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Matthew Shepard's murder made his mom an activist: An interview with Judy Shepard

Originally published Sept. 11, 2009

Matt Shepard color

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Judy Shepard spent eight years digging into her past, recalling the excruciating details of her son Matthew's murder 11 years ago.

``I wasn't sure I could go back to those memories and come back to a good place in the present,'' Shepard says. ``With the help of my family, my husband and my son Logan, it was really hard, but not as hard as it could have been.''

Judy Shepard cred Katy Tart Shepard, 57, is in South Florida promoting her new memoir, The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed (Hudson Street, $26).

In October 1998, two young men picked up Matthew Shepard in a Wyoming bar and drove him to a remote part of Laramie. They pistol whipped him, tortured him and tied him to a fence like a scarecrow. Then they left him to die.

Shepard's death became a symbol of violence against gays and galvanized activists around the globe. Judy Shepard moved to the forefront, forming the Matthew Shepard Foundation and leading the call for a gay-inclusive national hate crimes law.

``If Matt had not been killed, if I had not been in this situation, I'd be the PFLAG mom in the kitchen making cookies,'' Shepard says, referring to the support group Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. ``I would not be making speeches.''

Shepard originally wanted to publish a compilation of letters she received after Matthew died. Her agent at William Morris insisted she write about her personal tragedy.

The book begins with Shepard learning about her son's brutal beating.

``As I started to remember things, I remembered more things,'' she says. ``It was really important to me to remind people at the beginning of the book that this is my story, my memories, my truth.''

Her husband, Dennis, and Logan, now 28, helped with the process, she says.

Shepard said that when the book was finished, she ``could dispassionately read it like it was somebody else's story.''

She learned a few things about herself along the way.

``I understood that I was stronger than I thought I was when I was living through it. It didn't feel like I was being strong. It just felt like I was surviving day to day. But in telling the stories, I was stronger and able to do more than I was doing at the time.''

It was a family decision for Shepard to take a public role.

Shepard book ``We felt we could do that for Matt, his community, his friends. And we all knew I would go crazy if I wasn't doing something to make a difference,'' she says. ``It was my grieving process. It still is. I still keep Matt very close to me. I don't have to let go.''

Often, it's a grind.

``I speak at a lot of colleges. I get really worn down by the travel. But when it gets to the event and I meet those kids and hear their stories about triumph and tragedy, that's what motivates me,'' Shepard says. ``One of the things that came out of Matt's murder and death was a generation of activists. There's an anger, but a different anger. They believe they deserve it -- basic civil rights.''

Several weeks ago, Shepard lost a special friend: Sen. Edward Kennedy, who introduced the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

``He was just wonderful to me, personally,'' Shepard says. ``He would call me when the bill would fail and say, `We're going to get this done.' ''

The House of Representatives passed the bill in April. It passed the Senate as an amendment to the Defense Department authorization bill in July. The House and Senate versions must be reconciled before being sent to the president's desk.

Even if President Barack Obama signs the bill into law, the crimes would still be hard to prosecute.

Florida added sexual orientation to its state hate crimes law in 2001. Twenty-five hate crimes against gay people were reported statewide in 2007, including eight in South Florida.

Several gay men have suffered severe muggings recently in the Fort Lauderdale area, but no hate crime charges have been filed.

``You have to be able to prove intent and state of mind of the suspect,'' says Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti, who last year established a Hate Crimes Task Force led by BSO Cmdr. Rick Wierzbicki. ``Were they just robbing them or robbing them because they were gay?''

One man, Craig Cohen, 47, has been in a coma since two men robbed him and smashed his head on the pavement on April 6. He is now in a hospice and not expected to live, according to a neighbor and friend, Arthur Arndt.

Arndt said that as he and other friends emptied Cohen's Oakland Park apartment, they found something cruelly ironic: ``Right on his counter, he had a newspaper article about Matthew Shepard.''

Matthew's mother says she'll keep fighting until the federal law is in place and gay people have full protections.

``I don't really set goals for myself. I just believe things happen when they're supposed to,'' Shepard says. ``I take advantage of opportunities. My goal is for opportunity to meet with preparedness.''

IF YOU GO

Judy Shepard will make two public appearances during her South Florida visit:

4-6 p.m. Sunday, The Betsy hotel, 1440 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach

7 p.m. Monday, Books & Books, 927 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach

Judy Shepard portrait by Katy Tart

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Honestly, I don't know how I feel about this new possible legislation. I think that the people who attack others just because of sexual orientation, race, gender, etc... ought to be punished to the fullest extent of the law without a doubt. But I also feel like we are giving homosexuals extra special treatment just because they are gay. Crime is crime. And it should be punished as such. Do I think gays are entitled to equal rights? Yes! But this isn't equal. By giving gays thier own legislation as far as crime punishment goes, it really feels like we are putting them all up on a pedastule and saying that they are more important because they are gay. On the other hand, I recognize that gays are targeted specifically becauase they are gay so they might possibly need that extra protection. So I am torn. However, I must point out that the reality is, if someone is going to attack someone, no law is going to stop them in the end. Criminals and ignorant homophobes don't care about laws. That is why they are criminals.
The only thing we can do is learn to protect ourselves as much as possible and look our for eachother.

This article does not cover the whole story about Matthew Shepard. Yes, he was beaten to death and he was gay. But that was not the reason for the beating. Her son was dealing Methamphetamines. The two men that beat him to death did it over a Meth "business" dispute.

The two guys that did the beating did not admit this right away because they did not want to worsen their situation. When it was later discovered, it was kept quiet because political forces were already moving forward with the described legislation and Matthew's Meth dealing would have been "off message".

It is unfortunate that this lady lost her son, but she needs to be completely honest about the matter.

Additionally, Rothaus needs to do more honest journalism and his editor at the Herald needs to do a better job.

Truth Teller, you’re very confused about what happened. After his conviction, Aaron McKinney told ABC News that he robbed and killed Matthew Shepard for money so that he, McKinney, could buy meth:

http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=277685 &page=1

The Night of the Crime

McKinney told Vargas he set out the night of Oct. 6, 1998, to rob a drug dealer of $10,000 worth of methamphetamine. But after several attempts, McKinney was not able to carry out his plan.

Henderson said he thought if he could keep McKinney drinking, he'd forget the robbery plan.

But according to McKinney, when he encountered Shepard at the Fireside Lounge, he saw an easy mark.

McKinney told "20/20" Shepard was well-dressed and assumed he had a lot of cash.

Shepard was sitting at the bar, McKinney recalls. "He said he was too drunk to go home. And then he asked me if I'd give him a ride. So I thought, yeah, sure, what the hell," according to McKinney.

All three got in the front seat of McKinney's pickup, and Henderson took the wheel. McKinney told police that at some point Shepard reached over and grabbed his leg. In response, McKinney said, he hit him with his pistol. "I was getting ready to pull it on him anyway," he said.

McKinney says he asked for, and got, Shepard's wallet, which had only $30 in it. But even though Shepard handed over his money, McKinney continued beating him.

When pressed by Vargas as to why he continued beating Shepard after he had already taken his wallet, McKinney said, "Sometimes when you have that kind of rage going through you, there's no stopping it. I've attacked my best friends coming off of meth binges."

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Subject: [Steve Rothaus' Gay South Florida] Truth Teller submitted a comment to 'Matthew Shepard's murder made his mom an activist: An interview with Judy Shepard'.


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OK, so even if one were to accept the version of the story that was presented during the ABC interview (which is highly suspect and others have disputed it over the years), there is no indication from the interview that Shepard was beaten because he was gay. Instead, it would appear that the beating was due to a drug induced rage.

Again, why would these key points be glossed over in this article, the summation of the book, and the legislative debate?

The ABC interview was quite controversial. The killers’ stories changed after they were convicted, and one of their girlfriends also got caught lying.

From: typepad@sixapart.com [mailto:typepad@sixapart.com]
Sent: Saturday, September 12, 2009 1:39 PM
To: srothaus@rothaus.net
Subject: [Steve Rothaus' Gay South Florida] Truth Teller submitted a comment to 'Matthew Shepard's murder made his mom an activist: An interview with Judy Shepard'.


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So I guess we see that Matthew Shepard's status as the poster boy for Federal Hate Crime legislation is based upon an urban myth.

Here's an idea, "Truth Teller," read Mrs. Shepard's book and learn her account of the story before you continue to critique it and this article based upon it.

I'm very sorry Mrs. Shepard lost her son but I am not interested in "her account of the story". I'm interested in what really happened. And if some elements of the community have a vested interest in a false version of the story for political reasons.

"Several weeks ago, Shepard lost a special friend: Sen. Edward Kennedy, who introduced the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act."

Apparently Mary Jo Kopechne doesn't have any special friends like that. Otherwise we'd have a "Mary Jo Kopechne Apathy Crimes Prevention Act."

Is anybody paying attention? Its not just Mathew Shepard. His death was a tragic example of violence that goes on everyday against homosexuals. A sailor recently murdered by a fellow soldier to hide a secret relationship. Many of these crimes go unreported out of fear and shame. Attacking someone because they are different is the target of these Hate Crime Laws.

wow that sucks for him poor guy

Craig Cohen passed away on October 7,2009. He is missed. May justice prevail.

When I was a kid we saw on the news the shocking story of John Wayne Gacy, a homosexual serial killer, who murdered a number of boys and buried them in the crawlspace of his house. A decade or so later the story of Jeffery Dahmer, another homosexual serial killer who had an, uh, "eating disorder" were headline news. Where are the foundations and books for these victims of homosexual depravity? Where was the special legislation? The silence is deafening.

The Matthew Sheppard story is a fictionalized, over hyped narrative designed to achieve a political purpose. The truth that this was a drug related murder does not serve the political narrative so it is quickly dismissed as "not helpful" to the agenda of crushing free speech by criminalizing all criticism of homosexual actions, practices and goals.

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