Today In History: “We Just Wanted To Spend Time With Him”

Jim Burroway

October 9th, 2008

Ten years ago today, Dennis and Judy Shepard, exhausted by their long travel and numbed by the news, stepped into the intensive care unit of Poudre Valley Hospital and saw their son, Matthew Shepard, for the first time since seeing him off to college just a few months earlier.

Dennis and Judy were in Saudi Arabia, where Dennis worked, when they got a call in the middle of the night. Phone calls in the middle of the night is never good news. For Dennis and Judy, the news was beyond imagination — beyond belief. The Shepards had to endure a nineteen hour wait for a flight to begin their long thirty-hour journey to Fort Collins, Colorado. During that long flight home, they had no idea that news of Matthew’s beating had made headlines worldwide. They saw that it was front-page news when they arrived in Ft. Collins, but they didn’t know the extent of the attention nationwide.

When they got to the hospital, staff had to sneak them in to avoid the press. Once they got inside the hospital, the outside world disappeared.

“That sort of information just washes over you when you are trying to be there for your son,” Shepard said of the media attention showered on her family. …

“Dennis likened it to a prairie fire; it went so fast,” Shepard said of the media explosion and the mythology that blew up around her son’s death.

National networks came, national and regional newspapers posted correspondents in Laramie. Radio stations also joined in the fray.

“I just felt it was invasive and improper when we just wanted to spend time with him,” she said.

What Dennis and Judy saw must have been devastating. His aunt and uncle had earlier describe Matthew’s appearance to the press as as horrifying, with wounds concentrated on his head and face. The most severe blow was inflicted with a gun and probably caused irreparable brain damage, R.W. Eaton said. “He looks like hell,” Roxanne Rose said. “I can’t explain it. I don’t know how to explain it. He is hanging onto life by a thread.” Said Eaton: “It’s like something you might see in war.”

Doctors encouraged the family to bring familiar items to Matthew’s bed, in case he still had some lingering awareness. So they filled his room with sunflowers and the music of John Fogerty and Elton John. Judy wore the perfume he had given her for Christmas.

That same evening in Laramie, people gathered for candlelight vigil. The news bulletins and medical updates from Poudre Valley Hospital were grim.

See also:
(Oct 16) Today In History: Rest In Peace
(Oct 13) Today In History: “Something In the Culture”
(Oct 12) Today In History: Matthew Wayne Shepard (Dec 1, 1976 – Oct 12, 1998)
(Oct 11) Today In History: The Vigil
(Oct 10) Today In History: Armbands and Scarecrows
(Oct 9) Also Today In History: Details Emerge
(Oct 9) Today In History: “We Just Wanted To Spend Time With Him”
(Oct 8) Today In History: Two Men Arrested
(Oct 7) Also Today In History: Another Assault In Laramie
(Oct 7) Today In History: “Baby, I’m So Sorry This Happened”
(Oct 6) Today In History: Before Matthew Shepard

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