LARAMIE — Russell Henderson, one of two men convicted of murdering Matthew Shepard, was scheduled to appear by live video at an event Tuesday in Laramie called “Why Truth Matters.”
The event was billed as an examination of “what the media got wrong” in its coverage of Shepard’s murder. Stephen Jimenez, the event’s host, is the author of “The Book of Matt” that alleges drugs — and not hate — led to Shepard’s death. Though investigators who worked on the case have called the book inaccurate, its premise has continued to gain traction 20 years after Shepard’s death made him a symbol of equal rights.
But Henderson did not participate in Tuesday’s discussion, aside from a nine-minute prerecorded video. The flier advertising the event went out before Jimenez asked the prison system for permission to livestream Henderson’s appearance, according to Wyoming Department of Corrections spokesman Mark Horan.
Livestreaming interviews with inmates is against prison policy, Horan said. But Jimenez did receive approval for a prerecorded interview with Henderson, which was shown — in an edited version — at the event, held at Laramie’s Hilton Garden Inn.
During that video, which was spliced together from eight shorter clips, Henderson said he did not help kill Shepard because of prejudice.
“It never was about that,” Henderson said. “It never was about us hating Matthew because of who he was.”
Instead, Henderson said in a non-specific manner that drugs played a role in Shepard’s killing.
Jimenez has argued — in his book and various interviews — that Aaron McKinney, who is incarcerated in a private Mississippi prison for his role in Shepard’s death, was trying to rob Shepard for methamphetamine, not petty cash and the pair of shoes he made away with.
The book came nearly a decade after a Jimenez-produced 20/20 segment that likewise featured McKinney denying bigotry played a role in his actions.
At McKinney’s trial, his attorneys sought to use the so-called “gay panic” defense, arguing he killed Shepard in a rage for making sexual overtures. The argument was rejected.
Dave O’Malley, who worked on the Shepard investigation and is now the Albany County sheriff, told the Star-Tribune that Jimenez’s book would more aptly be titled “The Book of Lies.”
“Nothing was in the investigation whatsoever that indicated that Matt was in any way involved in the use or distribution of methamphetamine or any other drugs,” O’Malley said. “There’s nothing that was in the investigation that indicated that McKinney and Henderson were under the influence of anything other than a little bit of beer the night that they killed Matt. And so, for the conspiracy theorists out there, I suppose it’s good reading. To me, it was ridiculous.”
O’Malley said Jimenez’s narrative has picked up in steam in Wyoming more than anywhere else. Jim Osborn, the University of Wyoming Title IX coordinator and 1998 chair of the LGBTQ student group Shepard belonged to, is often the staff member who speaks to UW classes about Shepard. He has also seen the drug-related hypotheses gain popularity over the years.
“I try to address those quickly and kind of move on,” Osborn said. “I don’t like to spend a lot of time on them. I explain in five minutes or so, ‘Here are the many reasons that I don’t believe that. Here’s what I can tell you as somebody who was here at the time and had direct knowledge of the case versus what somebody at a bar may have told you, what the person living on your res hall floor might have told you, that they know what really happened.’
“I even had a really good friend of mine once tell me that he knew: ‘Oh, I know what really happened there,’ and I was kind of amused by that, because at the time he was 5 and living in another town. So, it was amusing that he tried to tell me that he knew better than I did the facts of the case.”
Osborn attributes some of that mentality to people’s desire to be in the know. Some of it, though, comes from not wanting to bear the blame for the crime, he said.
“I don’t necessarily think that the counternarrative necessarily comes from a place of hate or negativity in and of itself,” Osborn said. “But I think that nobody wants to believe that hate and violence exist in their community. Nobody wants to believe that we grow children that are capable of hate and violence. And so people were kind of desperate to latch onto any theory that was something other than hate.”
Osborn said that the intolerant reputation that the national media placed on Wyoming was, to an extent, unfair. But there are also people who think Shepard deserved to die because of his sexual orientation and use Jimenez’s theory as an excuse for their views, Osborn said.
“It’s a lot easier to say, ‘Oh, well, there must have been another explanation,’” he said.
After Jimenez and his co-panelists wrapped up their presentation, a Laramie local stepped to an audience microphone and said the presentation had convinced him — but first he shared his biases.
“I don’t agree with the gay lifestyle,” he said. “I don’t agree with Jews, Muslims.”
In the crowd, a woman whispered.
“This guy needs to shut up.”