LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — A gay college student who was lured from a campus hangout, beaten and lashed to a split-rail fence died Monday, and the two young men arrested in the attack now face murder charges that could bring the death penalty.
Matthew Shepard, 21, died at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colo., while on life support. His skull was so badly smashed that doctors could not perform surgery, hospital president Rulon Stacey said.
The University of Wyoming student had been in a coma since bicyclists found him in near-freezing temperatures Wednesday evening. They at first mistook him for a scarecrow.
The attack has spurred calls nationwide for hate-crimes legislation protecting gays. President Clinton pressed Congress to expand the federal hate-crimes law to cover offenses based on disability or sexual orientation.
“Americans will once again search their hearts and do what they can to reduce their own fear and anxiety and anger at people who are different,” Clinton said. “And I hope that Congress will pass the hate-crime legislation.”
Russell Arthur Henderson, 21, and Aaron James McKinney, 22, were originally charged with attempted murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery, and jailed on $100,000 bail each.
Police said that with Shepard’s death, the charges against them will be upgraded to first-degree murder, which carries a possible death sentence.
Their girlfriends — Chasity Vera Pasley, 20, and Kristen Leann Price, 18 — were charged with being accessories after the fact. Police said the women helped dump bloody clothing and initially lied about their whereabouts.
Police said robbery was the main motive, but Shepard apparently was chosen in part because he was gay. The 5-foot-2-inch, 105-pound Shepard had been beaten twice in recent months, attacks he attributed to his homosexuality.
In a statement issued by the hospital, Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard, urged parents to hug their children and enjoy every day with them.
Of the 41 states that have hate-crime laws, 21 states specifically cover offenses motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation. Efforts to pass a hate-crime law in Wyoming have failed several times.
On Monday, the giant rainbow flag that symbolizes the gay movement was lowered to half staff in San Francisco’s Castro District. College students rallied in downtown Denver to remember Shepard and denounce violence. And in Laramie, where the long-planned Gay Awareness Week began, some students wore yellow and green armbands to send a message of peace.
“It’s a great loss to everyone, whether they knew him or not. He was an incredible individual,” said Jim Osborn, a friend of Shepard’s and chairman of Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgendered Association, a University of Wyoming student group that represents gay individuals.
“To beat somebody and tie them to a fence post and beat them some more, obviously you’re trying to make a statement,” said Erik Abbott, a 25-year-old University of Wyoming student. “Obviously these people felt this was the feeling of the community as a whole, and it’s not.”
Authorities have withheld many details in the case, and a judge is considering a prosecutor’s request to seal the records.
Police said the two men lured Shepard out of the Fireside bar late Tuesday or early Wednesday by telling him they were gay. The three of them got in McKinney’s truck, where the beating began, police said.
Later, Shepard was tied up and pistol-whipped as he begged for his life, and he was robbed of his wallet and black patent leather shoes, police said. A .357 Magnum used to beat Shepard was found at McKinney’s home, police said.
McKinney’s girlfriend, Price, and his father, Bill McKinney, told The Denver Post that the two men didn’t set out to kill Shepard but wanted to get back at him for making passes at McKinney in front of his friends.
A funeral was planned for Saturday in Casper, where Shepard was born, and a campus memorial service was being planned.