Nov. 26, 2004 — -- Six years ago, on a cold October night on theoutskirts of Laramie, Wyo., 21-year-old gay collegestudent Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten, tied to afence and left for dead. He was found 18 hours laterand rushed to the hospital, where he lingered on theedge of death for nearly five days before succumbingto his injuries.
The story garnered national attention when the attackwas characterized as a hate crime. But Shepard'skillers, in their first interview since theirconvictions, tell "20/20's" Elizabeth Vargas thatmoney and drugs motivated their actions that night,not hatred of gays.
While Shepard lay unconscious in a hospital, thenational press quickly arrived in Laramie. CalRerucha, who prosecuted the case, told Vargas themedia descended on Laramie "like locusts."
"We knew in the newsroom the day it happened, this isgoing 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, 'thiskid is going to be the new poster child for gayrights," he added. News of Shepard's death sparkedreaction overseas and demonstrations acrossAmerica.
"I think a lot of gay people, when they first heard ofthat horrifying event, felt sort of punched in thestomach. I mean it kind of encapsulated all our fearsof being victimized," said writer Andrew Sullivan, aprominent gay rights advocate.
But as the push for gay rights found new force, so dida corresponding backlash from anti-gay opponents whocame from out of state to grab a piece of the media spotlight.
Tensions were so high that Shepard's father wore abulletproof vest under his suit when he spoke at hisson's funeral service.
"The saddest part of this whole case was at Matthew'sfuneral, when they, these people, refused to letMatthew be buried with dignity," said Rerucha. "Inever saw people that could hate so much."
Local residents Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson,both 21 at the time, were charged with Shepard'smurder. Henderson's case came before the court first.To avoid the possibility of receiving the deathpenalty, he pleaded guilty to murder and kidnappingand received two consecutive life terms in prison.
McKinney's case went to trial a year after Shepard'sdeath. He was convicted of felony murder, aggravatedrobbery and kidnapping. Before the jury was about todecide his sentence, he, too, reached a deal thatallowed him to avoid a possible death penalty. Bothmen 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 -- nowsay the real story is not what it seemed.
Many area residents were shocked that the crime wascommitted by two young men from their community. Butboth McKinney and Henderson came from classicallytroubled backgrounds.
Henderson was born to a teenage alcoholic and raisedwithout a father. He says he saw his mother beingbeaten up by a series of boyfriends, some of whom also assaulted Henderson.
McKinney's childhood, too, was less thanpicture-perfect. His father, a long-haul trucker, wasrarely home and eventually divorced McKinney's mother,a nurse who later died as a result of a botchedsurgery. McKinney received a malpractice settlement ofnearly $100,000 after his mother's death. He says hespent most of that money on things like cars anddrugs.
McKinney admits to Vargas that by the time he was 18he had a serious methamphetamine habit.
Despite his strong family life, Shepard had troublesof his own. His mother, Judy Shepard, says her son'sproblems had started three years earlier during a highschool trip to Morocco, where he was beaten andraped.
"It made him pull within himself. He became withdrawn, depression, panic attacks," she said.
Some of Shepard's friends say he was still a troubledyoung man when he enrolled at the University ofWyoming in the fall of 1998.
Tom O'Connor, known as "Doc," who ran a limousineservice and sometimes drove Shepard, said just daysbefore Shepard's death, Matt told him he wasHIV-positive and was considering suicide.
One of Shepard's college friends, Tina LaBrie, wasconcerned that Shepard's depression might be somehowconnected 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-knownwith the methamphetamine crowd, according to RyanBopp, who was one of McKinney's friends and drugassociates at the time. By the fall of 1998, McKinneyhad blown through his inheritance and was now theparent of a new baby with his girlfriend, KristenPrice.
"I think he was really torn because it is thedesperation of getting your fix or taking care of yourfamily," Price said. In the days leading up to theattack on Shepard, she said, McKinney was using methamphetamine every day.
Bopp, who says he left Laramie and the drug worldbehind six years ago, told "20/20" that he andMcKinney had been on a drug binge in the week leadingup to the attack on Shepard.
"Aaron and I had been awake for about a week or soprior to this whole thing happening ," Bopp said. "Wewere on a hard-core bender that week."
Bopp also admits that a week before the murder he wasso desperate for methamphetamine, that he tradedMcKinney a .357-Magnum pistol in exchange for one gramof methamphetamine. McKinney would later use thatweapon to beat Shepard.
McKinney told Vargas he set out the night of Oct. 6,1998, to rob a drug dealer of $10,000 worth ofmethamphetamine. But after several attempts, McKinneywas not able to carry out his plan.
Henderson said he thought if he could keep McKinneydrinking, he'd forget the robbery plan.
But according to McKinney, when he encountered Shepardat the Fireside Lounge, he saw an easy mark.
McKinney told "20/20" Shepard was well-dressed andassumed he had a lot of cash.
Shepard was sitting at the bar, McKinney recalls. "Hesaid he was too drunk to go home. And then he asked meif I'd give him a ride. So I thought, yeah, sure, whatthe hell," according to McKinney.
All three got in the front seat of McKinney's pickup,and Henderson took the wheel. McKinney told policethat at some point Shepard reached over and grabbedhis leg. In response, McKinney said, he hit him withhis pistol. "I was getting ready to pull it on himanyway," he said.
McKinney says he asked for, and got, Shepard's wallet,which had only $30 in it. But even though Shepardhanded over his money, McKinney continued beatinghim.
When pressed by Vargas as to why he continued beatingShepard after he had already taken his wallet,McKinney said, "Sometimes when you have that kind ofrage going through you, there's no stopping it. I'veattacked my best friends coming off of meth binges."
McKinney says he directed Henderson to drive the truckto a secluded spot on the outskirts of Laramie so theycould leave Shepard and have time to get away. Theystopped at a wooden buck fence and took Shepard fromthe truck.
On McKinney's instructions, Henderson got a rope fromthe truck and tied Shepard to a fence post. Hendersonclaims at some point he tried, but failed, to stopMcKinney from beating Shepard further.
In a statement to the court, Henderson said McKinneystruck him across the face with the gun when he triedto stop the continued beating of Shepard.
Henderson retreated to the truck, leaving McKinneyalone with Shepard at the fence. McKinney tells"20/20" he fears these last blows he dealt Shepard atthe fence were the fatal blows.
McKinney took Shepard's wallet and his shoes, got backin the truck and told Henderson to drive to town. Hesays his plan was to burglarize Shepard's apartment.But when they parked the truck they encountered twoyoung men who police say were vandalizing cars.Hostile words led to a fight and for the second timethat night, McKinney went on the attack.
One of the men was struck so hard his skull wasfractured. The injured man's friend retaliated,slamming McKinney in the head with a small bat.Everyone fled, just before a police car happened onthe scene.
Sgt. Flint Waters gave chase and grabbed Henderson.Then he discovered some key evidence that wouldlater be used to link Henderson and McKinney to theattack on Shepard.
"I looked in the back of the truck and laying in theback of the truck was a large-frame revolver. Thething was huge, like an 8-inch barrel that had bloodall over it. And there was some rope and a coat inthe truck; there was I believe a shoe sitting in thefront. ... Seeing that the gun covered in blood, Iassumed that there was a lot more going on than whatwe'd stumbled onto so far," he said.
With that much evidence and McKinney's laterconfession, the attack on Shepard was not a hard caseto solve. McKinney and Henderson were charged withmurder. The mystery in this story was not who did it,but why?
Just hours after Shepard's battered body wasdiscovered, 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 theattack in 1998, "I know in the core of my heart ithappened because he revealed he was gay. And it'schilling. 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 statementsmade 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 shethought things would go easier for McKinney if hisviolence were seen as a panic reaction to an unwantedgay sexual advance.
But today, Price tells Vargas the initial statementsshe made were not true and tells Vargas that McKinney'smotive was money and drugs. "I don't think it was ahate crime at all. I never did," she said.
Former Laramie Police Detective Ben Fritzen, one ofthe lead investigators in the case, also believedrobbery was the primary motive. "Matthew Shepard'ssexual preference or sexual orientation certainlywasn't the motive in the homicide," he said.
"If it wasn't Shepard, they would have found anothereasy target. What it came down to really is drugs andmoney and two punks that were out looking for it,"Fritzen said.
Asked directly whether he targeted and attackedShepard because he was gay, McKinney told Vargas, "No.I did not. ... I would say it wasn't a hate crime. AllI wanted to do was beat him up and rob him."
But if the attackers were just trying to rob someoneto get a drug fix, why did they beat Shepard sosavagely?
Rerucha attributes McKinney's rage and his savagebeating of Shepard to his drug abuse. "Themethamphetamine just fueled to this point where therewas no control. It was a horrible, horrible, horriblemurder. It was a murder that was once again driven bydrugs," Rerucha said.
Dr. Rick Rawson, a professor at UCLA who has studiedthe link between methamphetamine and violence, tells"20/20" the drug can trigger episodes of violentbehavior.
"In the first weeks after you've stopped using it, thekinds of triggers that can set off an episode arecompletely unpredictable. It can be: you say a wordwith the wrong inflection, you touch someone on theshoulder. It's completely unpredictable as to whatwill 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 thatMcKinney and Shepard had never met before theirfateful encounter at the Fireside Lounge. But a numberof sources tell "20/20" the two were not strangers.
"Everybody knew Matt Shepard was a partier just likeAaron, just like the rest of us," said Bopp.
In fact, Bopp said he had seen Shepard and McKinneytogether at parties. "Aaron was selling [drugs] andhim and Matt would go off to the side and they'd comeback. And Matt would be doing some meth then," hesaid.
Though they frequented the same party scene, McKinneymaintains he had never met Shepard before the night ofthe crime and wonders why people might say he had."I've never met him. ... Maybe they seen us somewherein the same spot or something. I don't know," McKinneysaid.
A bartender familiar with the local drug scene, whoasked to be identified only as "Jean," says she wasfriendly with Shepard. She also says McKinney andShepard 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 alsosaw McKinney and Shepard together in a socialsituation. Several weeks before the murder, she spenta night on the town in Doc O'Connor's limousine with agroup 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 peoplewho knew him also suspected the drug scene mightsomehow be involved.
In fact, former Laramie police Cmdr. Dave O'Malley gota call from a friend of Shepard suggesting that.Nevertheless, O'Malley doesn't believe drug usemotivated the attackers.
"I really don't think he was in amethamphetamine-induced rage when this happened. Idon't buy it at all," O'Malley said. "I feelcomfortable in my own heart that they did what theydid to Matt because they [had] hatred toward him forbeing gay," he said.
Shepard's mother, Judy, also said she doesn'tbuy into theories that the attack was primarily drivenby drugs and money rather than hatred of her son's homosexuality.
"I'm just not buying into that. There were a lot ofthings going on that night, and hate was one of them,and they murdered my son ultimately. Anything else wefind out just doesn't, just doesn't change that fact,"she said.
O'Connor had known Aaron McKinney for years. In flushtimes, McKinney partied in O'Connor's limos, and, infact, McKinney and his girlfriend lived for a while inan apartment on O'Connor's property.
O'Connor says he never heard McKinney express anyanti-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, twoguys and one gal," he said. "Because he did it withme."
O'Connor added, "I know he's bisexual. There ain't nodoubt in my mind. He is bisexual."
McKinney's former girlfriend Price says she nowbelieves that as well. "He was always into trying totalk me into having a three-way with one of his guyfriends," she said.
In her prison interview with McKinney, Vargas askedMcKinney directly whether he had had any sexualencounters with men. McKinney said no.
Displaying a strong aversion to homosexual sex was atactic McKinney tried at his trial. His lawyersdeveloped a so-called "gay panic defense," claiminghomosexual abuse McKinney suffered as a child causedhim to overreact to a sexual advance by Shepard andtriggered the violent attack.
Hoping a Wyoming jury would be sympathetic to gaypanic did not pay off. McKinney was found guilty andwound up with two life sentences, assuring he'll spendthe rest of his life in prison, the same sentencereceived by his accomplice Russell Henderson.
"It's really hard for me to talk to Russ," McKinneysaid. "To see him in this situation, knowing that I'mthe one that put him here."
But Henderson said he realizes he bears responsibilityfor Shepard's death.
"For a long time I thought that his death wasn't myfault. 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 hisactions that night. "I'm sorry to the Shepard family.They've had the hardest of all this. I'm sorry to thenation as a whole because this affected a lot ofpeople 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 LaramieProject." The drama is often used in schools, as alesson in the insidious workings of hate andprejudice, and has become one of the most producedtheater pieces in America. There was also a smallscreen version of the drama on HBO.
Shepard's mother has created The Matthew ShepardFoundation, dedicated to promoting tolerance anddiversity, lobbying for hate-crime legislation, andassuring Matthew's legacy will be a positive one.