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Wide swath of Anchorage mourns death of 'Shorty'

Daniel "Shorty" Stewart, who was 36 years old when he died April 22, was the sort of person you'd remember. He stood 5 feet, 4 inches tall, had impeccable dreadlocks and a distinctive bowlegged walk. If he knew you, he probably called you "cousin." Beyond that, as his obituary noted, he was a masterful rider of mechanical bulls.

During his lifetime, Shorty collected a variety of friends, from distinguished old families to bus drivers to caseworkers to bartenders. They all say the same thing about him: Shorty was just so happy. He seemed to move through Anchorage afloat on his own personal inner-tube of joy.

Shorty, who was developmentally disabled, died three days after being beaten by a stranger outside the Panhandle Bar in downtown Anchorage April 19.

Police have not yet arrested the suspect, 39-year-old Kenneth Moto. [UPDATE: Suspect Kenneth Moto was arrested Monday morning, police say.]

Now that Shorty is gone, his mother faces a radically reshaped existence.

Sylvia Stewart moved to Anchorage when her son was just 3 or 4, she said last week. She'd heard Alaska offered a good life to children like Shorty.

Mother and son lived together in a modest Mountain View apartment, furnished with just a couch, a TV and a rounded table. It was sparse so Shorty wouldn't hurt himself if he fell during one of his occasional seizures.

Over the years, they developed routines. Stewart would rise early to do homework for her online bachelor's degree and to heat his breakfast. Shorty would take out the trash and get ready for work or sit around watching his favorite TV shows.

Shorty's favorite pizzas are still in the freezer. A printed reminder to turn off the lights is taped to the door in the kitchen.

Parenting him was about protecting him, she said. Like many parents of adult children with disabilities, Stewart struggled to balance her desire keep him safe with his need for independence.

"He just loved and trusted everyone," she said.

Stewart, Shorty and her daughter, who was not disabled, made homes in the Jewel Lake and Dimond areas of Anchorage. Shorty had a way of drawing unlikely people into their orbit, said his younger sister Tracy Washington.

He found people happy to take him skiing down the slopes of Alyeska. He adored animals and a befriended a family who let him feed goats and visit the chickens at their South Anchorage farm. He won Special Olympics medals for bowling.

A prominent local family, the McGees, met him through a visiting neighbor and ended up acting as surrogate grandparents. He called Pat McGee, who founded the historic Seven Trees Hostel in Talkeetna, "grandma." They talked on the phone at least once a month, she said.

"He was like the sun coming up," said McGee, now 87.

As an adult, Shorty's disability was so subtle that many who called him a friend didn't know there was anything different about him.

He occupied his time with jobs like cleaning up yards or helping out at a family friend's hair-braiding salon. He always took the bus or walked, shunning rides from his mom.

"He was a grown man," she said.

He once tried living alone in an apartment. That didn't work out, Stewart said.

"People would take advantage of him," he said.

In February of this year, Shorty had started a new job he was proud of. During the week, he worked at the Academy of Hair Design in Midtown as a part-time janitor, a gig arranged through the Arc of Anchorage.

"He took pride in what he did," said his boss, Michael Bolivar.

On Friday and Saturday nights Shorty was a regular at the Gaslight Lounge, where a mechanical bull dominates the barroom. He'd ride a half-dozen times in a night, bucking and grinning like a kid on a roller coaster. He'd carry around a disposable camera and snap pictures of himself with his pals and the bartenders.

"The people who knew him there cared about him,"  Stewart said.

Still, Stewart bought her son a neon green-and-reflective-tape jacket for his evenings out, the same kind road construction workers wear. She worried about him walking at night.

One of Shorty's friends was a sweet-natured, heavily- pierced bartender, Jenny Bowen, who had been a neighbor in Mountain View. Over the years, every bartender and bouncer at the Gaslight came to know Shorty, Bowen said. Shorty didn't drink much, though somebody would buy him a tequila shot every now and again.

Deep into the night, when the bass dropped and the music started thumping, Shorty would sidle up to girls and ask for a dance. Even the ones standing next to their boyfriends.

Shorty hardly ever got turned down, said his friend Christopher Brock, a 32-year-old J.C. Penney employee.

"I'd be like, 'How do you do that?' " Brock said.

His favorite song was "Drop It Low," a hip-hop club anthem. Shorty could own a dance floor.

Shorty once told his younger sister that he felt like a local celebrity in Anchorage.

It wasn't until his funeral that she realized there was some truth to that.

On Friday, April 18, Shorty went to the Gaslight, his friends say. When the night ended, instead of hailing a taxi or catching a ride back to Mountain View he turned left, toward the Panhandle Bar.

People at that bar didn't know him, Bowen said.

Just before 3 a.m. a fight broke out on the sidewalk outside the Panhandle, police said.

Moto was standing outside the bar yelling at a 27-year-old woman, when he struck her in the face and broke her jaw. Then he hit two other men. One of them was Shorty.

It's not clear why Shorty was there or what role he played in the fight. His mother believes he was just walking by.

When police arrived, Shorty was on the ground. He "could not maintain a seated position without losing his balance," according to a statement from police.

After he failed to check in, Stewart began to look for her son. With the help of an Anchorage police officer she tracked him to Alaska Regional Hospital, where he was suffering from a head injury. After spending three days on life support, Shorty died on April 22. His mother was by his side.

The week after his death, in pews of the North Anchorage Church of God on Bragaw Street there were tearful caseworkers in Danskos and a Samoan neighbor family whose daughter was also nicknamed Shorty. There were pretty girls with Kool-Aid colored hair from the Gaslight Lounge and bus drivers who talked about how their routes would be impoverished by Shorty's absence.

At the viewing of his body, girls he'd danced with heaped roses all over his chest. They angled to kiss his face, leaving lipstick marks all over.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

 

 


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
mtheriault@adn.com