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Crime News Uncovered: Killed by Hate

What Happened to Matthew Shepard’s Killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson?

One of Shepard's killers, Russell Henderson, says he thinks about Shepard “every single day” of his life.

By Erik Hawkins

The 1998 torture and murder of gay student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, was a turning point for gay rights in the United States, prompting outrage, sorrow and activism. His murderers were both given consecutive life sentences, although they weren’t charged with a hate crime. 

There were no federal or state laws at the time equipped to deal with violence dealt solely because of a person’s sexuality or gender identity. The federal government wouldn’t move substantially to address the kind of hatred that took Shepard’s life for almost 20 years, as explained on Oxygen’s special, Uncovered: Killed By Hate.

RELATED: Everything to Know about Matthew Shepard’s Death and the Legacy it Inspired

What happened to Matthew Shepard?

Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were around 21-year-old Shepard’s age when they chatted him up the evening of October 6, 1998 at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie. Shepard had just come from a meeting of his college LGBT association, where the group was planning awareness activities, according to the BBC. McKinney and Henderson pretended to be gay and lured Shepard into McKinney's pickup truck just after midnight, The New York Times reported. Shepard was later found, 18 hours after he was attacked, having been beaten into a coma and left hanging in near-freezing temperatures from a wooden fence. He was taken to a hospital and never regained consciousness, dying on October 12 from head injuries sustained in the attack.

Who killed Matthew Shepard?

McKinney and Henderson were both charged in the case, with Henderson pleading guilty to murder and McKinney being found guilty of murder. They remain in prison. Records from the Wyoming Department of Corrections show that McKinney is incarcerated at a facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi. Henderson, meanwhile, is being housed at a correctional institution in Torrington, Wyoming.

They have both taken starkly different paths since they were sentenced, however. 

Russell Henderson Aaron Mckinney Chasity Pasley Ap

McKinney spoke with actor Greg Pierotti in 2009 for a revival of The Laramie Project, a play centering around the fallout from Shepard’s murder, according to TODAY. In a recorded 10-hour interview, which was adapted into a new act of the play, McKinney revealed he and Henderson did target Shepard because he was gay.

RELATED: California Shop Owner Shot Dead by Man Who Made "Disparaging Remarks" About Her Pride Flag

“The night I did it, I did have hatred for homosexuals,” McKinney told Pierotti, according to The Denver Post. He also admitted that when he and Henderson zeroed in on Shepard that night at the Fireside Lounge, they did so because “he was obviously gay.” 

“That played a part. His weakness. His frailty,” McKinney told Pierotti. 

And, in 2018, Albany County Sheriff David O’Malley, who investigated Shepard’s murder 20 years before, shared a letter written to Henderson by McKinney while the two were both awaiting trial. 

In the letter, McKinney tells Henderson that, at trial, he wants his friend to blame “everything” on him — even writing that Henderson asked him to stop beating Shepard, and that he was “drunk and pointing a cannon” at his friend, according to the Coloradoan

He also makes clear the homophobic element of the brutal murder — although he claims in the letter not to have known Shepard was gay when he and Henderson first approached him. 

“After that, he mouthed off, so I hit him a few more times and his fag ass died,” McKinney wrote. "... At no time did we know he was gay until he tried to get on me.” 

Stephen Belber, one of the playwrights of The Laramie Project, interviewed Henderson for the same production in 2009, and told The Denver Post that the experience was different than Pierotti's with the apparently remorseless McKinney. Henderson has taken a victim empathy course, and even wrote a letter of apology to Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, Belber said. 

Russell Henderson Ap

Henderson believes that the United States should revamp its federal hate crime laws to protect everyone, even after the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, according to a 2018 Associated Press interview. 

RELATED: How NYC Man’s 1990 Murder Became State’s First Anti-Gay Hate Crime Conviction

At a medium-security facility in Torrington, Wyoming, Henderson was working with hospice patients who were also serving jail time, and volunteering training shelter dogs, according to the report. Henderson reiterated that he was deeply sorry for Shepard’s murder. 

What has Russell Henderson said about Matthew Shephard?

“I think about Matthew every single day of my life,” Henderson said, according to the Associated Press. “I think about him and every single one of those days that I’ve had that he hasn’t had, his family hasn’t had, his friends haven’t had. I’m so, so ashamed I was ever part of this.” 

For more on Shepard’s murder, as well as other brutal hate crimes and extremist violence in the United States, watch Oxygen's Uncovered: Killed By Hate.

Where can I watch The Matthew Shepard Story?

Shepard's story is also depicted in 2002's The Matthew Shepard Story, a made-for-television film that originally aired on NBC. The based-on-a-true-story drama — starring Stockard Channing, Sam Waterston, and Shane Meier — can be streamed on Peacock.

Originally published Oct 16, 2019.