CASPER — The Wyoming State Historical Society will honor a controversial book about Matthew Shepard that claims he was killed in a drug deal gone wrong instead of the conventional belief that he was killed because he was gay — a move that’s raising some eyebrows.
“The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard,” by Stephen Jimenez, an investigative journalist who is openly gay, will receive an honorable mention in the nonfiction book category at a luncheon in Gillette on Saturday, said Linda Fabian, the Wyoming State Historical Society’s executive secretary.
“If the award was for a fictional book, I certainly would have no objection to it,” said Albany County Undersheriff Robert DeBree, who was the lead investigator in the 1998 murder of Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student.
Rick Ewig, president of the state historical society, said the nonprofit organization’s goal is to promote study of Wyoming’s history. Shepard’s murder is part of the state’s history.
The book’s publisher nominated the book, he said.
“It doesn’t mean we accept the interpretation of that book,” he said, noting that the historical society has been open to the more conventional belief that the murder was a hate crime, too.
Tom Rea, editor of Wyohistory.org, a project of the historical society, has published two accounts of Shepard’s murder written by Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which was established by Shepard’s parents.
One account is a description of the events in Shepard’s murder. The other is a more personal take on the murder.
Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson both received life sentences for murdering Shepard, who was 21 at the time of his death.
After meeting at a bar and possibly indicating they were gay, the two men drove Shepard outside Laramie, punched and pistol-whipped him, tied him to a cattle fence and left him unconscious. They took Shepard’s wallet, identification and shoes.
In his police confession, McKinney described Shepard using unflattering terms for gays.
But “The Book of Matt” claims that McKinney believed Shepard could lead him to a delivery of $10,000 in methamphetamine that he could steal from Shepard. Outside town, McKinney lost control, the book claims.
The book criticizes the media for mythologizing the motives.
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Albany County Sheriff Dave O’Malley, who investigated the murder in 1998, said Jimenez’s book should have been called “The Book of Lies.”
“Those of us who actually lived the situation know what is fact and what is fiction,” he said. “In my opinion, this ‘work’ is fiction with a few factual innuendos thrown in.”
Marsden, the director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, didn’t respond to the news of the state historical society award. But he said the book is an attempt to rewrite history based on untrustworthy sources, factual errors and rumors.
He said the foundation doesn’t react to “innuendo, rumor or conspiracy theories.”
“Instead we remain committed to honoring Matthew’s memory and refuse to be intimidated by those who seek to tarnish it,” he added.
Jimenez continues to defend his book, which will be released in paperback Sept. 16, the same day as an international edition is published in England, Ireland, Germany, Australia and Japan.
Jimenez wrote a new 20-page afterword with new sources who have corroborated the claims made in the book, he said.
The book started with a piece he did for ABC’s “20/20” that won two awards. He continued reporting after the piece aired in 2004, and he said he learned more about the drug connection.
On Friday, he said he was traveling to Gillette with his partner to accept the award.
“The fact that this has been labeled as anti-gay is absolutely ridiculous,” he said. “I have been out since the 1970s.”
Former Albany County Attorney Cal Rerucha, now the Carbon County attorney, said the book is correct. The case Rerucha said he tried was felony murder and the motive was robbery.
He remains adamant that Shepard’s death wasn’t a hate crime.
“If methamphetamine wouldn’t be in this case, we wouldn’t have had a murder,” he said.