The image above shows pride flags on display throughout the North End neighborhood in Boise. (Mia Maldonado / Idaho Capital Sun)
Warning: This story includes descriptions of threats and acts of violence against the LGBTQ+ community.
Almost a year ago, Brett Perry and John Michael Schert came to their North End home to discover that their pride flag outside had been burned. On Thursday, the couple saw the perpetrator, Matthew Lehigh, sentenced to prison on federal hate crime charges.
The conviction marks the second time an anti-LGBTQ+ hate crime has ever been brought to court and prosecuted in Idaho, according to District of Idaho spokesperson Cassandra Fulghum.
Lehigh, 32, was first arrested in Oct. 2022 after Boise police received reports of him yelling threats, anti-LGBTQ+ slurs and driving his car toward people. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Lehigh later admitted also to setting fire to the pride flag in the North End, breaking several windows at an LGBTQ+ community building, and punching a grocery store customer after calling him a slur.
Local authorities could not pursue Lehigh’s actions as a hate crime, because the Idaho Human Rights Act does not protect people based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But in January, the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in and indicted Lehigh on federal hate crime charges.
At a federal courthouse in Boise Thursday, federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill sentenced Lehigh to federal prison for 37 months. Winmill also ordered Lehigh to pay $200 in court fees and $7,000 in restitution to victims.
Following his prison sentence, Lehigh will be placed under three years of supervised release.
“Mr. Lehigh, I hope you’ve come to appreciate the pain that your conduct has caused,” Winmill said. “In cases like this, I think you now appreciate that the pain is almost exponentially increased because it’s not a random, impulsive act of violence, but rather a purposeful act of violence against an individual because of their most basic human characteristics, who they are, who they perceive themselves to be and who they love.”
Timeline of events:
- Oct. 3: A window at The Community Center, an LGBTQ+ organization in Boise, is broken by an unknown individual.
- Oct. 5: Boise Police Department receives a report of a burnt pride flag in the North End.
- Oct. 8 and 12: Boise police receive reports of a man who yelled threats, anti-LGBTQ+ slurs, and charged his car at two women and a security guard of a business.
- Oct. 12: Boise police locate and arrest Lehigh.
- January 2023: Lehigh indicted on federal hate crime charges.
- June 15: Lehigh pleads guilty to two federal hate crime charges.
- Nov. 2: Lehigh gets sentenced to 37 months in federal prison.
Victims give testimony at sentencing
Three victims gave testimony during the hearing. Lehigh, wearing an orange jumpsuit and with a grown beard, looked down at the court desk while victims gave their testimonies.
On Oct. 12 of last year, Vegas Shegrud said, she had just finished participating in a photoshoot with cosmetology school classmates at Kathryn Albertson Park. While walking to her car with her friend, Lehigh began screaming and threatening to kill them before driving his car at them. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Lehigh believed they were a part of the LGBTQ+ community.
“The fear I felt from that day is unparalleled by any other event in my life,” she said at the hearing. “I’ll never forget the harsh words that came out of his mouth. And as much as I definitely wasn’t the only person there, I knew he was talking directly to me. [We] tried our best to continue ignoring him.”
Shegrud’s car was a gift that she inherited from her late grandmother. After the incident, she said she could no longer enter the car without experiencing a panic attack.
To relieve the panic attacks, she purchased a new car and took a sabbatical from beauty school, all while grappling with finance and mental health issues.
After Shegrud, Schert, whose pride flag was burned while attached to his home, said that working with the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI made him and his husband feel more valued and safe living as openly gay men in Idaho, and that he believes the conviction will deter people from attacking other marginalized communities.
Our hope is that you, Matthew, are able to recognize us, and our fellow victims, as humans needing your love and not your hatred.
– John Michael Schert
Schert’s final remark was addressed to the state of Idaho.
“It is a stain on the honor of the state that we have not added the ‘four words’ to our state constitution to protect sexual orientation and gender identity from acts of malice and hatred,” he said.
After Schert, Judy Cross, who is on the board of directors of The Community Center, said she was confused that someone would destroy the window of a building that serves as a safe space to the LGBTQ+ community.
“The cost of property damage was high, but the personal costs are immeasurable not only to our church and community center, but to our young people who feared to be in our safe space and are allowed to exist,” she said.
Cross said that she and her colleagues have advocated for decades to get legislation to add the words “sexual orientation and gender identity” into Idaho code. Thursday’s conviction was a win for Idaho, she said.
In addition to the three victims who spoke at the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kate Horwitz said 10 other victim impact statements were provided to the court.
‘He’s a different individual’: defense talks mental health of defendant
Mark Ackley, the attorney representing Lehigh, told the Court that Lehigh is “not a poster child for homophobia,” but that he is “a poster child for mental health.”
Ackley said that Lehigh is diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, which he said previously caused him to experience delusions, convulsions and twitching.
In order to proceed in court, Lehigh had to undergo competency restoration — a process in Idaho that provides medical treatment and therapy to defendants with mental conditions. Ackley confirmed that Lehigh has been successfully restored to competency, and he is now on medication and has gained weight.
“He doesn’t hear the voices, he doesn’t feel the compulsion, he’s a different individual,” Ackley said. “It’s important to appreciate where Matt was, but also where he is today when it comes to addressing deterrence, punishment, and rehabilitation.”
Ackley asked the court for 37 months in prison, emphasizing that Lehigh was not always violent, but that his mental health condition exaggerated his Christian beliefs.
Before the judge gave his sentence, Lehigh thanked the court for the opportunity to speak.
“I have a lot of regret for what happened,” Lehigh said. “I would have never guessed years ago that I would be here facing charges like this. I’ve always held a Christian view, but I’ve never had any problems existing in a community.”
Lehigh apologized for his actions, adding that he is grateful that there were no further injuries.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that this is not the first time a person has been sentenced for a federal hate crime against the LGBTQ+ community in Idaho. District of Idaho spokesperson Cassandra Fulghum confirmed that this is the second time a person in Idaho has been prosecuted under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act in federal district court. In 2017, the U.S. District Court sentenced Kelly Schneider to prison for killing Steven Nelson, a gay man.
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