Kerry Drake was late coming back from lunch.
As a reporter in the Star-Tribune’s now-defunct capital bureau, he spent most of his time covering meetings: meetings of legislative committees, meetings of the House, meetings of the Senate and — when the opportunity presented itself — meetings of the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees.
On Oct. 8, 1998, the Star-Tribune heard that a gay man had been attacked in a hate crime. A press conference was planned at the Albany County Courthouse and Drake, 55 minutes away in Cheyenne, was assigned to cover it.
So Drake raced to Laramie, a trip he remembers taking him closer to 30 minutes to complete.
The first article he filed, while Matthew Shepard was still clinging to life and a suspect remained at large, ran midway down the front page — in retrospect, an underwhelming position for what would become possibly the biggest news story in the state’s history.
The story exploded across the country in the hours that followed, and journalists at the Star-Tribune found themselves reporting alongside national media. People who worked at the Star-Tribune at the time say the newspaper’s coverage of Shepard’s murder has held up well.
The day after the press conference, Drake filed a story about the media swarm that had begun to descend on Wyoming. Every story he filed for the next week centered on Shepard until, on Oct. 15, he submitted a story about a lesbian woman’s lawsuit alleging workplace discrimination. The lead sentence centered on Albany County’s ability to prosecute Shepard’s killers.
Drake was the lead reporter on the Shepard story, but a significant portion of the newspaper’s staff contributed to the coverage. The entire top half of the Oct. 17 front page was dedicated to coverage of Shepard’s funeral and the protests outside. More coverage ran inside the paper.
Former Star-Tribune photographer Dan Cepeda had only worked for the paper for a couple of months when he covered the Casper ceremony. When he photographed virulently homophobic protesters at the funeral, he wanted to be fair, a result of being young and idealistic, he said.
“I just don’t want to take any pictures of these people,” he remembered another photographer telling him.
Cepeda photographed the Westboro Baptist Church members’ backs.
In the ensuing two decades, Shepard’s murder has likely generated more column inches, minutes of airtime and clicks than any story to come out of Wyoming since it became a state.
Shepard wasn’t the only person killed in Wyoming that year, and his murderers’ court proceedings weren’t the only ones of a high-publicity nature. While candlelight vigils nationwide supported Shepard as he lay in a hospital bed, James Harlow’s trial for the murder of a prison guard began.
A Powell man pleaded guilty later the same month to killing an 8-year-old girl. The Star-Tribune sent a reporter to those proceedings but no photographer.
Cepeda thinks editors made the right call, though he remains somewhat conflicted.
“When you decide not to cover the story of a little girl’s murder, it really feels crass,” Cepeda said.
Shepard’s murder seized the country’s attention thanks to a confluence of factors, according to the people who covered it at the time.
A frustrated LGBTQ community, a mortally wounded gay man who reminded people of their friends and family, and national editors surprised to learn gay people lived in Wyoming pushed the story to national prominence, said Jason Marsden — a friend of Shepard’s who worked at the Star-Tribune at the time and now serves as executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
“Human beings respond to the stories of other human beings,” Marsden said.
Shepard’s death came at a time when LGBTQ communities were particularly aggrieved, Marsden said. Ellen DeGeneres had come out as a lesbian in 1997, and ABC cancelled her show in 1998. The same year, Sen. Trent Lott said in a TV interview that being gay was akin to alcoholism, kleptomania and “sex addiction.” After an Alaskan judge ruled same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, voters there approved a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
Marsden recused himself from reporting on his friend but was able to help with copy editing, he said. When stories came across the desk with insensitive language, he suggested changes. “A gay” isn’t appropriate language, he told his coworkers.
Nonetheless, artifacts of the language of 1998 remain. The plural noun “gays” is used regularly throughout the Star-Tribune’s 1998 coverage. A more modern style guide produced by GLAAD, an international LGBTQ rights advocacy group, suggests using the term “gay” as an adjective, and a modern story would probably use a compound noun like “gay people.”
Marsden, a gay man, said the one-word plural noun is used less commonly now and typically used by “people who don’t like us.”
Drake wasn’t one of those people. But he didn’t feel the impact of Shepard’s death right away. He had been so caught up in his work that he didn’t begin to grieve the person he had covered for another eight years, when he played himself in a local production of a play about Shepard’s death.
“I really think the thing with Matthew Shepard was people could relate,” Drake said this week as his voice broke and he blinked back tears.