On the night of October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard met Aaron McKinney (then 22), and Russell Henderson (then 21), at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie, Wyoming. It was decided that McKinney and Henderson would give Shepard a ride home. McKinney and Henderson subsequently drove the car to a remote, rural area, and proceeded to rob, pistol-whip, and torture Shepard, tie him to a fence, and leave him to die. Media reports often contained the graphic account of the pistol-whipping and his fractured skull. It was reported that Shepard was beaten so brutally that his face was completely covered in blood, except where it had been partially washed clean by his tears. Both of their girlfriends testified that neither McKinney nor Henderson was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time. According to their court testimony, McKinney and Henderson discovered Shepard's address and intended to steal from his home, as well.
After the attack Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson returned to town and McKinney picked a fight with two Hispanic youths, Emiliano Morales and Jeremy Herrara, leading to head wounds for both Morales and McKinney. Police officer Flint Waters arrived at the scene, apprehended Henderson, and soon found the bloody gun and Shepard's shoes and credit card in McKinney's truck. Henderson and McKinney later tried to persuade their girlfriends to provide alibis for them and help them dispose of evidence.
Still tied to the fence, Shepard, who was in a coma, was discovered 18 hours after the attack by Aaron Kreifels, a cyclist who initially mistook Shepard for a scarecrow. Reggie Fluty, the first police officer on the scene, found Shepard alive but covered in blood. The medical gloves issued by the Albany County Sheriff's Department were faulty, and Fluty's supply ran out. She decided to use her bare hands to clear an airway in Shepard's bloody mouth. A day later, she was informed that Shepard was HIV positive, and she may have been exposed due to cuts on her hands. After taking an AZT regimen for several months, she proved not to have been infected. Judy Shepard later wrote she learned of her son's HIV status during his stay at the hospital following the attack.
Shepard had suffered fractures to the back of his head and in front of his right ear. He experienced severe brainstem damage, which affected his body's ability to regulate his heart rate, body temperature, and other vital functions. There were also about a dozen small lacerations around his head, face, and neck. His injuries were deemed too severe for doctors to operate. Shepard never regained consciousness and remained on full life support. While he lay in intensive care, and in the days following the attack, candlelight vigils were held around the world.
Shepard was pronounced dead at 12:53 a.m. on October 12, 1998, at Poudre Valley Hospital, in Fort Collins, Colorado. He was 21 years old.
McKinney and Henderson were arrested and initially charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, and aggravated robbery. Their girlfriends, Kristen Price and Chasity Pasley, were charged with being accessories after the fact. After Shepard's death, the charges were changed from attempted murder to first degree murder.
At McKinney's November 1998 pretrial hearing, Sergeant Rob Debree testified that McKinney had stated in an interview on October 9 that he and Henderson had identified Shepard as a robbery target and pretended to be gay to lure him out to their truck, and that McKinney had attacked Shepard after Shepard put his hand on McKinney's knee. Detective Ben Fritzen testified that Price stated McKinney told her the violence against Shepard was triggered by how McKinney "[felt] about gays".
In December 1998, Pasley pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to first degree murder.
Henderson pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping on April 5, 1999 and agreed to testify against McKinney to avoid the death penalty; he received two consecutive life sentences. At Henderson's sentencing, his lawyer argued that Shepard had not been targeted because he was gay.
Members of the Westboro Baptist Church, led by Fred Phelps, received national attention for picketing Shepard's funeral with signs bearing homophobic slogans.
Members of the church also mounted anti-gay protests at the trials of McKinney and Henderson. In response, Romaine Patterson, a friend of Shepard's, organized a group which assembled in a circle around the Westboro Baptist Church protesters, wearing white robes and gigantic wings (resembling angels) that blocked the protesters. Police had to create a human barrier between the two groups. Angel Action was founded by Patterson in April 1999.
In May 1999, Tobias Winford, Jake Nicholas, Eliot Mansion, Jack Benson, Bridget Aried, Judy Moops, and Chris "Graves" Timber, are struggling to deal with the lost of Matthew Shepard. The friends depart ways, never to see each other again.
At McKinney's trial in October and November 1999, the prosecutor, Cal Rerucha, alleged that McKinney and Henderson pretended to be gay to gain Shepard's trust. Price, McKinney's girlfriend, testified that Henderson and McKinney had "pretended they were gay to get [Shepard] in the truck and rob him". Rerucha argued that the killing had been premeditated, driven by "greed and violence", rather than by Shepard's sexual orientation. McKinney's lawyer attempted to put forward a gay panic defense, arguing that McKinney was driven to temporary insanity by alleged sexual advances by Shepard. This defense was rejected by the judge. McKinney's lawyer stated that the two men wanted to rob Shepard but never intended to kill him.
The jury found McKinney guilty of felony murder and not guilty of premeditated murder. As they began to deliberate on the death penalty, Shepard's parents brokered a deal, resulting in McKinney's receiving two consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. Henderson and McKinney were incarcerated in the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins and were later transferred to other prisons because of overcrowding.
Price pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor interference with a police officer following her testimony at McKinney's trial.
In the following session of the Wyoming Legislature, a bill was introduced defining certain attacks motivated by victim identity as hate crimes, however the measure failed on a 30–30 tie in the Wyoming House of Representatives.
At the federal level, then-President Bill Clinton renewed attempts to extend federal hate crime legislation to include homosexual individuals, women, and people with disabilities. The United States House of Representatives rejected these efforts in 1999.
In 2000, Tobias now lives in New York with his wife Jill, Jack works at a law firm, Bridget started a anti-bullying campaign in January and later became a school teacher, Judy works as a sripper at a strip club, Graves becomes a porn star, Jake works at an office building, and Eliot works at a bar. Jack's brother Max gets in trouble at Eliot's bar, Eliot helps him out after learning he's Jack's brother. Jack comes to take Max home, but is surprised to see Eliot again. While there, Jack meets a beautiful girl named Angela Lyinsky, and the two start up a friendship.
In September 2000, both houses of Congress passed such legislation; however it was stripped out in conference committee.
Graves meets porn star Alexander Martin, and he becomes Graves' new boyfriend. Fellow porn star Amanda Malone quits her job and moves to Los Angeles and gets a new job at Lucky's strip club. When Jack and Max take a trip to LA, Max wonders off meets Amanda at the club. Though he gets kicked out, Paige meets up with him after work, and the two become unlikely friends. Tobias reunites with Jack, Bridget and Judy. Graves arrives and announces he is engaged to Alex.
The old gather at Matthew Shepard's grave and pay their respects (Max, Angela and Amanda included).
The end of the film shows:
On March 20, 2007, the Matthew Shepard Act (H.R. 1592) was introduced as federal bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Congress, sponsored by Democrat John Conyers with 171 co-sponsors. Shepard's parents attended the introduction ceremony. The bill passed the House of Representatives on May 3, 2007. Similar legislation passed in the Senate on September 27, 2007 (S. 1105), however then-President George W. Bush indicated he would veto the legislation if it reached his desk. The Democratic leadership dropped the amendment in response to opposition from conservative groups and Bush, and because the measure was attached to a defense bill there was a lack of support from antiwar Democrats.
On December 10, 2007, congressional powers attached bipartisan hate crimes legislation to a Department of Defense Authorization bill, although it failed to pass. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, said she was "still committed to getting the Matthew Shepard Act passed". Pelosi planned to get the bill passed in early 2008 although she did not succeed. Following his election as President, Barack Obama stated that he was committed to passing the Act.
American Wasteland opened at #5 with $14 million.