The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard

By Stephen Jiminez

(Steerforth, $26, 368 pages)

Who is this author?

Stephen Jimenez, a journalist, writer and TV producer, has won many awards for his work.  He was a 2012 Norman Mailer Nonfiction Fellow and has written and produced programs for ABC News 20/20, Dan Rather Reports, Nova, Fox, Court TV and others. He has won a Writers Guild of America Award, the Mongerson Award for Investigative Reporting and an Emmy. Jimenez has taught screen­writing at New York University and other colleges. He lives in New York and Santa Fe.

What is this book about?

We’re all sadly familiar with the 1998 brutal murder of 21-year-old Wyoming college student, Matthew Shepard, which energized a nationwide revulsion against hate crimes that target gay people. That revulsion is righteous, and the details of Shepard’s gruesome death are appalling, but according to Stephen Jimenez’ book, the Shepard case is in reality very different from the commonly accepted version. Jimenez is himself a gay man and 13 years ago, he set out to write a screenplay about the killing. But after extensive research, including more than 100 interviews, he has come to believe that Shepard and his murderer had had sexual contact, that they were both involved in selling methamphetamine and that the killing was not about anti-gay hate but about the grim realities of the dangers of drug trafficking.

Why you’ll like it:

Whether you ultimately accept Jimenez’ conclusions or not, you should respect his solid experience as an investigative reporter and his courage in writing a book that upends a well-accepted version of a very disturbing story. He might well have titled his book, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Although he is gay, he is being attacked as a tool of anti-gay forces by some, but praised by others for following his research even while it led to shocking and unexpected revelations. Even if his revised version of the story is true, the Shepard case will remain a crucial turning point in America’s changing perceptions about anti-gay hate crimes and about gay men in general. Reading this provocative book may not be an enjoyable experience, but it will be enlightening.

What others are saying:

From an review: “Stephen Jimenez’s The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard”  is a compelling story of a journalist’s determination to ascertain why Matthew Shepard — a gay University of Wyoming student — was viciously killed in 1998. The story that had been told in the media, and to some extent in the courtroom, was that Shepard had made a pass at two strangers in a bar, who became outraged, took Shepard to a remote spot, bashed his head in, and left him affixed to a fence, to die. It was the anti-gay hate crime of the century, and while the rationale for including anti-gay attacks under hate crime law was clearly established long before the Shepard murder, his case became a symbol and rallying point for such legislation.

“Jimenez, however, uncovered another story, one that was to some extent unappreciated at the time of the crime, but was also intentionally hidden for a variety of motivations. Among those motivations were fear, courtroom strategy, and the desire of media, activists, and others to believe the powerful story of a gay man being brutally killed for no other reason than he made an unwelcome pass at a man he happened to meet in a bar.

“Shepard and his killer, Aaron McKinney, were not strangers after all. In fact Aaron McKinney was a bisexual, who had had sex with Shepard. And both were dealers of methamphetamine.

“Jimenez makes a strong case that the unappreciated lesson of the Shepard murder is one about the dangers of methamphetamine. This book is a well-constructed narrative of a 13-year investigative quest by a talented author whose passion for uncovering the true story rings clear. Highly recommended.”

Says The Daily Beast: “In the book, Jimenez upends our understanding of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard 15 years ago in Laramie, Wyoming, a crime that quickly came to be regarded as an open-and-shut case of anti-gay violence. Jimenez spent 13 years reporting the story and interviewed more than 100 sources, including convicted killers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, prosecutor Cal Rerucha, and friends and lovers of Shepard’s from whom the public has never before heard.”

“What if nearly everything you thought you knew about Matthew Shepard’s murder was wrong? What if our most fiercely held convictions about the circumstances of that fatal night of October 6, 1998, have obscured other, more critical, aspects of the case? . . . None of this is idle speculation; it’s the fruit of years of dogged investigation by journalist Stephen Jimenez, himself gay. In the course of his reporting, Jimenez interviewed over 100 subjects, including friends of Shepard and of his convicted killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, as well as the killers themselves. . . . In the process, he amassed enough anecdotal evidence to build a persuasive case that Shepard’s sexuality was, if not incidental, certainly less central than popular consensus has lead us to believe,” says Aaron Hicklin, Editor-in-Chief of Out magazine, in The Advocate.

“No doubt Jimenez will face criticism for his powerful book. Why did he have to dig around and stir things up? Won’t people who are opposed to equal rights for LGBT people use his exposé for their reactionary purposes? How do these revelations harm those who built programs teaching tolerance based on the Shepard murder? How will Shepard’s family feel? . . . The movement for equality for gay people is important, not because of what happened to Matthew Shepard on an October night 15 years ago, but because no one should be less valued as a human being because of who they are or who they love. . . . When combating hatred and bigotry, the truth is always important,” says The Jewish Daily Forward.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “An award-winning journalist uncovers the suppressed story behind the death of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student whose 1998 murder rocked the nation. …The tragedy was “enshrined…as passion play and folktale, but hardly ever for the truth of what it was”: the story of a troubled young man who had died because he had been involved with Laramie’s drug underworld rather than because he was gay. …Jimenez meticulously re-examines both old and new information about the murder and those involved with it. Everyone had something to hide. For Aaron McKinney, one of the two men convicted of Shepard’s murder, it was the fact that he was Shepard’s part-time bisexual lover and fellow drug dealer. For Shepard, it was that he was an HIV-positive substance abuser with a fondness for crystal meth and history of sexual trauma. Even the city of Laramie had its share of dark secrets that included murky entanglements involving law enforcement officials and the Laramie drug world. So when McKinney and his accomplices claimed that it had been unwanted sexual advances that had driven him to brutalize Shepard, investigators, journalists and even lawyers involved in the murder trial seized upon the story as an example of hate crime at its most heinous. As Jimenez deconstructs an event that has since passed into the realm of mythology, he humanizes it. The result is a book that is fearless, frank and compelling. Investigative journalism at its relentless and compassionate best.”

When is it available?

This book can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain Branch.

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