Biographical / Historical
The life and death of Matthew Shepard have been documented in numerous biographies, motion pictures, and newsprint.
Matthew Wayne Shepard was born on December 1, 1976 in Casper, Wyoming to Judy Peck and Dennis Wayne Shepard. Shepard's early life was spent in Casper, where he attended elementary school, junior high, and high school till the tenth grade. While living in Casper, he participated in local productions at theater companies based in Casper. One of his school projects involved bringing awareness to recycling. He was so successful that he was appointed as the young adult representative to the governor's initiaive on state-wide recycling. In his junior year of high school, Shepard left Casper to attend The American School in Switzerland (TASIS). At that time his mother Judy and younger brother Logan joined Dennis Shepard in Saudi Arabia where Dennis was employed by SAUDI ARAMCO.
While attending TASIS on a school trip to Morocco Shepard was raped by one or more unknown assailants. Although the crime was reported, the perpetrators were never apprehended. This emotional and physical trauma stayed with Shepard the remainder of his life. After graduation from TASIS, Shepard briefly attended Catawba College in Salisbury, North Carolina. After leaving Catawba he moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, and then returned to Casper, where he enrolled in Casper College, the local community college. He briefly moved to Denver, Colorado, before deciding to enter the Universty of Wyoming in Laramie, his parents' alma mater. He was admitted for the 1998-1999 school year to the University of Wyoming.
It was while living in Laramie on the evening of October 6, 1998 that Shepard crossed paths with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson at the Fireside Lounge. McKinney and Henderson later drove him to a location outside Laramie, where they tied Shepard to a split-rail fence, robbed, and beat him senseless with the butt of a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum revolver. After beating him they stole his shoes and left him in the near-freezing temperatures.
Shepard was discovered 18 hours later by Aaron Kreifels. He was first transported to Ivinson Hospital in Laramie, and upon the discovery of the severity of his injuries he was transferred to the Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. His parents immediately flew from Saudi Arabia and were with him when he died in the early morning hours of October 12, 1998.
McKinney and Henderson were arrested and charged. They maintained what is known as a "gay panic defense" claiming Shepard had made sexual overtures to one or both of them. This was ultimately not allowed. Henderson pleaded guilty to the charges of felony murder and kidnapping. McKinney went to trial also facing charges of felony murder and kidnapping. When found guilty, McKinney faced the possibility of the death penalty, but upon the Shepard family's request he received two consecutive life sentences, as had Henderson.
The death of Matthew on October 12, 1998 resulted in an unprecedented national and international outpouring of sympathy and reflection from the public at large. Cards, letters, and donations to what became the Matthew Shepard Foundation were received from not only the United States but the world. The response was overwhelming, many writing, "to express their concern and sorrow about what had happened to Matt and to us as his parents," in the words of Dennis Shepard. Shepard's Celebration of Life was held at the family's home church, St. Mark's Episcopal, in Casper, Wyoming. Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funeral.
Over a ten-year period, Judy Shepard and the Matthew Shepard Foundation fought for national hate crime legislation. It was not until 2009 that Congress passed The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, on October 22. President Barack Obama signed the act into law on October 28. The Foundation continues to this day bringing good from evil, empowering individuals, ". . . to embrace human dignity and diversity through outreach, advocacy and resource programs," and, ". . . to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance."
Shepard's ashes were inurned at the Washington National Cathedral in October 2018.
The Meaning of Matthew, My Son's Murder in Laramie and a World Transformed
. New York, New York: Hudson Street Press, 2009.
Matthew Shepard Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
St. Mark's Episcopal Church website: http://stmarks.diowy.org/ accessed August 2018.
Matthew Shepard Foundation website: https://www.matthewshepard.org/ accessed August 2018.