On Oct. 7, 1998, Judy and Dennis Shepard’s son Matthew, 21, a gay University of Wyoming student, was beaten, tied to a wooden fence outside Laramie and left on the windblown prairie to die. Earlier this year, roofer Russell Henderson, 22, received a life sentence for Matthew’s murder. Last month, Matthew’s other assailant, high school dropout Aaron McKinney, 22, was facing a possible death sentence when Matthew’s parents intervened, supporting a deal that sent him to prison for life without the possibility of parole or appeal.
Since Matthew’s death, Judy Shepard, 47, and Dennis, 51, a roughneck oil rigger turned construction-safety engineer in Saudi Arabia, have worked through the Matthew Shepard Foundation to promote tolerance in hopes of sparing others their son’s brutal fate. Recently, they spoke with correspondent Vicki Sheff-Cahan about the road they have traveled and the choices they’ve made.
Judy: The phone rang at about 5 a.m. at our house in Dhahran. It was the emergency room doctor in Laramie saying Matt had been beaten and had a severe spinal-stem injury.
Dennis: I felt sick to my stomach as I listened. When I asked what Matt’s chances were, the doctor said, “Not good.” We began to work our way through a paper trail—visas, airline tickets—to get out of Saudi Arabia.
Judy: Counting layovers, it took 27 or 28 hours to get to Denver.
Dennis: During the flight, I tried to concentrate on other things, but all I could see was Matt as a child in Wyoming. In Casper, he would write poems and leave one in every mailbox on our street. He was a sweet kid. I felt like running up and down the aisles screaming, but I sat quietly like a normal passenger.
Judy: Dennis and I are both practical people. We made decisions about what we’d do about life support or, if Matt didn’t survive, about the services. The doctor had told us that if by some miracle he did survive, he would be little more than a vegetable. We knew that Matt wouldn’t want that. We decided we wouldn’t let that happen.
Dennis: We arrived at the hospital at about 6 p.m. Friday. My knees buckled when I saw Matt. I put my mouth to his ear and called his name. His hand shook. I thought, “He’s responding!” But the nurse said it was nerve reactions. We stood by his bedside, hoping he would recognize our voices even if only on a subconscious level. Logan, our other son, who is 18, didn’t come in. He wanted to remember Matt the way he had been.
Judy: I went into this emergency mode that moms go into when things are a mess. I held his hands and surveyed his wounds. I tried to understand what had happened to him. It wasn’t until I left the room that I began to sob uncontrollably. We stayed with him all night and most of the next day. We were desperate to be with him all the time, to let him know we were there.
Dennis: On Sunday, we sat down and talked to Logan about seeing Matt. We thought if he didn’t, he might regret it the rest of his life. We were crying. It was tough. Logan said okay. Judy and I sat outside and watched on the TV monitor as he talked to his brother. He stroked Matt’s hand; he held it. When he came out, he looked as if the weight of the world had been lifted. He had made his peace with Matt.
Matt died at 7 minutes to 1 on Monday morning. We were all with him. We were proud of the fight he had put up, but we were relieved. Anyone else would have died out there on the fence. He was tougher than most. He is my hero.
Judy: I knew he was gay for some time before he told me. When he called from college freshman year and said, “Mom, I’m gay,” I said, “What took you so long to tell me?”
Dennis: I was the last to know. I guess he didn’t want to hurt me. I come from trailer trash, traveling construction workers. I guess I was shocked. I was sad that I wouldn’t see Matt’s children. Then I got to thinking: I still had my son. Matt struggled with it too. He would say, “Why do I have to be gay?” I would say, “That’s just the way it is.” My biggest regret is that I told other people I was proud of him, but I never said it when he was there to hear.
Judy: When McKinney’s lawyers asked for a meeting, I went alone. Dennis couldn’t look at them. But I feel nothing for McKinney—a void. When his lawyers said he would give up his right to an appeal if we would ask the prosecutor not to pursue the death penalty, I thought, “I will never have to see or hear from this man again.” I liked the idea. There would be no parole. It would be finished.
Dennis: I wanted him toasted. But in order to do that, we would have had to go through 15 years of appeals. I haven’t forgiven him. Why should I forgive somebody who shows no remorse? Let him burn in hell.
Judy: Now, with the foundation, we are trying to create something positive out of our sorrow. People seem to want to hear what we have to say.
Dennis: I went to the fence on the anniversary of Matt’s death. The road there is barely a trail, all rutted and rough. As I drove over the last hill, I could see the fence and the crosses there. I walked to the fence where they had tied him up. I thought about him being scared and in pain, wondering what was going to happen—begging for mercy and getting none. He was so small and helpless. I could hear them laughing as they beat him. I looked down, and there was a single rose and a basket of flowers. I thought, “This is really where Matt died, not in the hospital.” I almost threw up. I looked out in the distance at the lights from the houses he saw. That was when I decided that I would do everything in my power to keep another person from going through that ever again.
Judy: I find myself crying in the bathroom a lot. Dennis is always there for me. Now when I need to cry, he will just hold me and let me cry without thinking he has to fix it. He’s learned that this year.
Dennis: I cope by reading. I carry a book with me everywhere. I just finished all of Dickens and Dostoyevsky and am starting Faulkner. I play racquetball and basketball. I work. They are distractions, but that’s how I go on. It’s hard not to hover over Logan. He is the only child I have left.
Judy: We do have Matt’s ashes.
Dennis: Whenever we have a family dinner, we set a plate for Matt. Every so often one of us will wag a finger at the sky and say, “Matt, we know you did this to get your mom out of the kitchen—to use her intelligence and personality to help others.” Then we smile at each other.