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Wyoming and the unshakable tether to a young man's murder

Cathy Renna wasn’t sure what to expect when she flew into Wyoming for the first time in October 1998. None of her preconceptions prepared her for the experience.

She was humbled and awed by the Equality State’s mountain ranges and vast prairies. She was also greeted by the wind, which detracted from the natural beauty but not enough to override her initial impression.

At the time, she was working for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and arrived in Laramie on her usual mission to educate those in the wake of tragedy. Her latest objective involved teaching locals and visitors about the LGBTQ community after the vicious murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, that left the small college town of Laramie with a seemingly unshakable reputation.

“I always go to the nicest, most beautiful places for the worst reasons,” Renna likes to say. She considers that first trip to Wyoming no different.

Shepard’s murder brought the national spotlight onto Laramie and Wyoming in a way that arguably nothing had before. During the ensuing two decades, both city and state have been forced to carry the weight of that tragedy. For people living elsewhere, Shepard’s murder and the place where it occurred remain irrevocably bound together.

“That’s going to be a near-impossible thing for the town to shed,” Renna said. “I wish people would understand that and embrace it in the sense of ‘We will own this crime,’ but it also happens everywhere else.”

Part of that is due to symbolism, said Brody Levesque, who then wrote for LGBTQ Nation and now writes for the New Civil Rights Movement.

Two men tied Shepard to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie and brutally beat him. Then they left him there, in the cold and dark, where a bicyclist found him 18 hours later.

“Matthew’s death and the state of Wyoming are forever tied together,” Levesque said. “When that biker found him, we’re talking a desolate part outside of the township on the Wyoming prairie. That just amplified the signal. What further amplified it is the brutality itself.”

And while that tragic evening showed the dark side of the Wyoming prairie, others have come to appreciate the state over time.

U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon heard stories about Laramie before visiting last month. He was only 8 years old, growing up in the small town of Clarkson, Pennsylvania, when Wyoming was under the national spotlight. Earlier this year, he competed for the United States men’s team that finished third at the Olympics in South Korea. With that bronze, Rippon became the first out gay U.S. male athlete to medal in a Winter Olympics.

Rippon recently visited Laramie while working on a story about the legacy of Shepard’s murder for “Nightline.” Within the first two hours of walking downtown, he experienced how welcoming and open the residents can be.

“Everyone was 100 percent right that this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been,” he said. “It’s beautiful. It’s serene. It is a small town, but there’s something so welcoming.”

Still, there are some in America who think Laramie, and Wyoming, lost its beautiful innocence that night.

Columbine High School has become synonymous with the nation’s first major mass school shooting, which occurred 8 months after Shepard’s death, and Sandy Hook is as much a memorial for slain 7-year-olds and teachers as it is an elementary school in Connecticut. In many ways, Laramie, and the entire state of Wyoming, share the same fate.

Wyoming is rural and conservative, a place with a reputation for quiet toughness and old-fashioned values. And while progressive locations like the San Francisco Bay Area have also been sites of hate crimes on members of the LGBTQ community, Shepard’s murder played into the stereotype of flyover country as an intolerant, and dangerous, place for gay people.

“This also happens in towns all over the country,” Renna said. “To stigmatize Laramie as the one place where this happened isn’t unrealistic, but it’s unfair.”

It’s that reputation, however, that remains in the national conversation surrounding Wyoming. The brutality of Shepard’s murder rattled the nation’s conscience. And a place full of people that callous, the stereotype held, would never welcome members of the LGBTQ community.

Author and columnist Dan Savage remembers exactly where he was when he first heard about Matthew Shepard. Savage was in a Minneapolis hotel room when he heard the news, hours after Shepard was found tied to a fence post on Oct. 7, 1998. It was Savage’s birthday. He spent most of the night weeping. The following day he wrote a column for the Seattle Stranger, where he was associate editor at the time.

Every Oct. 7 since that heartaching night in Minneapolis, he’s thought of Matthew Shepard.

And those emotions, along with public perception, haven’t changed the state’s reputation to some outside of its borders.

"Wyoming in the imaginations of gay people, including those who grew up there, is a place you flee for fear,” said Savage, who is gay.

The prosecution of Shepard’s murderers was a silver lining for many outside Wyoming. Savage didn’t think that the state would file first-degree murder charges or seek the death penalty. (It did both.) Traditionally, hate crimes committed against the gay community were cast aside, and little repercussions were brought upon the assailants. So this, as small as it was, marked progress.

“The state of Wyoming, which then and now doesn’t seem very welcoming to the gay community,” Savage said, “prosecuted them like the men had murdered a nun.”

And perhaps that’s when Wyoming’s national reputation began to heal, even if, 20 years later, the scars are still there. The heinous attack that shook a nation remains forever attached to its location two decades later. There are some who view Wyoming as they did when Shepard was murdered. Others have found the home of Matthew Shepard to be much more.

“I’m the kind of person that tries to find the good in the worst,” Renna said. “When I think about Laramie, Matt’s murder isn’t the first thing I think of. I think of people.”

Twenty years of sorrow

Twenty years later, I am the one remaining. The only one left in the newsroom from October 1998.

Because of that, Matthew Shepard’s life — and death — are not history for me, not a sociology lesson, not a geography exam that marks Wyoming as “that place.”

I was here, in this same room, when the news reached us that a University of Wyoming student from Casper had been beaten in Laramie in the early morning hours of Oct. 7, 1998, and found almost dead near Snowy Mountain View Road some 18 hours later. He had gone to the Fireside Bar on the evening of Oct. 6, and his killers were there.

This was before Twitter, before Facebook, before smartphones.

We were horrified then, and we are horrified now, bound by sorrow that we expect will dull but in some ways sharpened over two decades.

City editor Stephen Busemeyer sent an email to staff after Shepard’s last name was spelled several different ways initially. Paraphrasing from memory 20 years later, the email cautioned “the kid’s been through enough ... the least we can do is spell his name correctly.”

I was here when we learned that Matthew Shepard, 21, son, brother and friend to so many, had died just after midnight on Oct. 12, 1998, at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, never having regained consciousness from the brutality he suffered.

I was here during the planning for the funeral, held at his hometown church of St. Mark’s Episcopal in Casper. It was overarching and became the only story in town for long, sad days that seemed to run together. I was here when we chased the rumors and printed the facts. The people were coming to protest. The counterprotesters would be here as well. Media from around the world descended. And the forecast was for the weather to turn as dark as our moods.

There are symbols that I will not forget — a pale yellow banner signifying nonviolence with three green circles for peace, first created by the United Multicultural Center at the University of Wyoming and reproduced again and again.

The Star-Tribune printed it in color, hopeful that our readers would display them throughout the city. They did, in huge numbers.

Each night from Oct. 8, when we learned of the beating, to Oct. 16, the day of the funeral, I went home to my children — then 14 and 8. We talked about our days, and about the sorrow that enveloped our town. At those times, my thoughts were not with deadlines but with Judy Shepard, a mother like me, who was bedside at her college son’s hospital bed. It was nearly more than I could take.

At my children’s school, St. Anthony’s, then adjacent to St. Mark’s Church downtown, they hung the green and yellow banners in the windows. When it became clear that the funeral and its crowds would seep beyond the church, school was cancelled for that day at St. Anthony’s, and the building became sort of a media staging area and refuge from the weather.

Molly, 8, said she was sad because she wanted to pray for “Matt and his parents.” I reassured her then, as I do now, that she didn’t need to be in school to pray.

October 1998 dawned beautifully in Wyoming — clear blue skies, crisp evening air and the colors that only golden aspen can provide.

When it was time for the funeral, on Friday, Oct. 16, the heavens cried, changing from cold, driving rain to wet, heavy snow. For reporters and photographers out in it, it was impossible to stay warm or get dry.

I drove them as close as I could get to the church, so they wouldn’t have to walk for blocks in the muck.

The Star-Tribune printed its three best opinion pieces in 40 years during that time — Jason Marsden’s on Oct. 13, which we reprint in this edition, opinion editor Charles Levendosky’s on Oct. 18, and Busemeyer’s on Oct. 25.

Marsden and I shared a love of Tootsie Rolls, and he was like a second son to me. Shortly after his column printed, a large group of us lunched at Botticelli’s downtown, and he told us he was leaving Wyoming.

“I can’t stay now,” he said.

Levendosky, Wyoming’s poet laureate, wrote of the snow and its effect.

“And snow fell. Wet snow. All day. A veil of silence descended, surrounding the mourners and the demonstrators. White silence. To clean the air. To wrap us in privacy. The kind of silence that cousins sorrow ... A 21-year-old man with all the promise of youth tied to a fence and left to die, propped up like a scarecrow. And now the snow.”

When planning for this commemoration began, I said that Matthew Shepard’s life and its end is, in my view, the singular thing that has most changed Wyoming in the 56 years I’ve lived here. People overnight realized that Wyoming — our beautiful Wyoming — was not immune to hate, and that it was not OK to hate.

As we remember Matthew — his life, his death — and measure what has changed since, and what needs to change still, I pray that no other family — no other mother, father or brother — will ever have to endure what his family did.

Dan Cepeda, Star-Tribune 

Casper residents hold a candlelight vigil for Matthew Shepard on Oct. 11, 1998 at Pioneer Park. Shepard died the following morning.