July ABC internal memo suggests Matthew Shepard story framed early in the reporting
Roughly two months before reporting began for a “20/20” piece on the Matthew Shepard killing, the freelance producer who sold the story to the ABC program had decided that methamphetamine motivated the murder and not anti-gay bias.
And barely two months into a six-month span of reporting on the piece, a “20/20” producer wrote in an e-mail that the “‘hate crime’ motivation of Shepard’s death” was a “flawed theory.”
Sean Maloney, a senior attorney at Willkie, Farr and Gallagher who represents the Matthew Shepard Foundation, said of “20/20”’s apparent prejudgment of the story, “This strikes us as bad journalism. There is a significant body of evidence that says that anti-gay bias played a role in Matt’s death.”
The November 26 story said that Aaron McKinney who, along with Russell Henderson, murdered Shepard on October 6, 1998 was fueled by meth.
In a March 23, 2004 letter, Stephen Jimenez, the freelance producer, told Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, that “I am very much aware that law enforcement officers who investigated Matt’s murder concluded that methamphetamine was not a factor in the night’s events. My extensive investigation requires me to disagree… I am now convinced that the night’s events were driven far less by homophobia than by the ravages of meth.”
Jimenez wrote that a “prominent national magazine” had asked him to reexamine the murder in 2002 and that he had been reporting that story for “almost two years” and had “interviewed close to a hundred individuals.”
“20/20” said that the show followed six months of reporting. The Jimenez letter predates the start of that reporting by two months.
On July 12, roughly two months after the reporting began, Glenn Silber, a producer at “20/20,” authored an e-mail in advance of the program’s interview with Dave O’Malley, the Laramie, Wyoming police chief at the time of the Shepard killing.
“Although Dave is a veteran, highly skilled investigator who was key to solving the crime quickly, he’s signed onto the ‘hate crime’ motivation of Shepard’s death and our piece will, ultimately, contradict that flawed theory,” Silber wrote.
An ABC spokesman said that “20/20” had done extensive reporting before the Silber e-mail and Jimenez letter were written.
“Prior to July 12th, when our camera crews arrived in Laramie, we had interviewed Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, on camera,” wrote Jeffrey W. Schneider in response to e-mail questions. “But prior to this time, our producing team had collectively interviewed dozens of sources related to the circumstances leading up to and surrounding this horrible crime… In other words, a great deal of research and reporting occurred before we rolled the cameras in Laramie on July 12.”
Maloney and Judy Shepard had seen the Silber e-mail by August 9, when “20/20” interviewed the two of them. They discussed it with Silber and Elizabeth Vargas, the “20/20” co-anchor after their interview.
“She and Silber went to some lengths to say you are reading too much from the e-mails,” Maloney said. “They said, ‘We are not finished investigating this, our story is not complete.’”
The Jimenez and “20/20” documents also raise issues that might have led the program to doubt some of its interview subjects and its conclusion that crystal played a role in the October 6, 1998 murder.
According to the Silber e-mail, “20/20” knew that police had searched the truck that McKinney and Henderson drove the night they murdered Shepard as well as their homes.
Silber wrote that “Neither O’Malley nor Rob Debree of the Sheriff’s Dept. ever acknowledged the role of drugs may have played as a catalyst re Aaron McKinney that night—and because they never found any paraphrenalia, [sic] it seems to have never been seriously considered as a factor.”
The fact that police found no drugs nor even drug paraphernalia during searches of both men, the truck and their homes was not mentioned in the “20/20” story. Schneider said that “20/20” had ample proof of McKinney’s meth use.
“We have multiple sources, besides McKinney, that confirm that he was using meth in the days before the crime,” Schneider wrote. “We interviewed a source (off camera) who says he gave McKinney a gram of meth the day before the crime.”
One interview subject, Thomas “Doc” O’Connor, who operates a Laramie limousine service, claimed that Matthew Shepard told him he was HIV-positive.
“He said, ‘Doc, I’m going to be honest with you, and you’re the first person to know this,’” O’Connor told “20/20.” “And I said, ‘What?’ He says, ‘I got HIV.’ And we talked an hour and a half about HIV. He wanted to commit suicide. He was saving his pills.”
O’Connor also said that he had once had sex with McKinney though McKinney denied ever having sex with men in his “20/20” interview.
Attached to the Silber memo is a background document for the O’Connor interview that stated “Doc knew Matt for only a short time before the murder—Doc originally claimed to journalists that he knew Matt for less than a week, yet he’s admitted to me that Matt visited him at his place in Bosler during the summer of 1998.”
O’Connor’s original statement that he barely knew Shepard—a statement that
conflicted with the 20/20 thesis—was not in the story.
“Doc has always claimed that he only met Shepard about four days before the attack,” Schneider wrote. “But we suspect he’s not being totally honest about this. After we interviewed Doc (and after the memo was written) three sources came forward who told us that they had seen him with Shepard well before what he previously admitted.”
Overall, the “20/20” piece did not refer to prior statements or evidence that contradicted the story’s central thesis.
“We do not believe we ignored any evidence that contradicts the role meth—and McKinney’s desperation to get it—likely played as a key factor in the Shepard homicide,” Schneider wrote.
Maloney said that the piece never proved its central point.
“What they don’t have is any evidence that drugs are the reason why Matthew was murdered,” he said. “There is no evidence in that story that drugs were why he was killed… I think its pure speculation… There are a bunch of loose ends in this piece including McKinney’s sexuality, whether they knew each other, but none of it is connected in a causal way to why he was killed.”