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Matthew Shepard's murder: A college town's open wound 20 years later

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/12/2018 Erin Udell and Saja Hindi

a group of people walking down a street next to tall buildings: All is quiet in downtown Laramie on Thursday, October 4, 2018. © Austin Humphreys/The Coloradoan All is quiet in downtown Laramie on Thursday, October 4, 2018. It’s hard to describe just how much the sky opens up once you enter Wyoming.

Its blue vastness seems to go on forever, punctuated by the golden prairie grasses below, which bend and dance in the state’s trademark wind.

Sandwiched between mountain ranges on the state's high plains, Laramie is a roughly 25-minute drive from the Colorado border.

Home to the University of Wyoming, the city is part of the second most-educated and second most-diverse county in Wyoming, according to U.S. Census records. 

And it’s a friendly city, “a good community to belong to,” according to Trudy McCraken, Laramie’s former mayor whose roots go back in the city for five generations.

But for those outside of its city limits or Wyoming's hard-lined borders, Laramie doesn't usually conjure up ivied images of backpack-laden students ambling to class. People don't seem to want to talk about how open the sky seems.

You say you’re from Laramie and “the first thing that always comes up is the Matthew Shepard case,” McCraken said. 

“Nine times out of 10.”

Twenty years ago, Shepard's murder captivated and polarized the nation

More: Matthew Shepard's ashes will be interred at Washington National Cathedral

Starting the night of Oct. 6, 1998, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student met, and was lured from a Laramie bar by, two men claiming they were gay — like him — according to prosecutors on the case.  

They took his wallet and drove him out to the eastern edge of town. One beat him, brutally striking him between 19 and 21 times on his head and face with the butt of a .357 Magnum pistol. 

The other tied him to a nearby fence.

Shepard was found 18 hours later by a mountain biker who initially mistook him for a scarecrow. After being rescued and transferred to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, he clung to life for five more days before dying Oct. 12, 1998. 

Images of Laramie would be broadcast across the world, with Shepard's murder serving as a window into violence against the LGBTQ community — a catalyst for the legal protections and federal hate crime legislation that was to come.

But 20 years later — long after his killers had been sentenced, national news trucks packed up, and life moved on — Shepard's murder remains Laramie's open wound.

'This is huge'

The story we know now started with two words over a newsroom's police radio. 

It was Oct. 8, 1998, one day after Shepard had been found near death.

Coleman Cornelius, then 32, was one of the Denver Post's five bureau chiefs. 

Stationed out of Fort Collins, Colorado, Cornelius covered northern Colorado and southern Wyoming. And that day, she heard from one of her colleagues in Denver. 

Wyoming law enforcement, talking over the police radio, had mentioned a crime in Laramie. They used the phrase “hate crime.”

Cornelius, two other reporters and a photographer were dispatched immediately, tasked with piecing together what little information they had.

At the time, all that was known was how Shepard had been beaten and found barely alive, and that his injuries were bad enough to get him transferred an hour south to Fort Collins' Poudre Valley Hospital. 

It was there that Cornelius waited for more information.

But as Shepard's parents traveled to Colorado from Saudi Arabia — where his dad, Dennis, worked in the oil industry — the hospital and other family members stayed tight-lipped.

Cornelius left the hospital that day with little information.

More: 20 years later: How Matthew Shepard's murder became America's window into hate

"That's when I spotted, across the parking lot, a group of maybe four or five young adults who appeared to be college students," Cornelius said. "And I thought, you know, maybe those are Matthew Shepard's friends."

They were. 

She spoke to them at length about Shepard. Then she asked the big question: Why would investigators would be considering this attack a hate crime?

“He’s gay,” they said.

Cornelius asked them about Shepard's level of openness about his sexuality. Would he want people to know that he's gay? 

Shepard's friends answered with an unequivocal yes. She jotted down their quotes and information and walked to her car.

“I was in the parking lot of Poudre Valley Hospital with my cellphone,” she said. “And I remember just — I was just shaking talking to my editor and just saying ‘this is huge, this is huge. This story is going to be national.’”

That evening, the Denver Post’s coverage went across the wires.

“And I cannot tell you how astonishing it was to see how that story exploded,” Cornelius remembered. “It wasn’t a national story — it was an international story within hours.”

'One of the most haunting memories of my life'

The following morning, on Oct. 9, 1998, Graham Baxendale, a visiting lecturer in University of Wyoming's political science department, checked his office mailbox to find it stuffed with messages. 

“Phone this news outlet,” the slips of paper read.

“Phone this newspaper.”

“Phone CNN.”

“Then I got to one and it said, ‘re: the incident at The Fireside,’” Baxendale recalled.

Baxendale had been at The Fireside Bar & Lounge — a downtown watering hole frequented by a mix of university students and Laramie locals — the night before.

While racking his brain for what possibly could have happened after he left, he saw another message from a friend and student, Clint Schroeder. The two touched base by phone and Schroeder explained that it wasn’t about last night, but two nights before.

The next words Schroeder said would change everything.

“A kid in your department has been attacked,” Schroeder told Baxendale.

The story was spreading and satellite trucks from national TV stations were already filling Laramie’s streets.

Two young men in shackles and orange jumpsuits would soon make their first of many appearances in court later that day.

And calls for change would soon resound across the country, with all eyes on Laramie — an unsuspecting town thrust under the searing spotlight of national notoriety.

More: U. of Wyoming town passes nondiscrimination act

Since he was teaching a hate crimes and hate groups course at the university, Baxendale's semester drastically changed. In the years that followed, he switched his focus of study to the history of sexuality and its regulation, inspired by what he witnessed in Laramie that fall.

The media lens on Laramie was surreal, Baxendale said, with reporters and news trucks overtaking the city almost immediately.

Reporters clamored to learn more. They and some members of the public went to the Albany County, Wyoming, courthouse to see Shepard's accused attackers for the first time that week.

"We were in the (same) room as those kids — I still think of them as kids," Baxendale said of Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, two 21-year-old local roofers who were later convicted of murder in Shepard's death.

"And it was one of the most haunting memories of my life, to be honest," Baxendale said. "I looked at them and I saw how young they looked and I thought of everything (me and my friends) had done the night before."

"I'd gone out," he said. "I met some friends. We had a few drinks in a bar. We decided where else we might go. ... We actually ordered pizzas into the bar, pizzas of our choice. We drank some more, we had fun and then we headed home." 

"And I looked at them and I thought, 'If you've done what they say you've done, you will never do any of those things again. And for what?'"

A pair of shoes, $20 and an ATM card, it would seem.

a car parked in a parking lot in front of a house: A pair of pedestrians walk by The Library Sports Grille in Laramie on Thursday, October 4, 2018. The restaurant and brewery sits on the location of the Fireside Lounge where Matthew Shepard met his soon-to-be assailants Russel Henderson and Aaron McKinney. © Austin Humphreys/The Coloradoan A pair of pedestrians walk by The Library Sports Grille in Laramie on Thursday, October 4, 2018. The restaurant and brewery sits on the location of the Fireside Lounge where Matthew Shepard met his soon-to-be assailants Russel Henderson and Aaron McKinney.

'That's not right'

Just before 1 a.m. Oct. 7, after McKinney and Henderson left Shepard, they drove back into town and clashed with two Hispanic teenagers in an early-morning street fight, according to investigators.

Police responded to the brawl, in which McKinney hit one of the teens with the same gun, leaving a gash that required 21 staples to close.

“That’s kind of how we got onto the investigation," said David O'Malley, who was the commander of the Laramie Police Department's detective division at the time. He's now Albany County Sheriff. 

"... Because when our police officers were investigating that assault during that (morning), they found a coat in the back (of) Aaron McKinney’s truck that was just covered in blood and they found the gun, which was literally covered in blood and they found a debit card from Hilltop National Bank on the dash in the name of Matthew Shepard."

Knowing McKinney had only hit the teenager in the head once during the street fight, when he first saw the gun, he knew something wasn't right. 

It was covered in blood — “everywhere — barrel, cylinder, trigger, the butt of the gun," he said. 

“When we heard that morning that this gun had been used to hit this young man one time in the head, I looked at it and went ‘that’s not right. Something else is involved here.’

“We didn’t know what it was until the young man that was riding his bicycle out behind Imperial Heights (a subdivision) crashed his bike and found Matt tied to the fence out there," he said.

It was that discovery, 18 hours later, that would start filling in the gaps of what exactly happened that night.

According to O'Malley, after meeting Shepard for the first time at the Fireside, McKinney told investigators he and Henderson went into the bathroom and hatched a plan.

In order to gain Shepard's confidence, get him to leave the bar with them and rob him, they would lie and tell him they were gay.

Once the three were alone in McKinney's truck, and while still in Laramie city limits, McKinney turned to Shepard, hit him and took his wallet. 

"We believed that the initial motivation was robbery, and I still believe that that is the case, but the robbery motive stops when Matt gives his wallet to Aaron McKinney," O'Malley said.

"What would motivate you to drive that extra couple of miles and pull this kid out of a truck and tie him to a fence and hit him between 19 and 21 times in the head and face?" 

While some people challenge Shepard's murder as a hate crime — citing McKinney and Henderson's alleged drug use as a factor — O'Malley maintains the primary motivating factor in the crime was Shepard's sexuality.

“There's so many people that want to come up with a theory, throw it against the wall and see if it sticks," O'Malley said. "Because ... people didn't want to believe that what happened to Matt was based on hatred because of his sexual orientation. I believe that it was.” 

More: Missouri transgender teen's body burned, eyes gouged out in gruesome killing

In talking to McKinney's girlfriend, Kristen Price, investigators learned that the two men were flat broke — forced to scrounge for coins in ashtrays and couch cushions in order to buy beer that night. They hadn't done drugs in several days because of it, O'Malley said.

“If (Shepard) had $300 in his wallet, I’m sure (Henderson and McKinney) would have scored some meth," he said.

O'Malley also eschews claims that Shepard himself was involved in drugs, saying that when investigators searched his apartment after Shepard was found, they never discovered anything to support that theory. 

While substance abuse was usually limited to alcohol and, occasionally, marijuana on the University of Wyoming's campus, harder drug use typically happened outside of its collegiate bounds.

"Back in the '90s, there was a pretty clear distinction between the university — university students that had some means — and community members," said Ralph Castro, who headed up the university's drug education resource center at the time of Shepard's murder. 

While Castro dealt exclusively with students, he said he assumed methamphetamine use happened in town — highlighting the socioeconomic divide between the two groups.

"It was rampant in kind of rural areas, mostly white areas," Castro said. "And Laramie kind of fit the bill."

This class divide, Castro said, was typically bridged in Laramie's downtown bars, where locals and students often mingled. One of those bars, he said, was the Fireside. 

'It tasted terrible'

As the details of Shepard's murder and images of his killers continued to make the rounds in the news media, McCraken said the narrative had been set. 

"We definitely quickly were painted (as) a town of rednecks," she said, adding that Laramie was portrayed as backward and unsafe.

"That seemed to be the narrative that I just heard over and over again," McCraken said. "It tasted terrible." 

At the time of Shepard's murder, McCraken — then the mayor and a local business owner — said the media was moving at a breakneck pace. News of a horrific hate crime in the wilds of the country's least-populated, and rarely talked about, state was in the New York Times and on BBC radio shows.

"From a city standpoint, we were all overwhelmed," she said. "You couldn't answer the questions fast enough." 

a truck that has a sign on the side of a road: A sign outside the Laramie Chamber of Commerce after the killing of Wyoming University student, Matthew Shepard. © Coloradoan library A sign outside the Laramie Chamber of Commerce after the killing of Wyoming University student, Matthew Shepard.

McCraken is a close friend of Henderson's grandmother, who raised him, and her husband was his Boy Scout leader. Given his background, and rumors about drugs being a possible motivation, McCraken said she wanted the press to "give it a little more time to come to conclusions."

"That wasn't a real popular answer at the time," she added. 

In the two years after Shepard's murder, conversations kept bubbling up over a citywide bias-motivated crimes ordinance. 

In May 2000, the Laramie City Council passed one, establishing guidelines for the collection of hate crime data in the city and providing training on how to identify hate crimes for its police officers. 

In a state that still has no statewide hate crime law, Laramie became the first of its municipalities to pass its own. It passed on a 5-4 vote, with McCraken voting yes. 

More: How to save young LGBTQ lives: Today's talker

Years later, in May 2015, the city council also passed an ordinance banning discrimination by housing, employment and public facilities based on a person's sexual orientation.

Laramie is one of two Wyoming municipalities, including Jackson, to have anti-discrimination ordinances that cover sexual orientation and gender. Other cities — Cheyenne, Casper and Gillette included — have laws prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination of city employees.

When McCraken was mayor, she served as president of the state's association of municipalities. In that role, she ended up representing Laramie at a conference in Texas and was seated next to the mayor of Waco — a city known for the highly-publicized 1993 standoff and deadly seizure of its Branch Davidian compound. 

"When he found out I was from Laramie, the response was the same from him to me as mine was to him," she said. 

"We'd both become ... (been) given a title we did not want," she said.

'I just was ignorant' 

Wind whipped and rain started to sprinkle out of the misty, gray sky over downtown Laramie one recent Saturday afternoon.

Cozy boutiques, shops and bars offered a respite, coaxing visitors in with the scent of handmade chocolate truffles or warm, revelrous chatter over pints of beer.

One shop, a narrow, funky little store known as The Herb House, beckoned customers inside with its herbs, spices, teas and crystals. A handmade sign, penned with colorful marker was taped to its door facing South Second Street. 

Surrounded by hand-drawn peace signs and pride flags, it read: "Welcome." 

Trish Rader a Wyoming native and manager at the shop, said she made and taped the sign up after the 2016 Pulse night club shooting in Orlando, when a gunman sprayed bullets into the gay night club and killed 49.

"I wanted us to be a spot where people could come if they needed to and kind of relax," Rader said. "If they wanted to just be here and be open about who they are ... sometimes in Wyoming it can be a little hard."

More: 'Epidemic of violence': 2018 is worst for deadly assaults against transgender Americans

Coming from her hometown of Cheyenne for college at the University of Wyoming seven years ago, Rader said she noticed how much more open and accepting it was.

And living there, she said she learned a lot more about Shepard's murder — what had happened, who he was, how it impacted the city, the local LGBTQ community and its residents. 

O'Malley himself admits to having his heart and mind changed by the murder of Matthew Shepard.

"Quite frankly, I'll tell you the truth," he said. "Before this case came into all of our lives — because we lived it for over a year — I was extremely homophobic. I was mean-spirited. I'd tell all of the stupid jokes about gay people. I just was ignorant." 

Because of the investigation into Shepard's murder, he said he started interacting with members of Laramie's LGBTQ community. 

"It was almost like a switch flipped," he said. "... In a very short amount of time, I lost my ignorance. I realized that all the bull---- I'd bought into for all of those years was just that." 

a man wearing glasses: Albany County Sheriff Dave O' Malley poses for a photo in Laramie on Thursday, September 13, 2018. O' Malley was a detective in the case for Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming that was attacked and beaten by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. © Austin Humphreys/The Coloradoan Albany County Sheriff Dave O' Malley poses for a photo in Laramie on Thursday, September 13, 2018. O' Malley was a detective in the case for Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming that was attacked and beaten by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson.

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Follow Erin Udell and Saja Hindi on Twitter: @erinudell and @BySajaHindi

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