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‘The Book of Matt’

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MattCoverAre there hidden truths about the murder of Matthew Shepard?
by Jack Berger

Matthew Shepard. Hate crime. It’s hard to say one of these without automatically thinking about the other, even though it’s been exactly fifteen years this month since Shepard’s gruesome murder.

Now Steven Jimenez, a former NYU professor-turned-journalist, has published The Book of Matt (releasing this month by Steerforth Press) that goes into painstaking detail about the events leading up to, during, and after the attack. He prompts the reader to question whether Shepard knew his attackers and why this may have in fact not been a hate crime at all.

But do we really want to know every detail of this murder case? Matthew Shepard’s story has posthumously helped move the LGBT community forward in its quest to show the struggles involved in gaining equal rights on several fronts. He has become the poster child for hate-crime activism in America. Might it be best to just let sleeping dogs lie?

The information that Jimenez presents is tough to read at times, as the picture he paints is not the same as the one in our heads. We have seen Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mom, in numerous interviews and at Human Rights Campaign events. So why, fifteen years later, would we want to read about Matthew’s involvement with drugs and hustlers and everything that is part of that scene? Maybe it’s just because we can.

Jimenez presents his findings and conclusions in a comprehensive fashion that brings all of the questions to light. He was unafraid to ask tough questions,
and he seems to have been quite thorough in his thirteen years of research and documentation.

Shepard had a challenging childhood—certainly no Leave It to Beaver or Brady Bunch plot lines here. Jimenez’s information suggests Shepard was a small player in the crystal-meth underground in Colorado and Wyoming, as were his attackers. The book depicts Shepard as a depressed college student who liked to have a good time, with parents living overseas. Jimenez also learned from sources that Shepard was HIV-positive. The book provides some thoughtful insights into Shepard’s development and his bad choices that played a part in his death.

There are several jailhouse interviews with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the convicted murderers who were sentenced to two consecutive life terms with no chance of parole. In addition, there are recollections from their families, girlfriends, and other key players in the case. Particularly interesting are the people connected to Henderson who did not commit the assault, but did nothing to prevent it.

Getting into Aaron McKinney’s psyche is much more challenging. Violent behavior, drugs, and an alleged challenge to his heterosexuality all played a role, according to Jimenez’s research. He lays out the possibility that McKinney knew Shepard quite well, and the two may have spent some time together dealing crystal meth and hustling. McKinney would hustle for drugs or for the money to buy drugs, and he ran in a circle that occasionally included Shepard. Their involvement as sex partners is also suggested by various sources.

The insights and perspective of Cal Rerucha, the Laramie prosecutor handling the case, are also important. During his thirteen years of research, Jimenez spent some one hundred fifty hours with Rerucha, extracting his legal point of view. And while Rerucha did push for a death sentence, he believes that Shepard’s murder was driven by drugs.

Jimenez is not the first or the only one who has researched the Shepard story extensively. Other writers include JoAnne Wypijewski in Harper’s Magazine in 1999, and Moises Kaufman, the director and co-writer of The Laramie Project.

This latest 354-page case is laid out in a way that invites you to decide what it all means. Do these details diminish the legacy of Matthew Shepard? So much good has come out of this tragic episode in LGBT history, including the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, named in honor of Shepard and James Byrd Jr.

But the questions are still there.  The Book of Matt may offer the most complete and well-researched account of who Matthew Shepard was, and how and why the events unfolded as they did on October 6, 1998, in Laramie, Wyoming.  And, if it was truly a hate crime.

If we want to know.

Matt and Michele
Matt and Michele

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SIDEBAR
‘Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine’
Archival footage from home movies, photos, and journals help tell this personal story.
by Jed Ocot

Michele Josue met Matthew Shepard overseas at The American School in Switzerland (TASIS) in the early- to mid-1990s. It was their first time being away from home, and with their shared love for acting, they became very much like family.

According to Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard, Josue and several others were the greatest people her son had ever met in his life. To Matthew, they would always be the most important.

This month marks fifteen years after the death of her friend, and Josue is set to premiere the film at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Told from a deeply personal perspective, the film is intended to show a side of Shepard that the world may not be familiar with.

“It’s still painful when I think about my friend. I feel guilt for not being there, confusion about what happened, and anger about what they did to him. I miss my friend and I’m not ready to let him go,” says Josue, “and that’s why I’m making this film, because if the world knows our Matt, the real Matt, I know they won’t be able to let him go either.”

Archival footage from home movies helps tell the story of Shepard’s life, as well as the photos and journals he left behind. Viewers will follow Josue as she travels to Laramie, Wyoming, Morocco, and various other locations that are important in telling his story.

These stories from the people who knew Shepard best are the highlight of this emotional film. Those who share their memories of Shepard include Zeina Barkawi, his best friend, and Walt Boulden, his guidance counselor.

“Matt was the type of friend I thought I would know my whole life. But on October 12, 1998, we lost him forever. And the Matt I knew became ‘Matthew Shepard’ to the world,” says Josue.

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Jack Berger

Jack Berger is an Account Executive for OutSmart Magazine.

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