|Location: Pilot Peak and Snowy View Roads, Laramie, WY|
|GPS: 41d 17m 46s -105d 30m 54s|
|Map / Satellite Image: Google Link|
From I-80 take WY Exit 316, “Grand
Avenue / US-30W”
To find the murder site from the intersection, turn left on Snowy View Road and proceed approximately 0.1 mile. The murder occurred approximately 0.15 mile to the northwest of this point. (Reference: 41d 17 m 46s, -105d 30m 54s)
“Although there is generally a live-and-let-live attitude in the state, there are also bigots, mean people, haters, drug addicts, poachers, wife-beaters, kid-neglecters, embezzlers as in every other place in the world. Wyoming also has the highest suicide rate in the nation, especially among elderly, single men. The state is hardly perfect and we should not pretend it is some noble utopia. It is a complex place in its geography and its residents’ psychologies, both tolerant and intolerant as all of us are.” 
On October 6, 1998, Matthew Wayne Shepard met Aaron McKinney, 22, and Russell Henderson, 21, both of Laramie, in a local bar. Contemplating robbery, the two led Shepard to believe they were gay. Matthew followed McKinney and Henderson into their truck. Inside the truck, McKinney pulled out a gun and demanded Shepard’s wallet, then hit him with the gun. They then drove here, Henderson behind the wheel, as Matthew begged for his life. McKinney struck him repeatedly as Henderson watched and laughed. The two tied Shepard’s beaten body to a buck fence (since removed). They then robbed him of his wallet containing $20, and shoes, continued to beat him, and then left him to die.
For over 18 hours Shepard bled profusely in near-freezing temperatures until a cyclist happened to discover him the following day. A police officer who responded to the 911 call would later testify, “Though his face was caked in blood, his face was clean where streaks of tears had washed the blood away.”
The 5-foot-2-inch, 102-pound Shepard never emerged from his comma and died five days later, the morning after America’s celebration of National Coming Out Day.
McKinney and Henderson were charged with first-degree murder, which carried with it the possibility of the death penalty. They were also charged with kidnapping and aggravated robbery.
Henderson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two life terms in prison with virtually no possibility for parole. Judge Jeffrey Donnell told Henderson, “Quite frankly the court does not believe you really feel a true sense of remorse for your role in this matter.” Henderson’s girlfriend Chastity Pasley, who had provided a false alibi and hidden Shepard’s shoes, was sentenced to 15- to 24-months in prison.
During Aaron McKinney’s trial, defense lawyers told the jury that their client was under the influence of drugs and alcohol at the time, that he had been sexually abused as a child, and that he lost self-control when Shepard made a pass at him. This last claim, which was explicitly refuted by Henderson’s confession and other evidence, was characterized as the “gay panic” defense. Judge Baron Voigt told defense attorneys and the jury that there were no provisions in Wyoming law for a “gay panic” defense.
After 10 hours of deliberation, the McKinney jury returned a verdict of felony murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery, leaving open the possibility of either life in prison or the death penalty. But before the jury could hear McKinney’s death penalty trial, he agreed to serve life in prison without parole and promised never to appeal his conviction, thereby avoiding the possibility of the death penalty.
McKinney’s sentencing deal was an arrangement that Shepard’s parents had consented to. “I will never get over Judy Shepard’s capacity to forgive,” Laramie prosecutor Cal Rerucha said. Rerucha also said he found it ironic that “the defense asked the Shepards to give some relief, some type of pity, to a person who had murdered their son.”
From tragedy, shock, and widespread public anger came some measures of inspiration. A nationwide memorial service in Washington, D.C. was hosted by Ellen DeGeneres. Moisés Kaufman’s award-winning The Laramie Project opened as a documentary-play that uses “interviews” with over 200 Laramie community members to tell the story of Matthew’s murder. The play was eventually made into an HBO film. Melissa Etheridge recorded Scarecrow, a memorial song. Tom McCormack later wrote Stigmata, another moving work of remembrance. More recently, MTV presented Anatomy of a Hate Crime, a film about the tragedy. A published collection of poems, Blood & Tears: Commemorative Poems for Matthew Shepard, recalls the grief, pain, and rage caused by the brutal murder. Elton John wrote and recorded the memorial song American Triangle in 2001. It features a guest performance by Rufus Wainright.
The Matthew Shepard Act was legislation proposed in 2007 to expand the Federal hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Despite considerable popular support, the Bush Administration opposed it, and the Matthew Shepard Act failed to become law. In October 2009 President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.
How did the people of Laramie respond to the most significant event in the town’s history? Many local officials and community leaders expressed outrage at the time of the tragedy but have stubbornly resisted efforts to erect a suitable memorial there. Residents of this neighborhood have been especially anxious to bury the past and even petitioned local government to change the street names in order to confuse pilgrims to the murder site.
 Annie Proulx interview, Planet
Jackson Hole, December 7, 2005, page 12,
Pictures of surrounding area:
Revised 16 August 2018