Why Is A State Historical Society Honoring A Discredited Book About Matthew Shepard?

The Wyoming State Historical Society honored a book that asserts college student Matthew Shepard wasn't murdered because he was gay, but was instead killed in a drug-related incident - even though the book relies on wild extrapolation and questionable or anonymous sources and has been denounced as “fictional” by lawyers and investigators involved in the case.

On September 6, the society gave Stephen Jimenez's The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard an honorable mention in the nonfiction book category at a Gillette, WY luncheon.

Jimenez's book contends that Shepard's 1998 murder in Laramie was actually the result of Shepard's involvement in the methamphetamine trade - and that, through the meth trade, Shepard knew his attackers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, prior to their encounter at a bar the night they brutally bludgeoned Shepard. What's more, Jimenez claims that Shepard and McKinney were actually secret lovers - a claim McKinney has steadfastly denied and for which there's no evidence besides the word of a few shady Laramie characters. The Book of Matt dismisses strong evidence of McKinney's homophobia - including his use of the epithet “fag” to describe Shepard , his statement that he had "hatred for homosexuals" the night of the attack, and his reference to himself as a “drunk homofobick [sic]” - by blaming such language on McKinney's fondness for rap music.

People familiar with the case - including Henderson's appellate attorneyAlbany County Sheriff Dave O'Malley, and Albany County Undersheriff Robert Debree  -- condemned Jimenez's book as factually challenged, and the Matthew Shepard Foundation noted that The Book of Matt relied on "rumors and innuendo." Its biggest fans so far have appeared to be right-wing media personalities, who seized on the book to assail the LGBT community.

So why is the Wyoming State Historical Society honoring the book?

Rick Ewig, the society's president, told the Billings Gazette that the award “doesn't mean we accept the interpretation” of the book, suggesting that the society was honoring the book simply because it attempted to investigate part of Wyoming's history:

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.

Shepard's murder is indeed part of the state's history, but it's nothing short of bizarre for the state's historical society to commend a book merely because it pertains to something that happened in Wyoming's past - the facts and the evidence be damned. 

Responding to the historical society's award for The Book of Matt, DeBree, the lead detective in the case, said, “If the award was for a fictional book, I certainly would have no objection to it.”