Matthew Shepard, slight of stature, gentle of demeanor and passionate about human rights and foreign relations, lived a relatively open gay life in this university community that is something of an island of liberal thought in a conservative, traditional-values state. This week, he paid a terrible price.
Lured from a tavern popular with University of Wyoming students, Shepard, 21, was driven a mile outside of town, bludgeoned with a blunt instrument and tied to a fence like a dead coyote. Close to death, with his head badly battered and burn marks on his body, he was discovered Wednesday evening by two passing cyclists and eventually transported to a Fort Collins, Colo., hospital where he remains in critical condition with severe head injuries and is breathing by means of a ventilator.
This afternoon, two days before the opening of Gay Awareness Week at the university, three of four suspects were arraigned in Albany County Court and charged with crimes related to the beating. Two men, Russell Arthur Henderson, 21, and Aaron James McKinney, whose age was not immediately released, were charged with kidnapping, aggravated robbery and attempted first-degree murder and held on $100,000 bond. Chastity Vera Pasley, 20 — the only one of the four enrolled at the university — was arraigned today on a charge of being accessory to attempted first-degree murder and held in lieu of $30,000 bond. Kristen Leann Price, 18, was released on $30,000 bond.
Albany County Sheriff Gary Puls, who suggested to the Laramie Daily Boomerang that the beating was being investigated as a hate crime, said today that the investigation in concert with the Laramie Police Department is “aggressively continuing."
Laramie Police Commander Dave O'Malley told the Associated Press that while robbery was the main motive, Shepard was targeted because he was gay and that the two male suspects made anti-gay remarks after the beating to the two women.
According to the Daily Boomerang, McKinney pleaded no contest Sept. 21 to a felony burglary charge and is awaiting sentencing. Henderson has a number of driving offenses on his record, including two drunken driving convictions. Pasley, a graduate of Laramie High School, has one traffic offense on her record, driving without a valid license. And Price has no local criminal record.
As the investigation proceeded and Shepard's parents Dennis and Judy Shepard arrived tonight from Saudi Arabia, where Dennis Shepard works in the oil business, university officials and members of Laramie's gay community struggled to come to grips with a horrifying attack on someone described by his friends as gentle and trusting.
Jim Kearns, director of the University of Wyoming news service, said the campus community was shocked by the incident as it prepared for homecoming weekend. “We were just saddened by it, concerned,” he said. “We don't feel that this is at all reflective of the nature of our university population or the Laramie community."
University President Philip Dubois said the school had no record of other recent attacks on members of the gay community. “From every indication we have, this is an isolated incident,” he said.
Jim Osborn, head of the university's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Association, said while there had been anti-gay incidents in the past, Laramie and the university overall were tolerant communities. “The community as a whole has always been very supportive,” he said. “There are always going to be individuals who are narrow-minded and hateful and who are going to cause problems. That happens in any community and is not isolated to Laramie."
"Wyoming is obviously a very rural state, so there's going to be some old-fashioned views,” added Osborn, “but one event like this cannot and should not be used to qualify or typify an entire state."
Shepard, who had lived overseas, in Denver and in Casper, Wyo., came to Laramie this fall, enrolling at the university about 50 miles west of the state capital in Cheyenne as a political science major after attending junior college in Casper.
Walter Boulden, a friend, described him as “probably one of the most gentle people I've ever met in my life” who had a deep interest in politics and international affairs and one day hoped to work overseas in an embassy.
"He was intelligent, he loved to sit and talk about politics,” said Boulden, 46, who until recently taught in the university's social work department. “He had an absolute love of international affairs. He was very open to people. He was just like any person's son."
Boulden said he last talked to Shepard by telephone about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, the night of the attack. He said Shepard canceled plans to go to a movie with him, saying he had to study, and that he later attended a meeting of the gay student association on campus. After the meeting, Boulden said, Shepard apparently went with friends for coffee and later asked one of them to accompany him to the Fireside Lounge, a popular hangout for university students and other young people. But Shepard went to the bar alone, which Boulden said was “not typical” of him.
Boulden and another Shepard friend, Alex Trout, 21, said they had no doubt the attack was a hate crime but that the atmosphere in Laramie was not particularly anti-gay.
"Wyoming is the epitome of don't ask, don't tell,” Boulden said. “Especially for people of my age, the atmosphere is very much if you are considered part of the general community, if you're seen as good at your job, then if people find out you're gay it's kind of a nonissue. If you are seen as an outsider, if people don't know you as a person, it's one more way you're foreign to them and they are less tolerant."
Trout said that Shepard, a diminutive man who weighs about 110 pounds, could not be described as “openly” gay. “If you asked, he would tell you he was gay if he thought it was safe,” Trout said. “He was a member of the university [lesbian and gay] group. But he was not like somebody who broadcast it."
Marv Johnson, executive director of the Wyoming branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that while violent attacks on gays were unusual in the state, “Wyoming is not a hospitable place for gays and lesbians."
Johnson said the inclusion of sexual orientation in a hate crimes bill was the main reason that the Wyoming legislature has failed three times to enact the measure.