SAN FRANCISCO — When Dan White watched his young son play soccer, he hid behind a fence and peered through a knothole so no one would spot him.
He lived much of the time in an undisclosed location in the Bay Area, and when he visited his family in the home he owned in the city's Excelsior section, he slouched when the car entered the driveway to avoid recognition by neighbors.
When he went to see a boyhood friend, he suggested they meet in a car parked on a darkened street so no one would see his face.
White was released from prison nearly two years ago, but friends said that of late he had begun to realize he could never really be free.
Torn by the pain of staying in San Francisco and the impracticality of his dreams of fleeing to Ireland, White, 39, methodically taped a garden hose to the tailpipe of his car Monday, stuck the other end through a car window, turned on the ignition and died.
In his hands, he clutched photographs of his three children and his wife.
The suicide was the final episode of a seven-year drama. On Nov. 27, 1978, White shot down Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the city's first acknowledged homosexual public official, in their City Hall offices. Moscone had refused to reappoint White to the supervisorial seat White had resigned 17 days earlier, and Milk had supported that decision.
At his murder trial, White used a controversial diminished-capacity defense--claiming in part that his consumption of junk food had affected his judgment--and was convicted of manslaughter. The verdict triggered a night of rioting by outraged gays in San Francisco. White served five years of a seven-year, eight-month sentence.
Friends and acquaintances interviewed Tuesday in the aftermath of White's suicide said he was haunted less by guilt over the killings he committed than by fear of retaliation for them.
The last tortured months of White's life were filled with unrealized dreams and abortive attempts to start over again.
He spent Friday night apparently saying farewell to old friends, although none of them knew it at the time.
"The worst part of his pain was seeing what his family had to go through and were still having to go through. There didn't seem to be any end," said a close friend visited by White just two days before he took his own life. "It was going to follow him for the rest of his whole life."
During this time, even his friends kept their distance, as much for his sake as for their own, they said.
Longtime friend Marty Cardone said that White called unexpectedly earlier this year, wanting to talk about family, friends and the old neighborhood where they both grew up. When White arrived, he insisted that Cardone join him in his car out on the street.
"I told him I didn't want to know where he'd been, what he was doing or where he was going," Cardone said Tuesday.
Part of Cardone's concern, he said, was that he did not want to be in a position to help anyone--reporters, snoops, crackpots--with any information.
"He said he was going to take a trip," Cardone said, "and I didn't want to know where."
After about an hour in the anonymous shadows of the parked car, White bid his friend goodby. Cardone said he felt he would never see White again.
In fact, White was about to embark on a four-month trip to Ireland--a trip that began in a rush of hope and ended, apparently, in despair.
He spent four months of idyllic freedom roaming the lush Irish countryside, where no one knew his name or face.
He told a friend about becoming lost outside one Irish village and having a woman walk four miles to take him to his destination.
'What a Trauma'
"Things like that could never happen here," the friend said. "It must have been quite a change coming back. What a trauma."
Indeed, friends said that when he returned to the United States and was confronted again with the reality of his life here, White's spirits fell.
But he apparently was unable to uproot his family from San Francisco, where he and his wife had lived virtually all their lives, to move to Ireland or anywhere else.
"They couldn't just pick up and go (to Ireland). They are not wealthy people; they are working-class people," said one friend, who agreed to talk on condition she not be identified. "Working-class people just don't pick up and move to another country.
"Mary Ann (his wife of nine years) was very secure in her teaching job here. Their (retarded) son Rory was in a special school; she's got three kids to deal with. . . . There were a lot of things to think about. You don't just pick up and go. It's not just you you're affecting, you're pulling everybody (in the family) out of their lives."
Couldn't Find Steady Job
Money was another great worry, friends said. White was never able to find a steady job since his release from prison on Jan. 6, 1984, either while on one-year parole in Los Angeles or since returning to the Bay Area at the first of this year.
"He wanted to help himself financially, that was his goal," said the friend who talked with White shortly before his death. "He needed to find work and he was looking into contacts through friends. . . . I don't know what he was going to do. It was definitely going to have to be a low-key-type position; not something in the public eye."
The friend said she had no premonition what White was about to do when he dropped by for their first visit since the Moscone-Milk shootings nearly seven years earlier. She said they did not discuss that day in City Hall.
"He spoke like life was going on, like he was going in a forward direction. Friday he was fine; he was Danny," she said.
Despite White's optimism, however, she realized that he would never be able to put his crime behind him.
"He was always looking over his shoulder," she said. "I can't imagine living like that. Always having to look over your shoulder (thinking), 'Is this some sort of nut who wants to kill me?' . . . Not being able to go out and enjoy yourself. That type of thing drove him nuts."