Murder charges planned in beating death of gay student
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Web posted at: 9:01 p.m. EDT (0101 GMT)
FORT COLLINS, Colorado (CNN) -- Authorities plan to file murder charges in Monday's death of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student who was pistol-whipped and tied to a fence post five days ago in an attack denounced nationwide as a hate crime.
Shepard, 21, died from his injuries early Monday morning without regaining consciousness. He had been on full life support, Rulon Stacey, the chief executive officer of Poudre Valley Hospital, told reporters.
Shepard had been in a coma since bicyclists found him about 12 hours after he was tethered to the post in near-freezing temperatures outside Laramie, Wyoming, on Wednesday.
Four suspects were being held on a variety of charges. Aaron James McKinney, 22, and Russell Arthur Henderson, 21, both of Laramie, have been charged with attempted first degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery by Albany County, Wyoming District Attorney Cal Rerucha.
The charges will be upgraded to first degree murder now that Shepard has died, said Sgt. Rob DeBree of the Albany County Sheriff's Office. Authorities also are expected to stiffen kidnapping charges against the two men.
The two men's girlfriends -- Chasity Vera Pasley, 20, and Kristen Leann Price, 18 -- were charged with being accessories after the fact.
Across the nation, political leaders, gay activists and ordinary Americans expressed shock over the heinous nature of the crime.
President Clinton condemned the killing, saying that "crimes of hate and crimes of violence cannot be tolerated in our country." The president also pressed Congress to expand the federal hate-crimes law to cover offenses based on disability or sexual orientation.
"The public outrage in Laramie and all across America today echoes what we heard at the White House Conference on Hate Crimes last year," Clinton told reporters on the White House South Lawn. "There is something we can do about this. Congress needs to pass our tough hate crimes legislation. It can do so even before it adjourns, and it should do so."
In San Francisco, a huge rainbow flag at the corner of Castro and Market was lowered to half-staff to honor Shepard.
Shepard had been in critical condition at the hospital. His blood pressure dropped around midnight local time and his condition deteriorated severely after that. He died at 12:53 a.m. on Monday with his family at his bedside, Stacey said.
His parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, had flown from Saudi Arabia where the father works in the oil industry, to be with their son.
"The family was grateful they did not have to make a decision regarding whether or not to continue life support for their son," Stacey said. "He came into the world premature and left the world premature and they are most grateful for the time they had to spend with Matthew."
He said Shepard's family thanked the hospital for its efforts to save Matthew's life. "They also reiterated in great detail ... how overwhelmed they are at the (worldwide) support they have received," Stacey added.
"During the last 24 hours, we've received nearly 2,000 e-mails," he said, adding that visits to the hospital's Web site had jumped dramatically.
Funeral arrangements were pending. In lieu of flowers, the family asked that donations be sent to the Matthew Shepard Fund.
"Matthew's mother said to me, 'Please tell everybody who's listening to go home and give your kids a hug and don't let a day go by without telling them you love them,'" Stacey said, his voice choked with emotion.
Police have said robbery was the primary motive for the attack. But gay rights groups and others assailed the beating and called on Wyoming legislators to adopt laws to deter crimes against homosexuals.
Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer,, a first-term Republican up for re-election next month, who hasn't pushed hate crime legislation in the past, said on Monday he was open to any new legislation that would strengthen Wyoming law.
But he urged against "overreacting" in a way that gives one group "special rights" over others. Current laws are already designed to assure "that everyone has an equal standing under the law," the governor said. "This is a means to assure that everyone had the same rights in Wyoming."
Marv Johnson of the American Civil Liberties Union in Wyoming said past hate crime bills regarding attacks on homosexuals were defeated because of language about sexual orientation.
"We have legislators in the past who have essentially equated gays with bulls that don't mate and therefore are useless and should be sent to the packing plant," Johnson said. "That is the kind of attitude that you see in Wyoming which leads to this behavior. People don't understand that gays are as human as anybody else."
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery, Alabama, which tracks violence against blacks, gays and other minorities, said attacks against gays tend to be more severe than offenses against other groups. He said that 21 men and women were slain in the United States in 1996 because of their sexual orientation.
McKinney's girlfriend, father and Price told The Denver Post that McKinney and Henderson never set out to kill the 5-foot-2, 105-pound Shepard. Instead, they said the two wanted to get back at Shepard for making passes at McKinney in front of his friends Tuesday night in a campus bar.
"I guess they (the people in the bar) knew that Matt Shepard was gay and maybe it got around that Aaron was gay or something," Price said in a story published Sunday. "Later on, Aaron did say he told him he was gay just to rob him, because he wanted to take his money for embarrassing him."
The elder McKinney said there was no excuse for the crime but the story had been blown out of proportion.
"Had this been a heterosexual these two boys decided to take out and rob, this never would have made the national news," Bill McKinney told the Post. "Now my son is guilty before he's even had a trial."
Friends of Henderson and McKinney said they were surprised by the allegations.
"They were quiet," said Heather Dunmire, 20, of nearby Rock River. "I wouldn't have expected them to do that. I never would expect another human to do that."
Stephanie Lake, 20, was a student at Laramie High School with Henderson, McKinney and Pasley. She attended a biology class with Henderson.
"Russ was a really, really quiet guy who really kept to himself a lot," she said.
Henderson and Pasley live in a rural, windswept trailer park amid weeds, engine parts, fishing tackle, and barking dogs. A neighbor, John Gillham, 21, said the couple generally kept to themselves.
About a thousand people attended a candlelight vigil Sunday night near the University of Wyoming campus to show their support for Shepard.
"We are saddened, heartsick," said the university's president, Philip Dubois. "All of us I would imagine are haunted by the thought of a terribly battered young man with his future erased.
"It is almost as sad to see individuals and groups around this country react to this event by stereotyping an entire community, if not an entire state," he said.
Shepard's parents said in a statement released before his death that he would "emphasize he does not want the horrible actions of a few very disturbed individuals to mar the fine reputations of Laramie or the university."
Shepard left Wyoming as a teen to finish high school in Switzerland. A friend said he had to overcome concerns about how his sexual orientation would be accepted before he returned to Wyoming -- which is nicknamed the Equality State -- for college.
"He had a lot of the same fears other people have coming into a small community," said Walt Boulden, a graduate student. "When he left Wyoming he had just started dealing with being gay. So he was very concerned about the attitudes when he first came back.
"But he really felt at home and comfortable here. He felt this was the place to be right now," Boulden said.
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