20/20 co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas, shown here interviewing Aaron McKinney, reported her Matthew Shepard story on November 26, but evidence has surfaced that ABC had formulated its theory of the murder four months earlier.
Evidence of Jumping the Gun
July ABC internal memo suggests Matthew Shepard story framed early in the reporting
By DUNCAN OSBORNE
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 Shepards death was a flawed theory.
Sean Maloney, a senior attorney at Willkie, Farr and Gallagher who represents the Matthew Shepard Foundation, said of 20/20s 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 Matts 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, Matthews mother, that I am very much aware that law enforcement officers who investigated Matts murder concluded that methamphetamine was not a factor in the nights events. My extensive investigation requires me to disagree... I am now convinced that the nights 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 programs interview with Dave OMalley, 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, hes signed onto the hate crime motivation of Shepards 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 OMalley nor Rob Debree of the Sheriffs Dept. ever acknowledged the role of drugs may have played as a catalyst re Aaron McKinney that nightand 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 McKinneys 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 OConnor, who operates a Laramie limousine service, claimed that Matthew Shepard told him he was HIV-positive.
He said, Doc, Im going to be honest with you, and youre the first person to know this, OConnor 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.
OConnor 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 OConnor interview that stated Doc knew Matt for only a short time before the murderDoc originally claimed to journalists that he knew Matt for less than a week, yet hes admitted to me that Matt visited him at his place in Bosler during the summer of 1998.
OConnors original statement that he barely knew Sheparda statement that
conflicted with the 20/20 thesiswas not in the story.
Doc has always claimed that he only met Shepard about four days before the attack, Schneider wrote. But we suspect hes 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 storys central thesis.
We do not believe we ignored any evidence that contradicts the role methand McKinneys desperation to get itlikely played as a key factor in the Shepard homicide, Schneider wrote.
Maloney said that the piece never proved its central point.
What they dont 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 McKinneys sexuality, whether they knew each other, but none of it is connected in a causal way to why he was killed.