New Details Emerge in Matthew Shepard Murder
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.