10 Years Later, Shepard Case Haunts Reporters The murder of the openly gay college student ignited a firestorm of media coverage, changing the small town of Laramie, Wyo., forever. But it also had a profound effect on the journalists assigned to the story, several of whom say it changed the course of their lives.

10 Years Later, Shepard Case Haunts Reporters

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Ten years ago, the Matthew Shepard case unfolded on TV and in newspapers across the country. The murder of a gay University of Wyoming student changed Laramie, Wyoming forever. It also changed the lives of three Wyoming reporters who covered the story. From Wyoming public radio, Peter O'Dowd reports.

PETER O'DOWD: On October 7th, 1998, Matthew Shepard was driven to the edge of town, tied to a wooden fence and hit 18 times in the head with a .357 Magnum handgun. Two men, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, were convicted of murder and are serving life sentences. Laramie would never be the same again.

(Soundbite of vigil for Matthew Shepard)

Ms. HEATHER FEENEY (Former Reporter, Wyoming Public Radio): The candlelight vigil held on the lawn of St. Paul Catholic Church was meant to show support for Shepard and his family to encourage healing in the community.

O'DOWD: The reporter's voice you hear in that story belongs to Heather Feeney. A decade later, she's left journalism and Wyoming.

Ms. FEENEY: I think I realized rather recently that the experience is probably the underlying reason why I'm not a reporter anymore.

O'DOWD: Feeney says reporting the Shepard case for Wyoming public radio left her depleted. She covered the grizzly details of the beating, Shepard's funeral and the court case that followed. But as a reporter, Feeney says she was unable to stand where she truly wanted: on the side of the victim and the community where she lived.

Ms. FEENEY: I really just wanted to stand up with these people, with my neighbors and my community. I wanted to hold a candle, too, and say, this violence is not who I am. But that wasn't part of the job, and there was no time to figure all of that out.

O'DOWD: When the national media descended onto Laramie, the town felt picked on and misrepresented as the country's newest symbol of hate. Rob Black was a local reporter with the Associated Press. He remembers going into a local bar for a drink. When a customer found out he was a reporter, the man tried to fight him. In that moment, Black says he became a stand-in for all the journalists who had violated Laramie's privacy.

Mr. ROB BLACK (Former Reporter, Associated Press): It really rattled me. It really made me wonder why I was in this profession. Why am I doing this?

O'DOWD: Black's story has traveled as far as London and Washington, D.C. But he says there are holes in his reporting that will probably never be filled. What really happened that night during the long pick-up ride to the fence where Shepard was left for dead?

Black isn't the only one grappling with unanswered questions. The Casper Star Tribune is Wyoming's state newspaper, and reporter Kerry Drake wrestled with the fact that he was writing so much about a man he'd never met.

Mr. KERRY DRAKE (Former Writer, Casper Star Tribune): It's just something that pervades your - just kind of whole sense of what's right and what's wrong. There was a part of me that had to think, am I doing this for justice?

O'DOWD: The Shepard story unfolded quickly, too quickly for Drake to realize the impact it had on him emotionally. But with time to reflect, he says the story changed everyone's world.

Mr. DRAKE: Including mine, for a long time.

O'DOWD: Kerry Drake's life is joined with the Matthew Shepard story in another way. He is a character in "The Laramie Project," a play that chronicles the drama surrounding Shepard's death. When the production came to Casper, Drake auditioned for the role of himself. He says he had to.

Mr. DRAKE: Part of it was probably because I did feel like I was a part of that event. It has kind of changed my life.

O'DOWD: The soft-spoken reporter had never acted before but he got the part.

Mr. DRAKE: Even after doing it for you know, maybe 10 shows, there are still scenes that, you know, I would cry at. And I think I had kind of saved all my emotion from that time, you know, and was able to kind of get it out through the play.

O'DOWD: As a result of the murder, he admits something else, and it violates every rule of journalism. Drake says he was biased in his reporting of the state's proposed hate crime legislation that followed. He wanted it to pass, and Wyoming should be ashamed, he says, that it didn't. For now, Drake will remember Shepard's legacy in another way.

Mr. DRAKE: People will always remember Matthew Shepard, and I think he will always be a symbol of, you know, searching for the best in us, searching for tolerance.

O'DOWD: Drake says that for all the time he spent writing about Matthew Shepard, he would have liked to have met the man who changed his life so deeply. For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd.

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