For drama, it didn't come close to a young man tortured and strung up like a scarecrow on a fence beside a lonely strip of Wyoming asphalt. Which meant that for the media, it barely rated a mention.
On November 1, 1993, a battered body was found by the side of I-70, just off Federal Boulevard. The news briefs in the next day's papers reported that Steve Heyman, 47, a psychology professor at the University of Wyoming, had died of injuries probably sustained after he was run over by several cars. The Denver police said they were investigating.
But not for long.
It took the horrific death of Matthew Shepard this past October and my call to the Denver Police Department before the mysterious death of Steve Heyman became an active file.
Many murders go unsolved in this country; many more deaths are never explained. Still, it's not surprising that Heyman's death in 1993 would suddenly begin resonating five years later. Like Matthew Shepard, Heyman knew what it was to be a gay man living in Laramie, Wyoming. But unlike Shepard, he was not killed in cowboy country, with its "rednecks and yahoos," as Time magazine put it. No, Steve Heyman had to come to enlightened, liberal Denver to die.
In November 1992, Colorado passed Amendment 2, the anti-gay-rights measure. Although quick court action held the measure in abeyance until the U.S. Supreme Court could rule (and, ultimately, toss the amendment as unconstitutional), in late 1993 Colorado was still in a state of suspended animation. It was the focus of a national boycott, the butt of jokes, the target of suspicion. The Hate State.
But Denver, which already had an equal-rights ordinance protecting homosexuals on its books, still had a thriving gay scene--including bars, which Heyman, a New York City native, liked to visit whenever he dropped down from Laramie. And when he came to Denver in late October 1993 to deliver a lecture before heading off on a trip back East, he stuck to his usual routine. But somewhere between last call and the next morning, his body landed by the side of the interstate. His blood alcohol level was high. He'd been hit by several cars. He was very dead.
Heyman's death hit Laramie--or at least parts of Laramie--hard. He was an award-winning professor and had taught one of the first credited university classes on the AIDS pandemic. He'd done extensive research on the psychosocial effects of AIDS and was in the process of making plans to bring the AIDS quilt to the university. "It was shocking," remembers David Caruth, who worked for UW's division of student affairs for seven years before moving to Aurora this fall. Shocking, but at the same time a reminder that all things were not equal in Laramie. When Caruth, who is black, first moved there with his wife, "our neighbor hung out a Confederate flag," he says. "I feel there are people who live in Laramie who are made to feel welcome who just aren't very tolerant." The death of Shepard--and some nasty responses from university officials when Caruth pointed out his own problems in Laramie--reminded him of that all over again.
Matthew Shepard's tragic death brought back horrible memories for Jane Rock Kennedy, too. She'd never forgotten Heyman, one of her advisors in the psychology department, or how the university had swept his death "under the carpet." His office was cleaned out within two days and his name taken off the door. "There was the memorial service for him," she remembers, "and then he was just gone."
Gone, but not forgotten. The day before he'd headed to Denver, Rock Kennedy had gone out for some martinis with Heyman, a friend and a collaborator on the quilt project. Now she began getting death threats. One day two men came to her door and told her son, "You tell your mother she's going to be saying hello soon to Steve." At night the phone would ring and she'd hear the sound of a woman screaming, then a voice that announced, "Judgment day is coming; your time is running out." She talked to the Laramie cops about the harassment; they said the problems seemed to come from a few troublemakers on a ranch a few miles away--but still a very long way from where Steve Heyman had died.
"At the time," she remembers, "I kept most of my fears to myself." Primary among those fears was that Heyman had been murdered--a victim of gay-bashing--and that his killer would never be found. "Studies showed he was dead when they dumped him out," she says. But then the Denver cops dropped the investigation, and soon Rock Kennedy herself left Wyoming. Still, Heyman's death "haunted me," she says. "It's haunted other people. And after Matt Shepard, I just thought, my God." So she designed a Web page, "Stop the Hate," dedicated to Heyman but also listing other victims of hate crimes. "It has taken me a very, very long time to say goodbye," she wrote in a letter to Heyman on the site. "Somehow it just was so much easier to think of you being off on another lecture, or away in New York, than it has been to think of you brutalized, beaten to death, and then dumped out on the interstate north of Denver as if you were not a human being, as if you were no one's son, friend, teacher, champion, advocate and beloved. The Stop the Hate web site is for you, dear friend." As she travels across the country with her computer-consultant husband, she updates the site and responds to messages from others who remember victims of crimes long forgotten.
Justice for Matt Shepard has been swift. His October 7 beating made national headlines; his death five days later inspired rallies across the country. Human-rights groups in Wyoming today are pushing for legislation that would create tougher penalties for those convicted of bias crimes (they're careful not to call them "hate crimes," though, since that term has created a backlash); prosecutor Cal Rerucha has already indicated that he plans to seek the death penalty against Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Those are the "two young toughs," as Rerucha put it at the arraignment--like Shepard, just 21 years old--who lured him out of a bar with the promise "to get to know each other better." Then, Rerucha says, they beat him and tortured him, and "as he lay there bleeding, and begging for his life, he was then bound to the buck fence. They beat him for $20."
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They beat him because he was gay.
McKinney's girlfriend, Kristen Price, has pleaded not guilty to an accessory charge, but late last month Henderson's girlfriend, Chasity Pasley, pleaded guilty to the same charge. And this past Sunday, the body of Henderson's mother was found by the side of another lonely Wyoming road.
In other cases, justice has not been so swift, nor coverage nearly so suffocating. In 1994, the New York City Anti-Violence project released the names of nine victims of Colorado hate crimes over a two-year period. Several were suspected to be the victims of an anti-gay serial killer. Another was Steve Heyman, whose death was still in the Denver police files as a traffic matter.
But that was before Shepard died, before Heyman's friends began remembering, before I called the DPD, where they initially had trouble even finding the file. "Now," says homicide sergeant John Priest, "it's being investigated to determine what kind of case we have. Do we have a hit-and-run or a homicide? Why he was on the highway is a little odd...there appear to be some unanswered things."
Jane Kennedy Rock doesn't have all the answers. But after Shepard died, she says, "I knew I couldn't sit back another moment and not do something." Something for Steve Heyman: "You taught me how to temper my warrior spirit with facts and statistics. You used to always, always have to remind me to fight the war, not the person...Each day it is your voice that echoes in my heart, and whispers over my shoulder, and my heart breaks as I remind myself to fight the war.