Two recently published books, Stephen Jimenez's "The Book of Matt" and Kevin Cook's "Kitty Genovese," re-examine two much-mythologized murders.
"The Book of Matt" challenges the popular belief that Matthew Shepard was murdered because he was gay.
On Oct. 6, 1998, Shepard left a Laramie bar with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. They drove him to a remote area, viciously pistol-whipped him, and left him tied to a fence. He never regained consciousness and died of brainstem damage on Oct. 12.
The national media reported the attack as an anti-gay hate crime, and the narrative stuck. Today, everyone "knows" that Shepard's killers targeted him because he "looked gay," told them he was gay or made homosexual advances toward them. Shepard's status as a gay martyr has inspired hate crime legislation and countless works of art.
When Stephen Jimenez arrived in Laramie in 2000, he also viewed Shepard's murder as a hate crime.
Jimenez, who is openly gay, was working on a screenplay about the murder and wanted to examine case documents. He ended up spending 13 years interviewing McKinney, Henderson, and anyone who knew anything about Shepard, his killers, or the case.
The turning point came when Jimenez discovered an anonymously written letter in the courthouse. It said Aaron McKinney didn't hate gay people; he visited gay bars and sometimes had sex with other males in exchange for money or drugs.
Some interviews supported the letter's assertions. The manager of a gay bar told Jimenez that McKinney and Henderson were patrons of his bar. A limo driver said McKinney and two other men "played around" in his vehicle. A former boyfriend of Shepard's said McKinney and Shepard weren't strangers before the murder. They'd known each other for months and had been sexually involved.
(McKinney, who had a live-in girlfriend at the time of the murder, insists he isn't bisexual, but acknowledges trading sex for money/drugs and engaging in what he calls "the usual kids' stuff" while growing up.)
This information didn't square with the popular perception of the killers as homophobic rednecks. But if anti-gay bigotry wasn't their motive, what was?
Drugs, says Jimenez.
Shepard, McKinney, and Henderson were methamphetamine addicts, and Shepard and McKinney also dealt meth. According to witnesses and McKinney himself, McKinney had been on a five-day meth binge before the night of the murder. Desperate for more meth, McKinney targeted Shepard to rob him of his meth stash. It was crystal meth, not homophobia, that fueled McKinney's deadly rage that night.
Though he's gay himself, Jimenez's work has angered gay activists who are invested in the Matt-as-Martyr narrative. In 2004, while working on a "20/20" episode about Shepard's murder, Jimenez was besieged by organizations like GLAAD.
Opinion may be shifting, though. A review of "The Book of Matt" in the gay magazine "The Advocate" concedes that Jimenez has "amassed enough anecdotal evidence to build a persuasive case that Shepard's sexuality was, if not incidental, certainly less central than popular consensus has led us to believe."
Next week: Kitty Genovese.
Tommy Richardson lives in Erath County. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.