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A Tale of Two Cities, Laramie Wyoming and Redding California.

Laramie, Wyoming, and Redding, California, are linked by two similar tragedies that happened within 10 months of each other. On October 6th, 1998, Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming. On July 1, 1999, Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder were murdered in Happy Valley.

According to official accounts, Matthew Shepard was murdered by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson.

Matthew Shepard photo from the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

Social media spins this as a couple of Wyoming cowboys who lured a gay man to the outskirts of town where they beat him and tied him to a fence to die, which he did five days later in a Fort Collins hospital.

First off, these two were not cowboys, they were bottom feeders who used crime and drugs to survive. Even Laramie police detective Ben Fritzen said this was a crime about theft and drugs, not a hate crime. McKinney and Henderson set out that night to rob a drug dealer, and when that failed they happened on to Shepard at a local bar. That they knew each other has been confirmed by many who knew all concerned. Shepard was a partier, as was McKinney, and they had both been seen at parties where McKinney allegedly sold Shepard meth.

What it looks like, tragically, is that two criminals were looking for an easy mark to rob and Shepard happened to be the mark, not because he was gay but because they thought he had money. McKinney, allegedly was high on meth and went into a meth rage and beat Shepard. Henderson stated he tried to stop McKinney but was himself attacked. Both men received double life sentences.

While there may be questions about the motive for murdering Matthew Shepard there is no question about the motive for the murders of Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder.

Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder at Matson Vineyards. Photo courtesy of Not In Our Town.

Their killers, brothers Benjamin Matthew Williams and James Tyler Williams, stated they murdered the pair because they were gay. While the brothers were in jail awaiting trial on murder charges, Benjamin Williams’ attorney placed an ad in the Record Searchlight congratulating Benjamin on being ordained as a minister by Christ’s Covenant Church. The RS blamed this on an inept advertising executive. On November 17th, 2002, Benjamin Matthew Williams was found dead in his cell; an apparent suicide. Tyler Williams was sentenced for 29 years to life.

Matthew Shepard is remembered through film and plays such as “The Laramie Project” – ¬†and the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Laramie has been in the forefront of enacting favorable gay laws. While Laramie tries to atone for the Shepard murder, tourists come to Laramie to see “The Fence” in a sort of morbid mentality. They are disappointed when they find out the fence is under the Walmart parking lot. All over the nation and the world social media only remembers that Wyoming cowboys tied a gay man to a fence to die. It was even alluded to in the movie “Brokeback Mountain” where cowboys beat Jake Gyllenhaal’s gay character to death on a remote Texas highway.

Here in Cheyenne two years ago the Outlaw Saloon hit the social rounds in another “here goes Wyoming again”. The Outlaw had a singles night where stranger couples would get their first drink free. They had so many men saying they were gay that the Saloon posted a sign that read “Gays do not receive free drinks”. As expected the nation grasped onto that sign and the manager took it down. He said the Outlaw doesn’t discriminate against gays and has many gay customers, though I doubt that latter part.

The world remembers Matthew Shepard, even if they don’t remember his name, as a blemish on Wyoming. Outside of Shasta County, and even in it, many have never heard of Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder. I read, though I can’t find it, is there is a Gary Matson memorial at Turtle Bay.

Bruce Vojtecky, Cheyenne, Wyoming