A month ago, students at Champaign Central High School performed in "The Laramie Project," a play based on the 1998 murder of a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
The play, according to one review, is about "hate crimes, homophobia and the killing of a college student. On a deeper level it is about how regular people react to finding out that people in their little town are capable of such an act and how simple words can sow the seeds of violence."
Shepard was a homosexual, and he was savagely murdered. But was Shepard murdered, as the play contends, because he was a homosexual? The verdict on that is less clear.
The convicted killers have made conflicting statements on their motives. Law enforcement officials have different opinions about why it happened. Only three people [–] the two killers and their victim [–] know what really happened.
But the truth, however complicated, ambiguous or unknowable it is, appears to be irrelevant, except to sticklers, because Shepard's murder now is legend, where perception is reality. And the perception is that Shepard was killed because he was gay.
Consider this excerpt from an ABC News "20/20" broadcast on the case in November 2004.
"'The Laramie Project' is often used in schools as a lesson in the insidious workings of hate and prejudice. That the real events of the case may have little to do with either should not blunt the basic message, says prominent gay advocate Andrew Sullivan."
Then the broadcast quotes Sullivan, a nationally prominent writer, "The case for protecting gay people is strong, overwhelming, regardless of the details of Matthew Shepard's murder."
The social message of "The Laramie Project" was a motivating factor behind the Central production. A news account about the students' play quoted the school drama director as expressing concern about a "negative" climate in the school and community about homosexuality.
Additionally, students in the play not only learned their lines but "over the summer participated in consciousness-raising activities, including meeting with representatives of the University of Illinois Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns."
So what did happen the night of Shepard's murder?
While some facts are uncontested, others are shrouded in multiple versions of the same event told by the same person.
The 21-year-old Shepard was drinking at the Fireside Lounge, possibly intoxicated and in search of a ride home, when Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, both 21, came in that night.
Ryan Bopp, a friend of McKinney, told "20/20" that he and McKinney had been on a weeklong meth-bender and that he had traded his .357-caliber Magnum handgun to McKinney for meth. Once in the bar that night, McKinney said he bummed a cigarette from Shepard and agreed to give him a ride home when Shepard asked for assistance.
"I kind of put two and two together that we were going to [–] we were going to rob him," Henderson told "20/20."
Once McKinney and Henderson had him in their truck, they didn't take Shepard home. McKinney struck Shepard several times with his .357 and robbed him of roughly $30. Then they took him out in the country and tied him to a fence. McKinney, using the handgun as a club, beat him viciously before leaving.
Shepard died five days later. By then, the national news media had descended on Laramie, all drawn by the claim from friends of Shepard that he was attacked because of his sexual orientation.
Local prosecutor Cal Rerucha, whose office was one of the recipients of the calls from Shepard's friends, said that contention was based on emotion, not fact.
"That was just something they had decided," he told "20/20."
Indeed, the gay-bashing theme the news media found irresistible surfaced before Shepard's attackers were arrested, and it provoked a stunning counter-reaction. Protesters who openly despise homosexuals showed up at Shepard's funeral to taunt his parents.
The gay-bashing theme, planted even before any facts were in, had plausibility.
A friend of McKinney, Kristen Price, gave a television interview in which she claimed that McKinney had told her he reacted in anger after Shepard grabbed his leg when they were in the truck. She said she was motivated by a foolish belief that the claim would mitigate McKinney's behavior. But Price later told "20/20" that "I knew all along it was all about getting money ... Money to get drugs, yep. I don't think it was a hate crime at all. I never did."
McKinney also told police that Shepard grabbed his leg, and he now says he acquiesced to defense lawyers' plan to raise a "gay-panic" defense as part of a long-shot effort to persuade jurors to convict him of a crime lesser than murder, like manslaughter. The defense ploy failed, and both McKinney and Henderson are serving life sentences.
McKinney told "20/20" that he and Henderson had no intention of killing Shepard. But he said he became enraged when Shepard allegedly said "he's going to tell on me." He attributed his irrational anger to his methamphetamine use.
Indeed, within minutes after the attack on Shepard, McKinney and Henderson were back in Laramie and involved in more violence, this time with two men they encountered while on their way to burglarize Shepard's residence.
McKinney said he again used his .357 as a club and "hit him baseball-style with the pistol. Took him out."
That blow fractured the skull of McKinney's latest target, Emiliano Morales, and led to the arrival of police, who collared Henderson and found the truck filled with bloody evidence that would later be linked to the still-undiscovered Shepard.
Laramie police Officer Dave O'Malley said he is "comfortable in my own heart that they did what they did to Matt" because he was a homosexual. But former detective Ben Fritzen told "20/20" that "what it came down to, really, is drugs and money and two punks that were out looking for it." Prosecutor Rerucha agreed, stating that "If Aaron McKinney had not become involved with methamphetamine, Matthew Shepard would be alive today."
Still, no one can really state with certainty why Shepard was killed. But by picking and choosing from the conflicting statements of McKinney and Henderson, people have attributed differing motives to the case.
Still, the legend of Matthew Shepard as a victim of gay hatred stands, and assertions to the contrary are not welcome. After "20/20"'s broadcast, officials at the Matthew Shepard Foundation vehemently attacked ABC News.
"Why is ABC's '20/20' piece so determined not to examine the complexity of the crime, but instead to develop an inaccurate single-cause motivation that runs counter to the facts of this case?" the foundation asked.
But foundation officials need not have worried about the broadcast's impact. The story of Matthew Shepard's death has evolved into what's called "greater truth," which is something that even if not true or only partially true is taken as gospel truth because of the social message it carries.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey<@>news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.