The Magazine

What Happened in Laramie

Everything you know about Matthew Shepard is wrong

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Stephen Jimenez sounds remarkably chipper on the phone when he calls in from Portland, his thirteenth city on a seemingly endless book tour. He’s plugging The Book of Matt, and the reason he’s chipper is that he hasn’t been burned in effigy, yet, or heckled mercilessly, yet, or denounced, at least by anybody that really matters, as a traitor to the cause. Yet. 

Shepard

Matthew Shepard, left, and Aaron McKinney

The “cause” in this case would be gay rights, in all of its astounding exfoliations. Jimenez’s book threatens to uproot a foundational myth of the movement: that the murder of a University of Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard, in 1998, was a “hate crime.” 

The approved account, received for 15 years now as both a horror and an inspiration, tells us that Shepard was approached in a bar one night by two strangers, who drove him to the outskirts of Laramie and then beat him nearly to death with the butt of a .357 Magnum pistol, for the simple reason that he was homosexual. One of the blows fell so hard it pushed Shepard’s brain into his brain stem, cracking it. He was found the next morning tied to a rail fence crucifixion-style, after 18 hours in near-freezing temperatures, comatose. 

Even before his death five days later, Shepard had been made a symbol, thanks to quick work by mainchancers from national gay rights organizations and by compliant reporters from back East, who found in the story a ready-made example of the intolerance, cruelty, violence, and raging homophobia of America’s flyover country, Western States Division.

Well, no, says Stephen Jimenez. Beginning as a self-described amateur journalist (the best kind), he studied Shepard’s murder off and on for 13 years, conducted hundreds of interviews with sources on and off the record, and pored over a public record many thousands of pages long. His comprehensive account corrects the approved version in small matters and large. Shepard was not tied to the rail fence as if crucified, for example, and it’s still not clear, even after Jimenez’s exhaustive reporting, how this piece of misinformation became common knowledge—beyond the obvious explanation that reporters thought the detail was, as the saying goes, too good to check. 

More surprisingly, Jimenez concludes that Shepard’s death had nothing to do with homophobia. It was instead the horrific result of a drug deal gone wrong. Indeed, in The Book of Matt, Jimenez offers lots of circumstantial evidence that Shepard and one of his murderers, a violent and drug-addled bit of tumbleweed called Aaron McKinney, were rival dealers in crystal meth. Several named witnesses told Jimenez that the two even had a sexual relationship. 

“I knew in writing the book that it would stir up a lot of questions, a lot of conversation,” Jimenez said on the phone, “and it has!”

As an author hoping to sell his book to the widest possible public, Jimenez says he worried that in debunking an important piece of left-wing mythology the book might become a conservative cause célèbre—thereby alienating, Coulter-style, the far larger audience of nonconservative book buyers. Jimenez himself is clearly a man of the left, and gay too, and briefly it looked as though his fear might be well placed. Breitbart.com, World Net Daily, PJ Media, and Gateway Pundit all hailed the book weeks before its publication date. “NO H8?” read the Breitbart headline, a little too cleverly, “bombshell book: matthew shepard tortured, murdered by gay lover.” 

For the most part the conservative press was undeterred by the fact that The Book of Matt, as impressive as it is for the author’s tirelessness and courage, is something of a mess. When it comes to gay true-crime investigator-writers, Jimenez is no Truman Capote. He has chosen to tell the story of Shepard’s life and death through a first-person account of his own investigations. It is thus not so much a book that tells a story as a book that tells a story about telling a story, a bit like the famous totalitarian mural titled “The Struggle of the Little People to Finish the Mural.” This technique plays hell with the chronology, and it’s often difficult for the reader to tell which character said what when. The reader’s unease is compounded knowing that many of Jimenez’s sources are the kind of witnesses usually considered unreliable: meth heads, hustlers, hookers, drunks, various species of trailer trash.

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