Investigative journalist Stephen Jimenez discussed his 2013 book, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard, in Charlottesville on March 20 at the Virginia Festival of the Book. Jimenez participated in a panel called “Shifting Identities” at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library.
In The Book of Matt, Jimenez explores alternative explanations for the 1998 beating and murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, which at the time was thought to be an unprovoked gay bashing and hate crime.
Shepard's murderers were convicted of second degree murder but not a hate crime. Jimenez looks into a seedy underworld connection between Shepard and one of his convicted killers, Aaron McKinney. Based on his research, Jimenez posits that both Shepard and McKinney were involved in the crystal meth trade in Colorado and Wyoming and disputes the notion that anti-gay animus motivated McKinney and Russell Henderson, who also was convicted of Shepard's killing.
Disrupting the narrative
When the author began working on this story, he had no plans to disrupt the narrative of Matthew Shepard's murder as an anti-gay hate crime.
Almost 15 years ago, Jimenez traveled to Laramie, Wyoming, to write a TV movie about the Shepard murder, spending eight months working on a screenplay that ultimately went unproduced.
At the time, he “believed that the story of this anti-gay murder was really very important and deserved the long form of the television movie but” just as he thought his research for the screenplay was finished, he “started to realize there were other things going on around this crime.”
After extensive interviews with Cal Rerucha, the principal prosecutor of the Shepard case, “I felt I really wanted to look deeper. I also felt – as a gay man as I got into some of the methamphetamine side of the story, as someone who's a survivor of the AIDS era – that methamphetamine was becoming a very, very big problem in urban gay enclaves but also it was moving through a substantial part of the country: through the Midwest, through states like Missouri and Kansas and Iowa and then, in the West, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming. When I realized what methamphetamine was doing, I felt it was critical to tell that part of the story that had been largely excluded.”
'Drug laws have failed'
Asked whether his findings had implications for the wider debate about drug prohibition, Jimenez replied that “I'm quite libertarian when it comes to drugs.”
He explained that he believes that “drug laws have failed miserably” and that there is “a lot of organized crime” involved in the war on drugs.
“It's not by accident,” he added, “that some very vulnerable communities have been set up” as markets for methamphetamine.
“Meth has been a problem on native American reservations,” Jimenez said. “Meth has been a problem in the gay community. Meth has been a problem in economically depressed towns, communities across the country.”
His purpose in writing The Book of Matt, he explained, was to show how “the issues in this case are full of human complexities. Matthew was a human being. The perpetrators were human beings.”
He said “it behooves all of us to understand those complexities if we're serious about dealing with the many different manifestations of violence and hatred in our culture and in the world at large.”
Resistance and acceptance
Although there has been some resistance to his alternative theory of the Shepard murder – which upends the accepted narrative similar to the way Dale Carpenter's book, Flagrant Conduct, changed the accepted story of Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court case that resulted in overturning sodomy laws in the United States – Jimenez said that reception of his book has generally been positive.
“I just completed a 34 city tour” in which “city number 33 was Laramie, Wyoming. I spoke to a packed theater there on a night when it was 10 below zero. A few hundred people came out.”
There were many comments and questions at that Laramie appearance, he said, but “not one person stood up and disputed my findings.”
While he was touring the country, Jimenez said he encountered “minuscule resistance to what's in the book. In fact,” he added, “it only happened at one book store in Washington, D.C., but everywhere else I spoke in the country, people were very open to the findings of the book.”
Since The Book of Matt began as a movie project, it should come as no surprise that “there have been some initial inquiries” adapting it into a film. While Jimenez has not done anything to pursue that possibility yet, because he's working on other projects, “maybe, with the passage of time, a movie can be made,” he said.