The Myths of Matthew Shepard’s Infamous Death
The following excerpt is adapted from The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, by Stephen Jimenez, to be published by Steerforth Press on September 24.
In the book, Jimenez upends our understanding of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard 15 years ago in Laramie, Wyoming, a crime that quickly came to be regarded as an open-and-shut case of anti-gay violence. Jimenez spent 13 years reporting the story and interviewed more than 100 sources, including convicted killers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, prosecutor Cal Rerucha, and friends and lovers of Shepard’s from whom the public has never before heard.
On Tuesday, October 6, 1998, Tina Labrie (Matthew Shepard’s close friend and fellow college student) stayed at home all day with a cold. Something seemed to be going around. Her husband, Phil, had caught a cold on Saturday, Matthew had one on Monday, now it was her turn.
Several times during the day Tina tried to reach Matthew by phone but wasn’t having any luck. Phil, who frequently gave Matthew rides around town, would later say he was surprised when “Matt never called on Tuesday.”
But one person who did hear from Matthew that afternoon was [limousine driver] Doc O’Connor.
“Matt called me from the Library [bar] at 3:15 PM,” Doc told me curtly.
Doc said he knew where Matthew was “because the Library’s number showed up on my caller ID.”
It was unusual for Doc to be so perfunctory, but on this particular subject he was sticking to just the facts.
According to what Doc told a reporter for Vanity Fair, Matthew had been thinking of hiring a limo that night to go someplace with friends but he hadn’t said where he wanted to go. Doc explained to Matthew that he had a trustees’ meeting at the Eagles club that evening. Since he didn’t expect the meeting to get out late, he asked Matthew to call him back later.
Several of Matthew’s friends would later say he always carried his cell phone with him, so his call to Doc from a landline at the Library was out of the ordinary.
During my review of the police reports and court files I’d also noticed that there was virtually no mention of Matthew’s cell phone. If police had, indeed, checked his phone records — which would be more or less routine in a homicide investigation, especially a case in which the suspects were facing the possibility of the death penalty — they had not included that information in their reports.
Apparently Matthew had changed phone numbers often, which a former member of the Denver circle (a group of close friends involved in selling crystal meth) said was a protective measure common among their friends. Nonetheless, an examination of Matthew’s cell phone records and a few landlines he had used might have yielded crucial evidence about the individuals he had been in touch with in the days leading up to the attack. Had this been an oversight on the part of investigators or was the information intentionally kept out of the public record?
Patrons who were at the Library bar that evening would later tell police that Matthew had been there until 6 or 6:30 PM. Police reports also noted that Matthew had called his friend Walt Boulden (a 46-year-old college instructor) at about 6:30 PM to cancel plans they had tentatively made to celebrate Walt’s forty-sixth birthday. When Walt asked where he was, Matt said he was at a bar.
“We were gonna go to a movie together,” Walt later told a reporter. “And he called and he had gotten behind in his French and he had to go to classes the next day, so he was gonna study. And so we made plans to get together later in the week and go to the movies.”
But in fact Matthew was still planning to take one of Doc’s limos out that night. Where he intended to go, or with whom, has never been clarified.
“This conversation [with Boulden] was over SHEPARD’s cell phone,” a police report stated, “which was identified by the number of 761-2673.”
At about the same time Matthew was leaving the Library, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson had just gotten off work. According to police reports, media accounts, interviews, and other records, Aaron and Russell, still in their work clothes, drove to 809 Beaufort Street, the home of Ken Haselhuhn, their co-worker.
The alleged purpose of the visit was that Aaron wanted to show Haselhuhn his .357 Magnum, which he was carrying in a black case, in the hope that Haselhuhn knew someone with whom he could trade the gun for drugs. Some reports suggested that Haselhuhn was a gun collector and that he might’ve been contemplating buying the gun himself. Haselhuhn would later say he had spoken to some neighbors downstairs, but when they heard a gun was involved they wanted nothing to do with the trade.
Five months after the murder, Priscilla Moree, a respected criminal investigator who was hired by Russell Henderson’s defense attorney, interviewed Haselhuhn. She wrote in her report:
Ken told the police that McKinney and Henderson had wanted to sell the gun for $300 or trade it for crack or meth…McKinney and Henderson came back to Ken’s house later that evening, again asking him if he could help them get rid of the gun…[Then] they again came back to his house later on. He doesn’t remember the time that was, but says it was late…[he] was in his bathrobe getting ready for bed.
But there was more going on that night than a possible gun trade.
By the time Aaron arrived at Haselhuhn’s home, he had already come up with a robbery
plan, which he had not yet disclosed to Russell. Part of his plan, Aaron said, was to rob Haselhuhn; the business of trading or selling the gun was just a pretext. However, Russell and Haselhuhn did not learn what Aaron had in mind until later.
Earlier that day, while the three men were working together at Bethesda Care Center, Aaron had convinced Haselhuhn to broker a deal for him: He wanted three hundred dollars’ worth of meth in exchange for the gun. All three men confirmed to me that Haselhuhn had promised to introduce Aaron and Russell to a friend that evening.
According to Aaron, Haselhuhn boasted to him, “My guy has six ounces of meth, I’ll get an eight ball for you.”
An eight ball is one-eighth of an ounce. Coincidentally, the six-ounce quantity Aaron planned to rob was also the exact amount that was regularly delivered to Laramie by members of the Denver family. As payment, the two members who made the delivery each received two eight balls, or a quarter of an ounce.
Since Aaron owed his suppliers money and had run out of excuses, the prospect of getting his hands on the whole six ounces was irresistible. If he robbed Haselhuhn’s friend, he could satisfy his meth craving and also pay off his debts.
“I was going to rob Ken and the dealer,” Aaron told me. “I was carrying two bullets in my back pocket — one for Ken, one for the other guy. I wasn’t planning to shoot them, just force them to hand over the meth.”
Matthew’s friends Walt Boulden and Alex Trout (with whom Matthew socialized at bars and dance clubs) rushed to his side at Poudre Valley Hospital after Boulden received a call from Dennis Shepard (Matthew’s father) in Saudi Arabia with the news that Matthew had been severely beaten. Along with contacting Jason Marsden, Matthew’s friend at the Casper Star-Tribune, Boulden and Trout contacted gay organizations in Wyoming and Colorado to report that Matthew had been the victim of an anti-gay attack. Trout said that Marsden, who is gay but had yet to come out publicly, was instrumental in helping to disseminate the story nationally through the Associated Press. (Today Marsden is the executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.)
Boulden and Trout would later state that the first time they heard talk of a hate crime was at Poudre Valley Hospital when an unidentified police officer had mentioned in passing that the attack on Matthew “might have had something to do with him being gay.” The two men said the remark confirmed their worst fears and prompted them to act.
But Tina Labrie told a somewhat different story when [ABC News 20/20 co-anchor] Elizabeth Vargas interviewed her in 2004. The following excerpt from that interview was not broadcast at the time:
Elizabeth Vargas: When did you first hear that Aaron and Russell may have attacked Matthew because he was gay?
Tina Labrie: That day [Thursday, October 8] while we were down at Poudre Valley Hospital…when Walt and Alex showed up that evening, and that was pretty much their take on the situation.
Elizabeth Vargas: They just assumed that he was beaten up because he was gay?
Tina Labrie: Well, they were pretty sure about it.
Elizabeth Vargas: But you don’t know why they were sure?
Tina Labrie: No.
Elizabeth Vargas: And told the media that this was a hate crime.
Tina Labrie: …I just know that’s what they talked about a lot.
Elizabeth Vargas: How soon after Walt and Alex arrived at the hospital…did they begin to feel that this beating happened only because Matthew was gay?
Tina Labrie: That was pretty much the consensus every time I saw them.
Elizabeth Vargas: But they never told you what proof they had for that.
Tina Labrie: Right. They never told me what led them to that conclusion…
Elizabeth Vargas: How quickly did they begin to call the media and gay rights groups?
Tina Labrie: That day. We were up at the hospital — and then media showed up that evening…
Elizabeth Vargas: All asking questions about whether this was a hate crime?
Tina Labrie: Yeah…it was pretty weird…that frenzy of media attention. This very quickly became an enormous issue about being gay and about homophobia…Like they wanted to make [Matt] a poster child or something for their cause or their anti-cause…they either wanted to make him a saint or they wanted to say he was burning in hell…I think when you go to [those] extremes, you lose the truth.
On a Friday afternoon in late October 2004, a little more than six years after the murder, I drove two hundred miles to meet Kyle (a pseudonym), a former drug cohort of Aaron McKinney, alone at an isolated truck stop off I-80 in western Wyoming.
I had interviewed Kyle twice before in prison and he had been surprisingly cooperative, so I felt more or less safe. Still, I took precautions since he had earlier advised me, “You don’t know who you’re dealing with,” referring to his friends higher up on the drug-dealing food chain.
Kyle worked in the oil fields and had just gotten off a shift. He was still in company overalls, his face and hands stained with crude.
As we sat in the front seat of his parked car talking about Matthew Shepard, whom he had previously claimed to know only in passing, I suggested that Matthew might have gotten in over his head with drugs. Kyle snarled at me like I was an idiot, “Yeah, and he was taking stuff away from the rest of us!”
Without warning, two other vehicles suddenly backed into spaces on both sides of us, wedging us in. When I saw what was happening I leapt from the car and ran into the middle of the parking lot, where there were more lights.
Kyle shouted for me to get back in the car but I refused. At that instant a friend of mine, who was planted in a nearby truck monitoring the meeting, called my cell phone. “Get out of there, Steve,” he yelled, “they’re setting you up!”
“Stay in your car, don’t let them see you,” I snapped back. Trying not to panic but worried I would get run over or shot, I spun around several times to keep Kyle’s car in view as I hustled across the parking lot to a truck stop restaurant. Before I reached the entrance, Kyle’s vehicle and the other two tore out of the lot, tires screeching, heading for the ramp to the interstate.
Seconds later my friend picked me up in front of the truck stop, his face a sickly shade of white. In a halting voice he told me how close he thought he had come to losing me there. I knew he was right. With his help I had narrowly managed to escape, but clearly I had been given a message.
Driving away from the truck stop I took my friend’s advice and crouched down on the floor of his truck, out of sight. Evidently someone more powerful than Kyle had set me up.
I hardly slept that night in Laramie. Waves of anxiety surged through me till late the next morning. Why had I put myself in danger like that?
The next day, still agitated, I related my roadside experience to [Shepard prosecutor] Cal Rerucha. He shook his head in disgust. “The methamphetamine trade has made Wyoming revert to the lawless anarchy of the Old West,” he remarked pungently. “It’s deadly.” By then, Cal had been voted out of office in Albany County, after four elected terms. He was now prosecuting state and federal drug cases in the twin cities of Rock Springs and Green River — the epicenter of methamphetamine traffic for the Rocky Mountain West.
After hearing my story Cal told me about a colleague, a Wyoming judge who had recently been surprised by an armed male intruder in the bathroom of his home one morning while shaving. The man was there to relay a message regarding a drug case in which he was awaiting sentencing by the judge. After a few curt words the man quietly slipped away.
I saw no point in asking what the judge decided with a gun staring him in the face. But Cal’s reference to the Old West brought back a conversation I’d recently had about Matthew’s murder with a veteran cop in the Albany County Sheriff’s Office. Friendly, with a studied good-old-boy charm, the cop leaned over his desk toward me, his chiseled, windburned face inches from mine.
“You sure you’re not quoting me on this?” he asked.
“It’s for background, I won’t be using your name,” I answered, trying to sound reassuring.
“What happened to Matthew Shepard wasn’t a hate crime, not at all,” he confided in a low voice. “But why do you want to go digging into all that again? Why not let sleeping dogs lie?”
I wasn’t inclined to answer his question candidly. Instead of laying out my suspicions about the involvement of other parties beyond Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson in events surrounding Matthew’s murder, I reminded him that the killing was “a seminal national event, a lot like the civil rights killings of the 1960s,” as if he were somehow unfamiliar with the stigma that continued to tarnish his hometown. “The public has a right to know whether the murder was really a hate crime,” I said with conviction, “and if not, what was it?”
The cop stared at me as he sank back from his desk, shrugging doubtfully. Almost as an afterthought he flashed me another knowing grin, but again his eyes told me to let sleeping dogs lie.