RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Fifteen years ago today, a young man named Matthew Shepard was beaten and tied to a fence outside Laramie, Wyo. He later died of those injuries. The two men convicted of his murder, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were said to have been motivated by hate because Matthew was gay. The event drew national attention. President Bill Clinton condemned it as a hate crime.
But a new book undermines the accepted story of Matthew Shepard's death. It's called "The Book of Matt," and it's written by journalist Stephen Jimenez. After more than a decade researching the case, Jimenez pieced together a different story, one in which Aaron McKinney and Matthew Shepard were part of the crystal meth drug trade. And that, he says, played a major part in the attack.
STEPHEN JIMENEZ: The first thing that happened is, I was going through a file at the courthouse and came upon an anonymous letter that mentioned that the defense used by Aaron McKinney during his trial of gay panic was false; and that Aaron had been to gay bars and, you know, had been around gay guys and was very comfortable with that. So that, immediately - many, many questions started to come up. But that was really the beginning. And then eventually, that led me into looking into the drug trade; specifically, the world around crystal meth.
MARTIN: Can you describe what you found out about Matthew Shepard's involvement in the illicit world of methamphetamine?
JIMENEZ: Well, first of all, I learned that Matthew had been a user of meth. And from everything I was able to trace, Matthew got into meth in a serious way, when he was living in Denver, before he moved to Laramie. He moved to Laramie in the summer of 1998. I ended up meeting and interviewing several friends of Matthew. One of them, Tina Labrie, talked about the fact that, you know, Matthew mentioned to her that each time he moved to a new place that he would try to leave the drug world behind, but he found himself getting pulled back in.
MARTIN: What was Aaron McKinney's connection to that world?
JIMENEZ: Well, Aaron McKinney had been a meth dealer for three years prior to the crime. He became addicted to it. He told me, you know, in extensive detail about how after using it just the first couple of times that he got hooked. Aaron McKinney was dealing, and he was connected to a different set of dealers. These, I would say, were Laramie-based - OK? - and they actually bought and sold from each other. Aaron and Matthew had known each other for many months before this crime happened.
MARTIN: On the night in question, you write that Matthew had actually planned to take a car trip; to drive to Denver and transport a shipment of methamphetamine.
JIMENEZ: Well, Matthew was being pressured. There were people in the drug business who felt that Matthew had moved up too fast, that he was kind of an outsider. And so there was a competition going on, in terms of different groups that were actually transporting the drug into town.
Sometime early that evening, Matthew was still considering making the run. He ultimately did not make the run. And Aaron McKinney certainly had information about the shipment of 6 ounces, which had a street value of about between 10- and $12,000. McKinney had been up on meth for a week. He owed at least two of his suppliers - that I know of - money, and he also hadn't paid his rent for October. And so the pressure was really on.
MARTIN: So you say this was not a hate crime; that Matthew Shepard was not targeted because of his homosexuality. What was it, then?
JIMENEZ: Well, Rachel, let me say this. I certainly did not write the book to make the case that it wasn't a hate crime. I wrote the book so that I could examine the complex set of circumstances, the entanglements that existed behind this crime. Hatred is something that is a background to so much of our lives today. It exists in so many forms. Could there have been some form of hatred that was in play that night? Absolutely. But the point of the book is to say, what was the web of factors that played out here?
In my opinion, and based on all the research and investigation I've done, it's that Aaron McKinney wanted the drugs and the money that he believed that Matthew Shepard was in possession of that night. And Aaron assaulted four males in a 24-hour period. One of them was against a gay male, and the other three were against straight males but somehow, we can isolate this and say this was an anti-gay hate crime.
MARTIN: As a gay man, did you have any concerns that your reporting, that digging into this issue, would somehow diminish the power that the Shepard story had; and what it has meant for gay rights in this country?
JIMENEZ: Actually - certainly, along the way I've had those thoughts a number of times. But the stronger impulse, Rachel, was to tell the truth as I discovered it. It felt more important to me to really look at these truths, and to provoke a conversation around them.
MARTIN: But it is not a conversation many in the gay rights community want to have. In fact, the Matthew Shepard Foundation released a statement accusing Jimenez of piecing together an alternative version of events based on, quote, "rumors and innuendo." We reached to Dave O'Malley, the lead police investigator on the case at the time. He, too, rejects the theory that this was a drug deal gone wrong.
DAVE O'MALLEY: If Matthew had been a methamphetamine dealer, we'd had found that out. We would have investigated that part of it. That doesn't cause justification for what happened to him ultimately. If McKinney would have been under the influence of - in a meth-fueled rage of sorts, you know, that would have been appropriately investigated, and reported, in that manner.
MARTIN: We asked Stephen Jimenez to respond to the criticisms, and he defended his sources.
JIMENEZ: There are several people who have literally spoken about the fact that they used meth with Aaron up until the morning of the crime. One of them, a roofing co-worker, testified in McKinney's trial that he had used meth with McKinney on the day of the crime. Aaron McKinney's girlfriend has acknowledged that Aaron was using meth every day.
MARTIN: What Jimenez doesn't have to back up his story is a toxicology report proving that McKinney had meth in his system that night. Dave O'Malley and another investigator on the case, Rob Debree, both told us a toxicology report was done on Aaron McKinney - showing no trace of drugs in his system the night in question. But neither was able to produce the report. The author has woven a complicated and controversial story about why Matthew Shepard died, a story Jimenez says was incomplete from the beginning.
JIMENEZ: Once you had the president of the United States, while Matthew was still alive - being kept alive on a respirator - already making comments that this was a de facto hate crime, once that story got out, what was going to happen? How was that story going to be pulled back?
MARTIN: Today marks 15 years since Matthew Shepard was brutally attacked. Since then, his death has been a powerful symbol of the violent consequences of hate, his memory an inspiration to many around the country. In 2009, President Obama signed into law the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named after Matthew Shepard. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.