Matthew Shepard, a homosexual student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten, tortured, and left to die near Laramie on October 6, 1998, night. He succumbed to his injuries almost a week later. His murder brought national and international attention to hate crime legislation at both the state and federal levels. The United States Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in October 2009. Investigation Discovery’s documentary, “The Matthew Shepard Story: An American Hate Crime,” follows this case, and if you’re curious to learn more about the case, including the killers’ identities, here’s what we know.
How Did Matthew Shepard Die?
Matthew Wayne Shepard was born to Judy (née Peck) and Dennis Shepard in Casper, Wyoming, on December 1, 1976. Growing up in his small, native town of Casper, Matthew always gravitated towards the company of adults. Although he was friendly with all his classmates, Judy remembered how her son never had a best friend, which she believed he needed. She added, “I think he always felt out of place.” Matthew often endured teasing due to his shorter stature and lack of athleticism, though his passion for politics was remarkable since he was a kid.
The family hairdresser, Gloria Ningen, recalled an incident during Matthew’s second grade. He walked into their shop and passionately educated everyone on how to vote in the local election. She exclaimed, “He knew the issues. We all thought he was going to grow up to be president.” He attended Crest Hill Elementary School, Dean Morgan Junior High School, and Natrona County High School for his freshman through junior years. During the 1994 summer, the family relocated to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where Dennis worked as an oil safety engineer.
Since no American high school was available, Matthew was enrolled in the American School in Switzerland, known for its progressive approach to education. There, he immersed himself in learning German and Italian and became involved in theater. Judy fondly recalled his sharp sense of fashion, his eclectic taste in music from country to techno, and his enthusiasm for neo-swing bands like the Squirrel Nut Zippers. He was also a snappy dresser and an accomplished dancer who frequently frequented clubs.
Matthew was aware of his sexual orientation from a young age, although he didn’t openly acknowledge it until after he graduated from high school in May 1995. He struggled with coming out to his parents, though they told him they already knew. Matthew attended Catawba College and Casper College before settling in Denver, Colorado. He became a first-year political science major at the University of Wyoming in Laramie with a minor in languages. He was chosen as the student representative for the Wyoming Environmental Council.
According to reports, Matthew and three classmates had gone to Morocco during his senior year in high school in 1995. Unable to sleep one night, the teen had walked to a nearby coffeehouse, where he chatted with a group of German exchange students. On the way home, a gang of locals accosted him, raped him six times, and took his shoes. Matthew suffered from periodic clinical depression after the incident and thought about living in Karis Community — a Denver assisted-living home. However, he eventually attended the University of Wyoming.
On October 6, 1998, two individuals approached 21-year-old Matthew at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie. The duo offered to give him a ride home before subsequently driving to a remote rural area and proceeded to rob, pistol-whip, and torture him while tying him to a split rail fence and leaving him to die. Still tethered to the fencing, he fell into a coma, and Aaron Kreifels, a cyclist, discovered him 18 hours after the assault. The first responding police officers rushed him, still alive but heavily bloodied, to Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie.
Matthew was later transferred to the advanced trauma ward at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado. His injuries included fractures to the back of his head and the area in front of his right ear. The severe brainstem damage affected vital bodily functions such as heart rate and body temperature regulation. Numerous diminutive lacerations dotted his head, face, and neck, making surgical intervention impossible. Tragically, he never regained consciousness and died around 12:53 am on October 12, six days after the attack.
Who Killed Matthew Shepard?
The two perpetrators who had accosted Matthew at the Fireside Lounge on October 6, 1998, night were Aaron J. McKinney and Russell A. Henderson. They had barbarously assaulted Matthew before leaving him tied to the fence in near-freezing temperatures. The criminal duo returned to town, and Aaron picked a fight with two men — Emiliano Morales, then 19, and Jeremy Herrara, then 18. The altercation left both Aaron and Emiliano with head injuries. Subsequently, police arrived and apprehended Russell.
They also conducted a search of Aaron’s vehicle and discovered a firearm smeared with blood and Matthew’s personal belongings, including his shoes and a credit card. Aaron, the father of a new baby, had suffered a hairline fracture of the skull in the fight and was initially admitted to Poudre Valley Hospital. Eventually confronted with the evidence, Aaron confessed to beating Matthew with Russell. Police sources stated the duo returned home after beating and robbing Matthew to make allegedly sexist remarks to their girlfriends.
According to court testimonies, the two women — Aaron’s girlfriend, Kristen Price, and Russell’s girlfriend, Chasity Vera Pasley — invented an alibi for their boyfriends. They also disposed of critical evidence by dumping Russell’s clothing in a trash bin and his bloody shoes in a storage shed at Chasity’s mother’s residence. While Matthew fought for his life in the ICU, Aaron and Russell were charged with three counts of kidnapping, aggravated robbery, and first-degree attempted murder.
The charges were amended to first-degree murder after Matthew succumbed to his injuries on October 12. Kristen and Chasity were also arraigned on charges of being accessories after the fact. During Aaron’s pretrial hearing in November 1998, Sergeant Rob Debree testified that Aaron had revealed in an October 9 interview that he and Russell had identified Matthew as a potential robbery victim. They pretended to be gay to entice him to approach their truck. However, Aaron alleged he attacked after Matthew had placed his hand on his knee.
Aaron’s defense counsel also attempted to put forward a “gay panic defense,” arguing their client was driven to temporary insanity by Matthew’s alleged sexual advances. The judge rejected the defense, and the jury found him guilty of felony murder and began to deliberate on the death penalty. However, Matthew’s parents agreed to a deal, and Aaron received two consecutive life terms without parole. Russell had already pled guilty to murder and kidnapping on April 5, 1999. He had also been sentenced to two consecutive life terms.