Hindsight On 20/20


Matthew Shepard was not murdered because he was gay. He was killed for money. Also, he may have been suicidal. And one of the men jailed for the killing was into three-ways with a man and a woman.

So reported ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas on Friday’s edition of 20/20 as she sought to tear down the “mythology” that has allegedly surrounded Shepard’s October 6, 1998 death.

“It is the legend, and not the complete facts, that has been printed again and again about what happened” on the night of the murder, Vargas reported.

What really happened, according to her first-ever interviews with the two men convicted in Shepard’s killing, was a simple armed robbery marred by methamphetamine-induced rage.

“The reason he was targeted was not because he was gay. It’s not because me and (killer Aaron McKinney) had anything against gays or any of that,” said one of the men jailed in his death, Russell Henderson. Asked if Shepard’s orientation was a motive, McKinney said, “No, I have gay friends. I know other gay people. You know, that kind of thing don’t bother me so much.” A cop and a prosecutor back up the killers’ claims.

So how’d that gay bashing “myth” get started?

ABC credits two friends of Shepard’s who supposedly pushed that interpretation to cops and the media hours after the killing. However, McKinney’s girlfriend said at the time of the murder that hate for gays was a motive. She now tells 20/20 that she said that in a ploy to reduce his jail time. Soon after the killing, McKinney himself claimed that “gay panic” fueled his fury. Now, he says his lawyers told him to say so, hoping it would reduce his culpability.

The 20/20 piece gives short shrift to any evidence that does support the gay-bashing theory. And in an odd twist, 20/20 reports that McKinney was himself a gay sex veteran, having joined in a threesome involving a man and a woman. That’s according to a local woman, the town limo driver (“the other guy”) and McKinney’s girlfriend. McKinney denies it.

Not surprisingly, some gay rights advocates and Shepard’s parents were not pleased with the piece (ABC can’t have helped itself with gay viewers when, on its Web site on Monday, it offered a link from the Shepard story to a piece by John Stossel called “Test your Gaydar.”)

In a statement, Judy and Dennis Shepard slammed the “tabloid nature of the show, its lack of serious reporting of facts in evidence, and the amateurish nature of asking leading questions to the people who were interviewed.” The foundation the parents run in Matthew Shepard’s name asked people upset about the piece to write ABC or donate $20 to the foundation. GLAAD offered a “viewer’s guide” to the 20/20 piece delineating alleged flaws in the reporting and editing.

“Clearly, there may have been factors in addition to anti-gay bias involved in this case,” the guide reads. “But why is 20/20’s piece so determined not to examine the complexity of this crime, but instead to develop an inaccurate single-cause motive that runs counter to the facts of this case.”