David Van Biema
November 04, 1985 12:00 PM

Dan White, at 39, killed himself last week. Holding photographs of his family in his hand, he died in the front seat of his wife’s yellow Buick in the garage of his home, as carbon monoxide seeped through the green garden hose he had rigged to the exhaust. He had killed before. Seven years ago he shot to death liberal San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly gay elected official. Back then, the city’s people found many ways to vent their frustration and anger. At White’s death those who spoke seemed to have only one line, and it had little to do with White himself.

“This latest tragedy should now close a very sad chapter in the city’s history,” said Dianne Feinstein, who took Moscone’s job as mayor. “My sympathy goes to his widow, his children and his family, who have suffered very much.” “Now the final chapter in San Francisco’s most notorious murders has been put to rest,” said Frank Falzon, a police inspector friend of Dan White’s and once his police interrogator. Writer Randy Shilts (The Mayor of Castro Street: the Life and Times of Harvey Milk) said, “The end came with the inevitability of Greek tragedy. The whole story had dangled like a sentence without a period. And now we have that period.”

The fact is, Dan White’s crime, and its consequences, outgrew him. The events he had put into motion had swept ahead, caused riot and reform, made and crushed political careers. They also left behind a sad man (some would say) or a crazy man (according to others) who was a supernumerary in the drama he had started.

In 1977 Dan White seemed in the middle of things, edging ever closer to the very center. The son of an Irish-American fireman, White was a jut-jawed Army veteran, ex-cop and fireman (he won two commendations for heroism) who had vaulted to a seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors as a sort of Great Straight Hope—the last political gasp of blue-collar conservatives losing control of their city to liberals and gays. He had campaigned on promises to “eradicate the malignancies that blight our city” and had declared, “I’m not going to be forced out of San Francisco by splinter groups of radicals, social deviates and incorrigibles.”

But then, on Nov. 27, 1978, White moved murderously to center stage. He had found he couldn’t support his family on a supervisor’s $9,600-a-year income and had resigned. When he changed his mind, Mayor Moscone wouldn’t let him return. Convinced that Moscone had unjustly prevented his reinstatement, he slipped into City Hall through a basement window and calmly put five hollow-point .38 slugs into Moscone. Then he reloaded, walked across the hall and killed his fellow supervisor, Milk, whom he believed had influenced Moscone’s decision.

Arguing what became known as the “Twinkie defense,” White’s attorney told a primarily heterosexual, middle-class jury that his client was possessed of “diminished capacity” at the time of the crime. Prone to depressions and unbalanced by a huge intake of junk food, he was not a murderer but a “moral man undone by mental illness and overcome by a heat of passion.” The jury apparently agreed, convicting White of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. San Francisco’s gay community exploded. The verdict sparked the “White Night Riots,” during which a crowd of 5,000, mostly homosexuals, stormed City Hall, causing a million dollars’ damage and torching police cars lining the streets.

There were further repercussions. As a result of the verdict, the California State Legislature moved to restrict the use of diminished capacity defenses. Harvey Milk went from local hero to coast-to-coast martyr for a resurgent gay rights movement. San Francisco’s top government became more moderate. With both liberal Moscone and conservative White gone, the road was clear for Board of Supervisors President Dianne Feinstein to serve two terms as mayor and achieve national notice.

On Jan. 6, 1984, after five years in Soledad prison, White was paroled and later freed, and there was speculation that he might be drawn one last time, brutally, into the midst of things. His life was threatened on TV, in print and on street corners. A gay would kill him, said the rumors—a gay dying of AIDS, who would have nothing to lose.

It did not happen that way. Rather, White was murdered instead by his own worst enemy. If he was depressed before, he was severely so in the past months. Threatening notes were slipped under his door. To protect himself he grew a beard and took a false last name. He became a shadowy figure occasionally glimpsed in his wife’s backyard. The front yard had gone to weeds. He could find no job, so his wife, Mary Ann, was forced to support their three children on her schoolteacher’s income. The second child, Rory, now 4, conceived during one of her conjugal visits to jail, had been born with Down syndrome. White fantasized about moving to Ireland and even made a brief visit there. It obviously didn’t satisfy him. Six months later he found his last refuge in the garage. When his brother found the body, he also discovered four notes to the family. None of them mentioned the murder of Moscone or Milk.

“Nobody knows what’s going on inside of me,” Dan White once said. And now they never will know.

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