Many are understandably aghast that some opportunistic and homophobic characters are disputing the idea that the brutal Matthew Shepard killing was purely a hate crime: a young man singled out and beaten to a bloody pulp by strangers solely because he was gay. A pure hate crime was certainly how I first thought of the case, but the notion that the story is a lot murkier is not crazy or bigoted. (How Rachel Maddow could have a segment on this and not raise any of the salient questions I don't know.) I don't doubt that homophobia fueled the disgusting murder. But I am unconvinced it was the sole motive. ABC's 20/20 report brought some serious facts to the table - most specifically the crystal meth binge that the killers had been on, and the original motive being possibly robbery of someone McKinney knew casually:
As a heavy user and a dealer, McKinney was well-known with the methamphetamine crowd, according to Ryan Bopp, who was one of McKinney's friends and drug associates at the time. By the fall of 1998, McKinney had blown through his inheritance and was now the parent of a new baby with his girlfriend, Kristen Price.
"I think he was really torn because it is the desperation of getting your fix or taking care of your family," Price said. In the days leading up to the attack on Shepard, she said, McKinney was using methamphetamine every day...
"Everybody knew Matt Shepard was a partier just like Aaron, just like the rest of us," said Bopp.
In fact, Bopp said he had seen Shepard and McKinney together at parties. "Aaron was selling [drugs] and him and Matt would go off to the side and they'd come back. And Matt would be doing some meth then," he said.
Though they frequented the same party scene, McKinney maintains he had never met Shepard before the night of the crime and wonders why people might say he had. "I've never met him. ... Maybe they seen us somewhere in the same spot or something. I don't know," McKinney said.
A bartender familiar with the local drug scene, who asked to be identified only as "Jean," says she was friendly with Shepard. She also says McKinney and Shepard knew each other.
When she learned of the beating, she said, she recalls thinking, "It's either money or dope, yeah. He'd be the perfect target especially because Aaron knew him."
Another Laramie resident, Elaine Baker, says she also saw McKinney and Shepard together in a social situation. Several weeks before the murder, she spent a night on the town in Doc O'Connor's limousine with a group that included both McKinney and Shepard.
"In the back of the limo, there was me, Stephanie, Doc, Aaron, Matthew Shepard," she said.
As word spread of the attack on Shepard, other people who knew him also suspected the drug scene might somehow be involved.
In fact, former Laramie police Cmdr. Dave O'Malley got a call from a friend of Shepard suggesting that. Nevertheless, O'Malley doesn't believe drug use motivated the attackers.
My own view, for what it's worth, is that this was multi-determined. I do not doubt that one of the motives for the brutality of the killing, perhaps the primary one, was homophobia. Equally, I don't doubt that it was much, much murkier than the p.c. mythology would have you believe. Shepard's mother's statement is telling, and true, I think:
"There were a lot of things going on that night, and hate was one of them, and they murdered my son ultimately. Anything else we find out just doesn't, just doesn't change that fact," she said.