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Victim of anti-gay attack in Wyoming clings to life

Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil outside the Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado  
October 11, 1998
Web posted at: 10:34 p.m. EDT (0234 GMT)

In this story:

LARAMIE, Wyoming (CNN) -- A gay University of Wyoming student who was savagely beaten, tied to a fence and left to die remained in critical condition Sunday, as expressions of shock and outrage at the crime continued.

Saturday night, about 500 people sang and prayed at a candlelight vigil outside a Fort Collins, Colorado, hospital where Matthew Shepard, 21, clung to life. Earlier in the day, about 100 people marched in the UW homecoming parade to protest the beating.

Wearing arm bands and carrying a banner bearing Shepard's name, the marchers were greeted by soft applause as they passed somber crowds on the streets of Laramie. The contingent had tripled in size by the end of the parade.

Women: Men made anti-gay comments

Shepard had stopped at a popular campus bar late Tuesday when police say he met two men -- Russell Arthur Henderson, 21, and Aaron James McKinney, 22 -- who told him they were also gay. After the three allegedly drove off in McKinney's truck, police say Shepard was beaten and robbed, tied to a wooden fence in a rural area outside Laramie, pistol whipped in the head and left in near-freezing temperatures.

While police say robbery appears to be a motive behind the attack, they believe Shepard was also targeted because he is openly gay. He was found about 12 hours later by a passerby, suffering from severe head injuries and hypothermia.

Henderson and McKinney have been charged with attempted first degree murder, kidnapping and aggravated robbery. Chastity Vera Pasley, 20, has been charged with being an accessory to the crime. Kristen Leann Price, 18, is being investigated as a possible accessory but has so far not been charged.

Police say the women helped Henderson and McKinney dispose of bloody clothing. They also allegedly told police that the men made anti-gay comments after the attack.

'Wyoming should not be judged'

The attack has been denounced by Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer, President Clinton, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and gay and lesbian activists from around the country.

Some in Wyoming, which is mostly rural with the smallest population of any U.S. state, fear that because of what happened, people will draw the wrong conclusions about attitudes in Wyoming, whose nickname is the Equality State.

"Wyoming should not be judged on these four jerks that did this," said Heather Dunmire, a UW student from Rock River who knew Shepherd. "I don't think we're completely in the back woods."

Henderson, left, and McKinney are charged with attempted murder, kidnapping and robbery  

"Most of Wyoming has an attitude of live and let live," said Joe Corrigan, co-founder of United Gays and Lesbians of Wyoming.

"I think it was a handful of individuals that can be found anywhere that did this," said Jeff Scott, who has lived in Laramie for 21 years.

In the wake of the attack, a statewide petition drive has been launched on the Internet, calling for passage of a hate-crimes law by Wyoming's legislature.

Shepard worried about living in a small community

Shepard, who spend part of his childhood in Casper, left Wyoming to finish high school in Switzerland but returned to attend UW, the state's only university.

"He had a lot of the same fears other people have coming into a small community," said Walt Boulden, a UW graduate student and friend of Shepard. "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.

Shepard's parents, who live in Saudi Arabia, have been keeping a vigil at his side at Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, about 60 miles from Laramie, where he was taken for advanced medical care. Hospital officials say the family has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.

"It's understandably a very hard time for them," said Rulon Stacey, chief executive officer of Poudre Valley. "I will say I think they are doing remarkably well, and they are extraordinarily compassionate people."

Shepard is suffering from a fractured skull from a massive blow to the head which compressed the skull into his brain, according to Stacey. He also has an injury to his brain stem, which controls the body's vital functions.

Correspondent Rusty Dornin contributed to this report.

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