It’s been 20 years since Matthew Shepard’s murder—here’s everything you should know about him

Update: On October 12th, 2018, Matthew Shepard’s remains will be laid to rest in the Washington National Cathedral in Washington D.C. This marks the 20th anniversary of his death, and his parents said they are “proud and relieved to have a final resting place for Matthew’s ashes” in a statement to NPR. “This is incredibly meaningful for our family and for everyone who has known him,” they said.

Matthew Shepard was a pretty amazing kid. He was a student at the University of Wyoming, and the first of two sons born to Judy and Dennis Shepard. Studying Political Science, he was able to relate to nearly everyone. Unfortunately, he suffered two quite traumatic events in his life, one which lead to his untimely passing.

In 1995, while his high school was on a trip to Morocco, Shepard was beaten, robbed and raped while waiting for his friends outside the hotel—an experience that changed him, as well as his family. While his family never knew the full details, he was put on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication after the incident. Soon after, Shepard decided to come out to his family. They were supportive of his coming out.

In October 1998, Shepard met up with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson in Laramie at a local bar on campus called Fireside Lounge. The two men led Shepard to believe they were gay, and Shepard followed them to their truck—thinking they’d be discussing the politics and struggles of the gay movement.

While in the truck, McKinney pulled a gun on Shepard, announced they weren’t gay, and demanded his wallet. When Shepard refused, he was hit in the head with the gun. The two then drove about a mile outside Laramie, severely beating Shepard during their travel. Afterward, McKinney allegedly tied Shepard’s beaten body to a wooden split-rail post fence, robbed him of his wallet and shoes, continued to beat him, and then left him to die.

Aaron Kreifels, a bicyclist, discovered Shepard on October 7th, originally thinking his beaten body was a scarecrow. At that point, Shepard had been neglected for roughly 18 hours. After the discovery, Kreifels rushed to the house of Charles Dolan—a University of Wyoming professor—to call the police.

Shepard was taken to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, where they struggled to keep him breathing. He was covered in welt marks from the beatings, and his blood pressure was dangerously low. Unfortunately, Shepard did not survive the event, passing away on October 12th, 1998. When news of the murder broke, people recognized it as a hate crime.

(A fair warning: This video of Matthew Shepard’s dad speaking during the trial is difficult to hear.)

Police arrested McKinney and Henderson shortly after the attack, and even named their girlfriends as being guilty for providing alibis. One—Chastity Pasley—said that Henderson and McKinney got together after the beating “so they could get their stories straight.” McKinney tried to defend his case by saying that he was driven to temporary insanity by Shepard’s “sexual advances,” despite the fact that a longtime friend named Walter Boulden described Shepard as being “not the kind of person who goes to bars and tries to pick up people.”

Henderson and McKinney were incarcerated in the Wyoming State Penitentiary, and later moved to other prisons.

While many efforts were made to try and get new laws passed to extend federal hate crime legislation to include LGBTQ+ individuals, women, and people with disabilities, The Matthew Shepard Act was only adopted as an amendment in 2009 by President Obama. But in 1998, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, formed by his parents, was created—and still has the mission of ensuring equality for all LGBTQ+ youth. Trying to erase hate, through the eyes of the Shepard family, is not a gay issue or a straight issue—but a human issue.

Do you remember hearing about Matthew Shepard? Do you think that awareness of hate crimes has increased since this tragic incident?

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