sure, what the hell," according to McKinney.
All three got in the front seat of McKinney's pickup, and Henderson took the wheel. McKinney told police that at some point Shepard reached over and grabbed his leg. In response, McKinney said, he hit him with his pistol. "I was getting ready to pull it on him anyway," he said.
McKinney says he asked for, and got, Shepard's wallet, which had only $30 in it. But even though Shepard handed over his money, McKinney continued beating him.
When pressed by Vargas as to why he continued beating Shepard after he had already taken his wallet, McKinney said, "Sometimes when you have that kind of rage going through you, there's no stopping it. I've attacked my best friends coming off of meth binges."
McKinney says he directed Henderson to drive the truck to a secluded spot on the outskirts of Laramie so they could leave Shepard and have time to get away. They stopped at a wooden buck fence and took Shepard from the truck.
On McKinney's instructions, Henderson got a rope from the truck and tied Shepard to a fence post. Henderson claims at some point he tried, but failed, to stop McKinney from beating Shepard further.
In a statement to the court, Henderson said McKinney struck him across the face with the gun when he tried to stop the continued beating of Shepard.
Henderson retreated to the truck, leaving McKinney alone with Shepard at the fence. McKinney tells "20/20" he fears these last blows he dealt Shepard at the fence were the fatal blows.
McKinney took Shepard's wallet and his shoes, got back in the truck and told Henderson to drive to town. He says his plan was to burglarize Shepard's apartment. But when they parked the truck they encountered two young men who police say were vandalizing cars. Hostile words led to a fight and for the second time that night, McKinney went on the attack.
One of the men was struck so hard his skull was fractured. The injured man's friend retaliated, slamming McKinney in the head with a small bat. Everyone fled, just before a police car happened on the scene.
Sgt. Flint Waters gave chase and grabbed Henderson. Then he discovered some key evidence that would later be used to link Henderson and McKinney to the attack on Shepard.
"I looked in the back of the truck and laying in the back of the truck was a large-frame revolver. The thing was huge, like an 8-inch barrel that had blood all over it. And there was some rope and a coat in the truck; there was I believe a shoe sitting in the front. ... Seeing that the gun covered in blood, I assumed that there was a lot more going on than what we'd stumbled onto so far," he said.
With that much evidence and McKinney's later confession, the attack on Shepard was not a hard case to solve. McKinney and Henderson were charged with murder. The mystery in this story was not who did it, but why?
Just hours after Shepard's battered body was discovered, and before anyone knew who had beaten him, Shepard's friends Walt Boulden and Alex Trout began spreading the word that Shepard was openly gay and that they were concerned the attack may have been a gay-bashing.
Boulden told "20/20" in an interview shortly after the attack in 1998, "I know in the core of my heart it happened because he revealed he was gay. And it's chilling. They targeted him because he was gay."
Prosecutor Rerucha recalls that Shepard's friends also contacted his office. Rerucha told "20/20," "They were calling the County Attorney's office, they were calling the media and indicating Matthew Shepard is gay and we don't want the fact that he is gay to go unnoticed."
Helping fuel the gay hate crime theory were statements made to police and the media by Kristen Price, McKinney's girlfriend. (Price was charged with felony accessory after-the-fact to first-degree murder. She later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor interference with police officers.)
Price now says that at the time of the crime she thought things would go easier for McKinney if his violence were seen as a panic reaction to an unwanted gay sexual advance.
But today, Price tells Vargas the initial statements she made were not true and tells Vargas that McKinney's motive was money and drugs. "I don't think it was a hate crime at all. I never did," she said.
Former Laramie Police Detective Ben Fritzen, one of the lead investigators in the case, also believed robbery was the primary motive. "Matthew Shepard's sexual preference or sexual orientation certainly wasn't the motive in the homicide," he said.
"If it wasn't Shepard, they would have found another easy target. What it came down to really is drugs and money and two punks that were out looking for it," Fritzen said.
Asked directly whether he targeted and attacked Shepard because he was gay, McKinney told Vargas, "No. I did not. ... I would say it wasn't a hate crime. All I wanted to do was beat him up and rob him."
But if the attackers were just trying to rob someone to get a drug fix, why did they beat Shepard so savagely?
Rerucha attributes McKinney's rage and his savage beating of Shepard to his drug abuse. "The methamphetamine just fueled to this point where there was no control. It was a horrible, horrible, horrible murder. It was a murder that was once again driven by drugs," Rerucha said.
Dr. Rick Rawson, a professor at UCLA who has studied the link between methamphetamine and violence, tells "20/20" the drug can trigger episodes of violent behavior.
"In the first weeks after you've stopped using it, the kinds of triggers that can set off an episode are completely unpredictable. It can be: you say a word with the wrong inflection, you touch someone on the shoulder. It's completely unpredictable as to what will set somebody off" Rawson said.
"If Aaron McKinney had not become involved with methamphetamine, Matthew Shepard would be alive today," Rerucha said.
Another widely held belief about the case is that McKinney and Shepard had never met before their fateful encounter at the Fireside Lounge. But a number of sources tell "20/20" the two were not strangers.
"Everybody knew Matt Shepard was a partier just like Aaron, just like the rest of us," said Bopp.
In fact, Bopp said he had seen Shepard and McKinney together at parties. "Aaron was selling [drugs] and him and Matt would go off to the side and they'd come back. And Matt would be doing some meth then," he said.
Though they frequented the same party scene, McKinney maintains he had never met Shepard before the night of the crime and wonders why people might say he had. "I've never met him. ... Maybe they seen us somewhere in the same spot or something. I don't know," McKinney said.
A bartender familiar with the local drug scene, who asked to be identified only as "Jean," says she was friendly with Shepard. She also says McKinney and Shepard knew each other.
When she learned of the beating, she said, she recalls thinking, "It's either money or dope, yeah. He'd be the perfect target especially because Aaron knew him."
Another Laramie resident, Elaine Baker, says she also saw McKinney and Shepard together in a social situation. Several weeks before the murder, she spent a night on the town in Doc O'Connor's limousine with a group that included both McKinney and Shepard.
"In the back of the limo, there was me, Stephanie, Doc, Aaron, Matthew Shepard," she said.
As word spread of the attack on Shepard, other people who knew him also suspected the drug scene might somehow be involved.
In fact, former Laramie police Cmdr. Dave O'Malley got a call from a friend of Shepard suggesting that. Nevertheless, O'Malley doesn't believe drug use motivated the attackers.
"I really don't think he was in a methamphetamine-induced rage when this happened. I don't buy it at all," O'Malley said. "I feel comfortable in my own heart that they did what they did to Matt because they [had] hatred toward him for being gay," he said.
Shepard's mother, Judy, also said she doesn't buy into theories that the attack was primarily driven by drugs and money rather than hatred of her son's homosexuality.
"I'm just not buying into that. There were a lot of things going on that night, and hate was one of them, and they murdered my son ultimately. Anything else we find out just doesn't, just doesn't change that fact," she said.
O'Connor had known Aaron McKinney for years. In flush times, McKinney partied in O'Connor's limos, and, in fact, McKinney and his girlfriend lived for a while in an apartment on O'Connor's property.
O'Connor says he never heard McKinney express any anti-gay attitudes. In his interview with Vargas, O'Connor reveals his belief that McKinney is bisexual. "I know of an instance where he had a three-way, two guys and one gal," he said. "Because he did it with me."
O'Connor added, "I know he's bisexual. There ain't no doubt in my mind. He is bisexual."
McKinney's former girlfriend Price says she now believes that as well. "He was always into trying to talk me into having a three-way with one of his guy friends," she said.
In her prison interview with McKinney, Vargas asked McKinney directly whether he had had any sexual encounters with men. McKinney said no.
Displaying a strong aversion to homosexual sex was a tactic McKinney tried at his trial. His lawyers developed a so-called "gay panic defense," claiming homosexual abuse McKinney suffered as a child caused him to overreact to a sexual advance by Shepard and triggered the violent attack.
Hoping a Wyoming jury would be sympathetic to gay panic did not pay off. McKinney was found guilty and wound up with two life sentences, assuring he'll spend the rest of his life in prison, the same sentence received by his accomplice Russell Henderson.
"It's really hard for me to talk to Russ," McKinney said. "To see him in this situation, knowing that I'm the one that put him here."
But Henderson said he realizes he bears responsibility for Shepard's death.
"For a long time I thought that his death wasn't my fault. And then, as time has gone on, I got a better understanding to know that I could have prevented it and I could have stopped it, but I didn't. Matthew died because I didn't stop it," he said.
Henderson also expresses regret and remorse for his actions that night. "I'm sorry to the Shepard family. They've had the hardest of all this. I'm sorry to the nation as a whole because this affected a lot of people and I wish every day I could change or fix it," he said.
Shepard's story has been told in documentaries, television movies, and a play called "The Laramie Project." The drama is often used in schools, as a lesson in the insidious workings of hate and prejudice, and has become one of the most produced theater pieces in America. There was also a small screen version of the drama on HBO.
Shepard's mother has created The Matthew Shepard Foundation, dedicated to promoting tolerance and diversity, lobbying for hate-crime legislation, and assuring Matthew's legacy will be a positive one.