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S.F. Assassin Dan White Kills Himself

October 22, 1985|NANCY SKELTON and MARK A. STEIN | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — Former Supervisor Dan White, the assassin of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, committed suicide in the garage of his home here Monday, just about one month short of the seventh anniversary of the sensational slayings.

Police said White's body was discovered about 2 p.m. by a younger brother, Tom White.

White, 39, had called his brother, asking him to come over in the afternoon. When Tom White arrived, he found his brother's body inside a white Buick sedan in the garage, with a garden hose running from the exhaust pipe into a partially opened car window.

Three handwritten notes were found taped to the car, one to his brother, another to his mother and a third to his wife of nine years, Mary Ann, 43, who was teaching at the Treasure Island Naval Base at the time the suicide was discovered.

An autopsy is scheduled today.

Served Five Years

On Nov. 27, 1978, White gunned down Moscone and Milk, the city's first homosexual supervisor, in their City Hall offices. At his murder trial, White used a controversial diminished-capacity defense--claiming his addiction to junk food affected his judgment--and he was convicted of manslaughter. The verdict on the lesser charge triggered a night of rioting by gays in San Francisco. White was sentenced to seven years and eight months in prison for the crime, but served less than five years.

In the years since the killings, White had expressed no public remorse.

San Francisco Deputy Mayor Hadley Roff said he was familiar with White's suicide note to his brother and it apparently contained no reference to the City Hall killings but rather mentioned arrangements for his funeral and for his family.

White's attorney, Douglas Schmidt, said White had seen a psychiatrist "at least a couple of times" since his release from prison last year, but was receiving no regular care. Schmidt said White "always seemed vacant and depressed."

Word of White's death spread quickly through the city and reaction was mixed and emotional.

In San Francisco's gay community, along Castro Street, shopkeepers taped the banner headline: "DAN WHITE DEAD," to their windows as customers said they thought White had gotten his due. "I'm glad his conscience caught up with him," Ragene Brown, 30, said.

In the neatly manicured neighborhood where White died, residents gathered in small knots to whisper quietly among themselves as they watched reporters and police hover about the garage at 150 Shawnee Ave.

Roff said White had recently returned from a trip to Ireland. While serving his sentence at Soledad State Prison, White often talked of taking such a trip.

"Apparently he had spent four months or so in Ireland and had recently returned to San Francisco," Roff said. "We had heard that he was in Ireland and that his family was preparing to go relocate there with him. So this came as a surprise."

The note to White's brother "said something like, 'I'm sorry to put you through all this,' " Roff said.

The contents of the two other suicide notes were not immediately disclosed.

White's nine gunshots in November, 1978, not only killed the mayor and the city's leading gay politician but it changed the fabric of San Francisco.

In the gay community, Milk became a martyr and the resentment of his death lingered. Each May 21, the anniversary of White's conviction, has been marked with parades by gay activists, and there have been candlelight vigils every Nov. 27.

San Francisco politics moved away from the free-wheeling style of the liberal Moscone to the more business-oriented, middle-of-the-road atmosphere of Dianne Feinstein, the supervisor who was elevated to mayor when Moscone died, and has subsequently won her own term.

White had resigned as supervisor 17 days before the murders, saying he needed to devote more time to his private business. But shortly after he quit, White asked Moscone for his job back. Moscone refused, and Milk supported that decision.

Avoiding metal detectors at the City Hall entrance by slipping through a basement window, White walked into the mayor's office and pumped four bullets into Moscone at close range. Reloading his .38-caliber revolver, he coursed a long marble hallway to Milk's office and fired five shots into the supervisor. He had administered a point-blank shot in the head to each victim.

White's defense during his murder trial was that before the murders, he had become severely depressed, in part because of eating junk food such as Twinkies. That diminished-capacity theory--which became widely known as the "Twinkie Defense"--led to his conviction for voluntary manslaughter. That night, thousands of gays rioted, besieging City Hall.

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