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The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard
by Stephen Jimenez
No current Talk conversations about this book.
I read this book because after twenty years Matthew Shepard's ashes were recently moved by his parents from Wyoming and interred in the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
The consensus of many people in Laramie and Denver was that Shepard was an HIV-positive methamphetamine user and dealer who gave and received sex for drugs and vice versa. That never came out at the trial.
The trials occurred in a carnival-like atmosphere complete with the requisite heavy press, security and carnival barkers. Shepard's parents seemed to have an inordinate hold on the prosecution and it seems likely if they had wanted the death penalty, the prosecutor would have asked for the death penalty. Russell Henderson, the lesser of the two defendants, was not afforded competent counsel and plead guilty without securing a reasonable plea bargain and is now serving two life sentences to be served consecutively, not concurrently. In return for not facing the death penalty he agreed not to do interviews with the press. The author interviewed him when he was transferred to a prison in Nevada. Suffice it to say, after that he was returned to a Wyoming prison.
The two main points in the book I came away with were:
1. The page in defendant Aaron McKinney's address book that would have had Shepard's name and number is missing.
2. The phone records of both McKinney and Shepard were never introduced or even requested at the trial. The author says that is unprecedented in a capital trial.
These points are enormously incriminating to the narrative that McKinney and Shepard did not know each other. The author collected many eyewitness statements that they were occasional sex partners and alternately rivals and collaborators in the Laramie methamphetamine market.
All this undercuts the White House and Justice Department fueled notion that Shepard was the victim of a homophobic hate crime. The resulting hysteria has created a miscarriage of justice.
I'm having a hard time putting my thoughts together about this one. My heart and head say two different things - meaning that I both kinda-liked and simultaneously hated aspects of this read.
In just a second, I'll get into just whhhhhhyyy I felt that way BUT it needs to be said upfront that this is a story worthy of attention.It (repetitively) exposes the complex truth of the motivations and events that led to the death of Matthew Shepard, a young, gay man whose brutal death launched a nationwide campaign that led to the passing of hate crime legislation. His 1998 death triggered an uprising that was likened to the upheaval surrounding Civil Rights in the 1960s.
Me? I was 14 at the time. I think I remember watching something on MTV about him - a documentary, maybe the Laramie Project. Then, in college, as a theater-geek, I became acquainted to the play of the same name. Anyways, I don't remember much; it hadn't really penetrated through my junior high haze of self-scrutiny and introspection. What I do remember, pretty clearly, though, is that this murder was driven by Homophobia-with-a-capital-H. These good-ole country boy-strangers beat up and tortured a young, gay man because he may have come-on to them at a bar. Left him tied to a fence in the cold, spread out in the cold to suffer and die, literally crucified for being gay. Right?
WRONG. Well, kinda-wrong. See? The killers (well, the book makes a convincing case for me to say killer) knew Matt Shepard. They partied with him, traded drugs with him - and, on occasion, traded bodily fluids. Clean, Christ-like, college martyr Matthew had a problem with meth. Author Stephen Jimenez goes so far as to suggest that Matt, himself, was a drug runner/dealer who carried the meth across state lines. The kid behind the brunt of the assault against Matthew had a new baby, a girlfriend, and a raging meth addiction that may have caused him to result to "straight"-trade for his fix. In that sense, the crime is still related to homophobia - as the story that the killers later told (and the story that the media sold) was to cover up his own shameful actions/feelings about being "gay-for-pay." More than anything, though, the story is about the ways that loads of meth and just a hint of small-town corruption can ravage a community.
I liked the book for the ugly truth that it exposed, for encouraging a realistic portrait of an individual - something more than an average sinner but less a saint. I disliked a lot of different things. It was too long, too repetitive, too murky (many sources - and accused conspirators - were alluded to in anonymous terms). The author defended himself - and his motivations in writing the expose - far too much, coming across as both apologetic and self-congratulatory in turns. It was journalistic in the sense that "In Cold Blood" is journalistic; it was prejudicial and tainted with the author's own experience. In many ways, Jimenez became unable to separate his own subjective experience from that of the objective true crime tale.
Overall, the message this book imparts is important...BUT a magazine feature or series may have been more appropriate in terms of the length to subject matter ratio.
There is an important story being told here but Jimenez' style is intolerable.
A is the victim of a savage killing. B and C are the killers. But this is the US, where while the Haves are perpetuating and preserving the frontiers of empire, the Have Nots are multiplying and having less, and their frontiers are closing in on them, shifting, menacing, taunting; and so the savagery of the crime is not in the least unheard of—gangs of 12 year olds are beating old men to death in Milwaukee, girls are stolen and kept in cellars and raped in more ways than one for a decade in Cleveland, black men are dragged to death in Texas, and the news hasn't space for all the brutality the Have Nots are visiting upon each other daily in one of the most murderous, drug sucking, gun-toting nations in the world. Somehow the Have Nots and the Have Mores (something like a middle class?) have long been fascinated by the extreme violence in the US, evidenced in particular by the violence trade in film and books. Astonishingly high murder rates in virtually every US city are a standard of US life and even the smallest village is likely enough to host a double-murder-suicide. The United States is not a safe place to live, or at least it is difficult to feel safe there. Maybe that's the reason for the fascination with violent crime: in a book, on television, in a movie others are involved, there is a beginning and an end that the observer is aware does not include him or her—what is gutsucking in person is kept at bay (and you don't have to turn a gouged eye).
Strangely, given the tens of thousands of beatings and murders every year some of these crimes still have the capacity to enthrall in their specificity. Most recently it was Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. Perhaps most famously it was O.J. Simpson killing his wife. Thanks to Truman Capote Dick and Perry became so famous a couple Woody Allen didn't need to use their last names when his character expressed his fear of life outside the city. Yet even when crimes are particularly heinous and appear to be the result of enduring hatreds that the nation's activists are trying to subdue through legislation, it is only a few that yield a victim whose name is remembered. Even a man who had a bill named after him—and someone else—is largely unknown (while the other is largely known). Back in 1998 James Byrd, Jr., was taken by three men to a remote are along a country road, beaten with a baseball bat and fists, pissed on, and then chained by his ankles to a vehicle and dragged for several miles. At some point his head and arm were lopped off when his body swung into a culvert. Because Byrd was black and the killers white, including two proud haters of blacks, this crime became an emblematic 'hate crime'. The other name on the 2009 hate crime bill is that of Matthew Shepard, who is far more widely recognized. He, A, was gay, and B and C were said to have been upset at that fact and therefore killed him—gruesomely. B pistol-whipped him with a large revolver; the two tied him two a fence a few miles outside Laramie, Wyoming, and, though Shepard was found before he died, the damage to his brain and neck was so severe he had little or no chance of survival. In both cases the press reported on the outrage of the loud and outraged. I have no idea what the majority of people felt, for I am of the opinion that US fascination with crime perverts the relationship between the lucky and the victim. I think people like so much to read about heinous crimes that they can no longer really know what they feel/think about cases like that of Byrd and Shepard. Probably there is some mixture of titillation and repulsion, but the soup likely has even more ingredients.
In his true crime book, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths about the Murder of Matthew Shepard, author Stephen Jimenez revisits (obsessively, over a 13 year period) the emblematic anti-gay hate crime visited upon Matthew Shepard. With a rather off-hand, nearly confessional style, Jimenez recounts his investigative process, how he came to be interested in conducting a thorough investigation, why he began doubting that the truth of the matter were as simple as had become commonly believed, and in the end came to the conclusion that this hate crime was probably not so much a matter of sexuality as of drug dealing and abuse. This is not a spoiler, I know, because there are already headlines, some angry, saying that the Shepard killing, according to an explosive expose or something or other, was a METH killing. So I have to spoil the spoiler, if that's all right. (If not, stop reading here.) According to Jimenez, first of all, the story is above all far more complicated than we have been led to believe. There are innumerable pertinent revelations that if revealed here would be spoilers, but suffice it so say that any fair reader will come away with the conviction that this was far from what it was presented to be. The reasons for that, Jimenez tells us to some degree, but he could not find out everything, and so there are degrees of sinister to the crime, of which the most seems perhaps most likely but also most shadowy. Shepard, for one thing, was not an all-American boy; though it is much to the author's credit that this fact does not in the least change the reader's sympathies for this victim—in my case, I developed empathy for one who was otherwise much like a screen victim.
Very pertinent is the fact that Jimenez's investigation was fuelled largely by the doubts of the man who prosecuted the case and who Jimenez received tremendous help from in the form of guesses, leads, theories, etc. If there is a fault with the book, it is that Jimenez must surely be grateful to the prosecutor and, in my opinion, because of that decided to go far too easy on him in the text. The prosecutor's doubts are of no help to perpetrator C, who seems to have been guilty of abetting, probably out of fear, and was apparently railroaded into foregoing a trial and accepting two life terms, which a judge determined would be served consecutively. By US law, C, if properly served, should be out of jail by now. If that seems shocking, more shocking are two brutal crimes committed during the same years of the Shepard murder, equally brutal, perpetrated on woman, one of them C's mother, all the more shocking for the light sentences given the killers. C's mother was repeatedly raped and left to die, naked, 8 miles out of town on a January night.
Because Shepard's murder is an iconic event in gay rights history, the book naturally will upset a lot of gay rights advocates. They will be particularly disturbed when positive reviews point out that Jimenez is gay, as if a gay guy can't be a sensationalist, exploitive asshole. But if anyone takes that approach they will miss some aspects of the book that I believe at the very least demonstrate that the public acceptance of high profile homosexuality has come a long way in a relatively short time. I will suggest two of these aspects, for good or ill. One, apparently methamphetamines were particularly destructive within the urban gay community at the same time they were too quietly ravaging smaller towns along I-80 (I know of the horrors generated by meth in the Iowa countryside going back to the early 90s). Another is more subtle. As Jimenez is, as noted, writing in a sort of confessional style, he writes of his fears during particular situations, and various other atmospheric, sensory details here and there. In one scene he is rather stricken by a good looking man in a Denver bar—and luckily soon finds out the guy is happily involved with another man. The comes off without the slightest emanation of strange: only the reader's acute awareness of the 'gay theme' of the book causes it to stand out.
So why Denver? Read the book. Denver plays a very important role and you will be amazed at much of what was actually going on. There is much temptation to spoil right here and now. But back to Laramie and American crime, this book may be fascinating because it begins with a notorious crime and fleshes it out. But it is a book about truly American crime and is fascinating for the leering demons within us as well as for those who haven't such monsters within but simply care about life (I believe almost all US Americans are both, whether they know it or not). Particular to the Shepard case, the book is definitive in the sense that it becomes very clear to the reader that the term 'hate crime' as conventionally understood does not apply. Otherwise, the book raises far too many questions for Jimenez to answer. He knows this, but, if there is another flaw it is that there may be a couple questions he could have answered but did not. For me, that was frustrating in one instance, but overall seemed, perhaps artlessly, to have underscored a profound point about violence and life in general.
"Late on the night of October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard, a twenty-one-year-old gay college student, left a bar in Laramie, Wyoming with two alleged 'strangers,' Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Eighteen hours later, Matthew was found tied to a log fence on the outskirts of town, unconscious and barely alive. He had been pistol-whipped so severely that the mountain biker who discovered his battered frame mistook him for a Halloween scarecrow. Overnight, a politically expedient myth took the place of important facts. By the time Matthew died a few days later, his name was synonymous with anti-gay hate. Stephen Jimenez went to Laramie to research the story of Matthew Shepard's murder in 2000, after the two men convicted of killing him had gone to prison, and after the national media had moved on. His aim was to write a screenplay on what he, and the rest of the nation, believed to be an open-and-shut case of bigoted violence. As a gay man, he felt an added moral imperative to tell Matthew's story. But what Jimenez eventually found in Wyoming was a tangled web of secrets. His exhaustive investigation also plunged him deep into the deadly underworld of drug trafficking. Over the course of a thirteen-year investigation, Jimenez traveled to twenty states and Washington DC, and interviewed more than a hundred sources. Who was the real Matthew Shepard and what were the true circumstances of his brutal murder? And now that he was larger than life, did anyone care? The Book of Matt is sure to stir passions and inspire dialogue as it re-frames this misconstrued crime and its cast of characters, proving irrefutably that Matthew Shepard was not killed for being gay but for reasons far more complicated-- and daunting" -- from publisher's web site.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)364.152Social sciences Social problems and services; associations Criminology Crimes and Offenses Offenses against persons Homicide
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I have read several books and seen 2 movies documenting the tragic, grotesque, and senseless death of this young man. To date everyone still has an opinion but no one has an explanation …the complete truth, nor can they really answer the question of “why”? Why did it happen? Why this particular man?… and what... if any... were the events leading up to it? Drugs were, and still are, thought to be the reality, but the media and almost everyone else was convinced that it was simply because Matthew was gay and dared to say it.
From the Book “Fifteen years ago Aaron McKinney swung his .357 Magnum for the final time like a baseball bat into the skull of Matthew Shepard. Shepard was tied low to a post, arms behind his back, in a prairie fringe of Laramie, Wyoming. The murder was so vicious, the aftermath so sensational, that the story first told to explain it became gospel before anyone could measure it against reality. That story was born, in part, of shock and grief and the fact that gay men…this one really only a boy… like Shepard have been violently preyed upon by heterosexuals. It was also born of straight culture and secrets. This is not a left-wing or a right-wing thing. It is not a gay or straight thing…, it is not a religious versus atheist thing…It’s being a human being thing. . .
It’s now been 22 years since this happened and we have to wonder just how much has attitudes changed? No matter what your feelings are about homosexuality…you have to see that this goes way beyond the realms of sex and who you can or can not love…it more than likely had nothing what-so-ever to do with Matthews sexual orientation and more to do with the attitude that “you are different than me and don’t believe in the same things I do so therefore you are not only totally wrong…you have to… actually really need to… die for it.”
The last line of the book reads …“What is clear is that Matthew was as complicated and flawed an individual as we all are and that in no way invalidates his humanity, his right to life or the reaction to his murder.” As I finished the last page I thought to myself…I hope that this sad testimony to intolerance is not what we have become as a people. I do sincerely hope not. ( )