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Wyoming Campus Mourns Slaying of Gay Student

Crime: Matthew Shepard, 21, dies three days after brutal beating. Two suspects to face murder charges.


LARAMIE, Wyo. — Students at the University of Wyoming, already shocked by the savage beating of a gay student last week, returned to school on Monday to find flags on the leafy campus riding at half-staff.

"I looked up, saw the flags and thought, 'Oh, my God, Matthew's dead,' " said Shannon Rexroat, a senior who edits the campus newspaper. "The entire campus is in shock and outraged. I teach an orientation class for freshmen. Most of them can't imagine anyone with enough hate in them to do this. Many of their parents sent them here because it is supposed to be so safe."

The death of Matthew Shepard, a popular political science student, left emotions raw in this wind-swept prairie town. Shepard died early Monday at Poudre Valley Hospital, about 60 miles away in Fort Collins, Colo. The 21-year-old had been on life support since he arrived last Thursday with severe head trauma.

Police say the openly gay man was beaten, lashed to a fence post and left to die by two Laramie men who later espoused anti-gay sentiments. Authorities said the main motive appeared to be robbery, but said Monday that the charges against the two would be upgraded to murder.

Shepard's death brought immediate calls for legislative change both here and nationally. President Clinton called the beating an "evil act" and on Monday urged Congress to strengthen laws against hate crimes.

That call echoed even more loudly in Wyoming, one of only eight states that does not have a hate crimes law. A bill that would have created extra penalties for criminals who target victims because of their race, religion or sexual orientation died in the state Senate in February.

Many in Wyoming, which proudly calls itself the Equality State because it was the first state to allow women's suffrage, are now looking inward.

State Rep. Mike Massie (D-Laramie), the co-sponsor of three unsuccessful "bias crime" bills, said he would try again. "I hope we recognize the reason for it and call it Matthew's Law--like Megan's Law in New Jersey--so we can have something positive come out of this tragic death.

"The most important civil rights issue in the 90s is sexual orientation. Every city in the country has some homophobic feelings. We have the opportunity to turn this around and show the nation how to deal with this with forgiveness, love and tolerance,"

But Speaker of the House Bruce Hinchey (R-Casper) said legislation is not the answer. "The penalties for murder are death or life in prison without parole. What is the enhanced penalty if someone commits murder [during a bias crime]? You can't sentence someone to death twice."

On campus, yellow ribbons marked with green circles, signs of sympathy for Shepard, could be seen wrapped around ponytails and tied to backpacks. Many students and faculty were wearing "Straight but not Narrow" buttons. All over, impromptu discussions of attitudes about homosexuality were taking place.

"Is there approval of homosexuality in Wyoming? Absolutely not. Is there social activism against it? No," said Susanna Godwin, director of the university's Ethics Center. "Laramie is a fairly comfortable place to live. So I thought."

Shepard's death coincided with the first day of Gay Awareness Week on the 10,000-student campus. Steve Hassheider and Phil Underwood were working at the table sponsored by the campus' Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Assn.

"We've been getting a lot of support around campus," said Hassheider, watching a parade of denim-clad students shuffle past his table in the Student Union. "Last year you could see people veering away from the table, afraid to even be seen near it."

Hassheider was heartened by this reaction but said he and his friends know to be discreet about their sexuality in Laramie.

Underwood, a social work student, worried that the show of support will turn out to be short-lived. "Our greatest concern is that the authorities in Wyoming are going to back off, saying it is was an isolated incident," he said. "No hate crime bill, no more awareness."

Jeannie Crofts, a 20-year-old student who grew up in Wyoming said she had seen gay friends in high school beaten up but never imagined such anti-gay brutality was possible here. "I think about him out there, tied to a fence for 18 or 20 hours--what was going through his head? It's too terrible for me to even think someone would do that."

Russell Henderson, 21, and Aaron McKinney, 22, were charged with kidnapping, aggravated robbery. Adding first-degree murder charges could bring the death penalty. Two women described as the pair's girlfriends, Kristen Leann Price, 18, and Chastity Vera Pasley, 20, have been charged as accessories after the fact to first-degree murder.

Shepard attended a meeting Tuesday night of the campus gay and lesbian group, which was planning Gay Awareness Week. At the meeting, the group's president told of an incident in which he was harassed near the campus' Fraternity Row and advised students to be careful.

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