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Mother's mission: Matthew Shepard's death changes things

Published October 3, 2008 at 6:24 p.m.

A flag with the University of Wyoming Cowboy emblem stitched on it flaps in the wind in downtown Laramie.

Photo by Darin McGregor

A flag with the University of Wyoming Cowboy emblem stitched on it flaps in the wind in downtown Laramie.

The family rushed to the hospital to be with their dying child. He had been the victim of a savage crime, and the media were gathering outside. Doctors urged the family to comfort their comatose 21-year-old son with familiar things, in case he still had some lingering awareness.

So the room was filled with his favorite sunflowers and the music of John Fogerty and Elton John. His mother wore the French perfume he had given her at Christmas.

"We shut everything else out," the victim's mother recalled last week. "Our focus was Matt."

The focus is still Matt, though the crime happened 10 years ago. And far from shutting everything out, his mother, Judy Shepard, is leading a movement to ensure that her son's death has lasting impact.

The lethal beating of the openly gay Matthew Shepard on Oct. 7, 1998, in Laramie bore all the marks of a robbery that had morphed into a hate crime.

He was found at the outskirts of town, dying beside a stark, wind-battered fence. The fence itself became a potent symbol - almost as iconic as a logo - to underscore the crime's brutality.

Within days, Matthew Shepard's name was on its way to becoming synonymous with gay rights. His death would drive an artistic outpouring of books and dramatic renderings, most notably, The Laramie Project, a "docudrama" that became an award-winning stage hit and later a film, which opened the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

For Judy Shepard, a former stay-at- home mom and schoolteacher, the death of her son turned her into a gay- rights activist and the executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a nonprofit incorporated in Casper, which has an office at 16th Avenue and Lincoln Street in Denver.

Even as Matthew lay dying, "people started sending us money," she recalled during a lunch last week near the family's Casper home.

A foundation to promote gay rights education and legislation seemed the logical place to invest it - and a worthy place for the energy that follows outraged grief:

"This," she said, "is what happens when you p--- off somebody's mom."

'I knew Matthew was gay'

In college, where Judy and husband Dennis met, they both had many gay friends. They weren't perturbed that Matthew was gay.

"I knew Matthew was gay since he was 8," Judy said. "I'm not sure I know why I knew, but I just knew."

Today, the 56-year-old native of Wyoming still bears the porcelain features that resemble photos of her son. Reserved and cautious, she's so soft-spoken one must sometimes strain to hear her above the din of a restaurant. But underneath the polite gentility is a steely "don't mess with me" air.

When the foundation was still just an idea, Shepard wondered if she could make speeches about Matt: "What if I'm terrible at it, and they don't like me?"

Instead, she was good at it. Now she travels six months a year, speaking to groups that range from college audien ces to corporate diversity panels. In Washington, D.C., she's buttonholed politicians and testified at hearings. She tells Matt's story and promotes the full array of gay issues: hate crime legislation, tax and employee benefits, military acceptance, and same-sex marriage.

She's grown more angry with the years.

"In the beginning I was more emotional (speaking) about my family," she said. "Then I became more political, more strident. I'm angry that people are willfully ignorant. They know gay issues are out there. This is a civil rights issue. We should all be angry."

The Shepards' younger son, Logan, now in his late 20s, handles the foundation's communications. Matthew's father, Dennis, has returned to his job as a safety engineer for an oil company in Saudi Arabia. That's where the family of four lived for much of the 1990s.

Though her son's death sparked a movement, a big part of Judy Shepard's message is that he was hardly a saint.

"People call him a martyr, but I take exception to that," she said. "I've tried very hard to keep him real. It's unfair to make him larger than life. He had foibles. He made mistakes. He was not a perfect child by any means.

"When he was killed he was not on a victory march or a protest march or anything that you would consider fighting for gay rights. He was just living his life as a 21-year-old college student who smoked too much, drank too much and didn't study enough.

"He was a college kid trying to figure out his future."

He wasn't a perfect kid

It's unlikely Matthew kept his orientation a secret when he started talking with Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney at a Laramie nightspot called the Fireside Lounge.

What his killers saw was a 5-foot-2, 105-pound University of Wyoming college student - "My son was that big in the fifth grade," recalled Dave O'Malley, the retired police chief who was the crime's chief investigator.

Matthew's persona - well-off and approachable - likely set him up as an easy mark.

"He was always pulled together; his hair was always done - in Wyoming, most people don't take such care in their appearance because the wind is going to mess it up anyway," said Jim Osborn, a friend of Matthew's and a leader in the Laramie gay community.

"He would stop and check himself in the mirror before going out, . . . He was a very friendly person. He could strike up a conversation with a complete stranger."

That night, the strangers persuaded Matthew to leave the bar with them.

"You know, in nature there are animals that are predators who can pick out weaklings, and there are people like that, too, who can identify somebody as a victim," said Jeffrey Donnell, the judge who sentenced Henderson.

"I think there's good evidence it started as a robbery," Donnell said. "Why they picked on him as opposed to somebody else - maybe it was his sexuality; I don't know. It certainly wasn't hard, I understand, to pick up on."

Judy handles questions about the crime with equanimity.

"We will never know what happened that night," she said.

There's speculation the men lured him with the promise of a gay party or drugs: "I know he smoked maybe too much weed; beyond that, I have no idea."

Matthew's head was bashed in with the butt of a .357 magnum, the equivalent of a 3-pound hammer. He died about five days later. Each of the killers is serving two consecutive life sentences somewhere outside the overcrowded Wyoming prison system.

"I don't know where they are," Donnell said. "They sort of disappeared down the black hole of the Department of Corrections."

Matthew, meanwhile, has grown larger than life. Part of the reason, Osborn suggested, is that in Matt, "people saw the boy next door or their grandson or the neighbor down the street."

'Stay safe,' Mom said

Matthew grew up in Casper, about 160 miles from Laramie. By the age of 12, he was acting in community college plays. By high school, he was going by the nickname "Mateo."

When he was a high school junior, his parents, both school teachers, showed their bent as adventurers by moving the family to Saudi Arabia. Matthew spent the summer there and then went to a boarding school in Switzerland, impressing his family with his facility for languages, particularly German.

While she suspected the truth, Judy wanted Matthew to come out to the family about his sexuality when he felt the time was right.

"There was just something that was different than most of his other friends. I've joked that he dressed as Dolly Parton for three Halloweens in a row. Maybe that had something to do with it? Then again, I might be falling into a stereotype. I don't know."

When Matthew finally told his mother during a middle-of-the-night phone call at age 18, she replied, " 'What took you so long?' I told him we loved him, and we were there to support him, and that it made no difference in our family relationships. I told him to stay safe and watch out for his surroundings."

She accepts that Matthew failed to heed her warnings to always practice safe sex. "He didn't really do that," she conceded. After Matthew's death, the family found among his papers the results of his most recent HIV test - a test he had taken every six months.

The July test was negative, his mother said. But a test taken as he lay dying revealed he had just recently turned HIV positive.

"We don't think he knew," she said.

Close in spirit

Dedicated as she is to her son's cause, Judy makes plenty of time for herself. For six months of the year she retreats to the family home in Casper, where she's a moviegoer and a fan of TV crime dramas. She takes care of the pet cats and belongs to a group of Mahjong players. When Dennis returns from his career stint in Saudi Arabia, the couple plan to retire in Casper.

In 10 years, Judy Shepard's greatest fear never materialized - that in death, Matthew would be vilified and victimized all over again.

"It went the other way," she said. Last weekend, a bench was dedicated in his honor in a quiet spot on the campus of the University of Wyoming. In Casper, a downtown United Methodist church has dedicated a "Ring of Peace" memorial.

Matthew's body was cremated. The family planned to scatter his ashes, but could never decide where.

Judy Shepard hesitated.

"Actually - don't print this - well, I guess its OK to print," she said. "Matt's in a bank in a safety deposit box. We think he's very happy there. He had a wonderful sense of humor. I think he would find it most amusing, actually, that he was in a bank."

She doesn't need to go to the bank to stay close.

"I talk to him every day," she said. "Whenever I reach a crisis or a tipping point, some decision to make, it's like, 'OK, Matt, what do I need to do here?' I'm not sure I really hear an answer, but it helps me feel better. I'm talking to myself, probably, but it feels good to do that."

Matthew Shepard Foundation

* Main office: Casper

* Denver office: 1580 Lincoln St.

* Online: Matthew shepard.org

* Foundation priorities: Speaking engagements by Judy Shepard and others; passage of gay-equality legislation, including a federal hate crimes bill it calls the "Matthew Shepard Act;" and a national forum for gay youths, called the Youth First Initiative, which includes access to scholarships.

* Fundraising: It also sells items such as jewelry, T-shirts, posters, books and toys promoting the theme "Erase Hate." In 2005-06 - the most recent years for which IRS figures are available - the nonprofit took in $598,600 during that period, mostly in donations and grants.

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