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Around the same time, in the early Nineties, Shalleck had borrowed beyond his means to produce a beloved video project called Pepito's Dream. The 27-minute drama, based on a story by John and Margaret Travers-Moore, is about a boy who dreams of making a speech at the United Nations to plead for world peace. With creditors breathing down his neck, Shalleck filed for bankruptcy and moved to South Florida.
That's where Gramps, the storybook reader, was born. Gramps was an energetic showman — no cane or rocker here! — who liked to share the stage. Rather than telling children to stay still and hush up, he'd invite them to lean forward and shout their favorite parts. Gramps would intentionally mangle lines of cherished books so the kids could correct him and feel involved. And he read each word with a dramatic flair that made it seem like the plot was unfolding inside that very room. By the end of storytime, kids would often pile onto his lap.
Gramps enjoyed the attention. He gave newspaper interviews and signed copies of Curious George books with the words "Stay Curious." Judy Stunda, the children's librarian at the Lakewood Branch Library in St. Lucie County, still displays a photo of Shalleck from his 1997 visit. "He was wonderful," the 62-year-old librarian remembers. "You could tell he connected with the kids. It's like an extra sense — children know when you really like them or not. They knew he liked them."
When he could, Shalleck charged a fee of $100 an hour. He needed the extra income. Shalleck frequently complained to friends about his meager finances and having to work well into his retirement years. When Gramps got bookings, friends say, the black rain cloud over Shalleck's head would suddenly lift. It was like he needed to be around children. Toward the end of his life, he mostly read for free, driving as far as Pahokee to enthrall children.
The night Alan Shalleck died, his close friend Mike Rayber pulled up to his trailer, which was partially obscured by overgrown sea oats. Cars lined the street for Super Bowl parties, and the yells of sports fans masked the rustling of leaves and gentle clink of wind chimes that typically filled the air.
Rayber drove Shalleck to a Boynton Beach Tony Roma's for a late celebration of Rayber's 59th birthday. Shalleck paid. With Rayber, Shalleck could let his guard down. They'd met more than a decade earlier when Shalleck answered a personal ad Rayber had written. Rayber told police he saw himself and Shalleck as homosexuals but that Shalleck had trouble reconciling the idea in his mind. "I don't know that he necessarily considered himself gay."
Rayber said Shalleck would often beg him for a spanking and that, on occasion, he would reluctantly indulge his pal. Shalleck had entrusted him with keys to his trailer and an important task: to dispose of Shalleck's "toys" in the event of his death so his grown sons wouldn't find them. Both assumed he'd die of natural causes.
Shalleck's neighbors in Royal Manor Estates, a tidy 55-and-over community, had long before surmised he might be gay. Denise Zajac, a tiny blond 59-year-old who lives due west of Shalleck's old trailer, waves one hand like a crossing guard as she searches for the best words to describe why she suspected Shalleck was having homosexual trysts. "He had a lot of traffic in and out. You know, people traffic — men. Young, old, black, white — whatever. Day, night, morning. C'mon, something's going on. We figured out what type of lifestyle he was leading." At that, her husband, Tom, looks up from the football game he's engrossed in to add, "He had more guys going in there than a locker room."
But who would have imagined the spanking sessions? Whenever a guest arrived, Shalleck would crank up the music — sometimes opera or soul — to mask the howls of a man getting his tail whipped.
Standing in her Florida room, Denise is just six feet from the driveway where Shalleck's battered body was dragged and abandoned after the assault. The Zajacs say they didn't hear or see any signs of a struggle the Super Bowl Sunday their neighbor was killed. And nobody noticed Shalleck's corpse, covered with black garbage bags next to his blue Honda, until Tuesday.
Across the street, 80-year-old Russell Hall remembers his wife, Charlotte, who passed away in 2006, intuiting the moment she met Shalleck that he was gay. "We're both pretty broad-minded people. She liked him, and so did I.... He was closet gay, I guess. He never discussed it with us."
At least once a week, the Halls would entertain Shalleck with a cocktail or two — vodka tonic with lime. He'd unload negative thoughts that had him feeling down, and the Halls would try to cheer him up. He was envious of the couple's adoring relationship with each other and their kids. "He wasn't too happy with his life, the way it had gone," Hall recalls.
Shalleck often came bearing gifts: souvenirs from his travels or presents around the holidays. The last Christmas gift, a ceramic jazz pianist and drummer, sits in the corner of Hall's TV room. Hall squints his pale-blue eyes as he reflects on the fate of his friend. "Too bad he had to get hooked up into that stuff — the gay lifestyle. Course, he could have been straight as a die and still had that happen. You never know in this day and age. There are a lot of predators out there."