William O. Weissich had a reputation as a tough but fair prosecutor. But, friends said Wednesday, he had long been haunted by the fear of an arsonist he had put in prison 31 years ago.
On Tuesday, the arsonist turned up with a gun in Weissich's law office and shot the lawyer to death.
Police said Malcolm Roland Schlette, 72, walked into Weissich's office dressed like an executioner, wearing a black raincoat and black hat. And, before the former Marin County district attorney could rise from his chair, Schlette shot him with a silencer-equipped .45-caliber pistol, investigators said.
When police surrounded Schlette's van a couple of blocks from the murder scene, he stepped out of his vehicle carrying a pistol and dummy explosives. Witnesses said he swallowed something, probably poison, and then collapsed. Minutes later, he was dead.
"As soon as I heard it was Bill Weissich, I had a premonition. I knew it was Malcolm Schlette," said former Undersheriff Sid Stinson, who investigated the 1955 arson case. "I said to myself, 'The son-of-a-bitch has finally done it.'
"Isn't it something that a person can harbor such hatred for so long?"
Attorney Michael Dufficy, a lifelong friend of the 66-year-old Weissich, said, "In all the time I knew Bill, his concern was this guy."
Sentenced in 1955
Schlette was convicted in 1955 of burning his ex-wife's restaurant on Tomales Bay and was sentenced to a 2-to-20-year term at the state medical facility at Vacaville.
Before his sentencing, he was arrested as the prime suspect in the 1955 burning of the historic Lodge Hotel in San Rafael in which eight people were killed. But he was never charged.
"He threatened to get Bill Weissich in the sentencing hearing," said current Marin County Dist. Atty. Jerry Herman. At Vacaville, prison guards discovered a "death list" in his diary containing the names of Weissich, Stinson and other law enforcement officials.
Schlette was paroled from prison Oct. 10, 1966, and tried to buy a bazooka, a steel vest and other arms in San Francisco. He was sent back to prison for nine years for violation of parole.
Widow's Plea Recalled
Weissich's widow, Rosemary, said she pleaded with then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. in 1975 not to parole Schlette.
She said Wednesday that she wrote the governor that "every guard was telling him not to (grant parole to Schlette) because his prison cell was full of diabolic comment to the effect that his one purpose in life was to kill Bill Weissich.
"I wrote . . . 'How will you possibly justify to me and his children if you release this man and he succeeds in killing my husband and their father?' "
The former governor could not be reached Wednesday.
"I can just see his sweet face looking up there courteously (at the gunman), starting to rise behind his desk. He had no enemies--no one except Malcolm Schlette," Weissich's wife said.
Stinson said Schlette was watched carefully for many years after his final release March 8, 1975. "He didn't do anything, and eventually the watch just evaporated. I retired three years ago and didn't watch him any more."
Declaration in Note
Police Detective Michael Keller told the Marin Independent Journal that Schlette left behind in his Santa Rosa apartment a note that read: "I declare as my final act on earth that I and I alone am responsible for all acts of violence I was able to perpetrate against my enemies . . . .
"My regret is that society only gave me this avenue to square extraordinary wrongs committed against my branch of the Schlette family."
Weissich had served as the county's chief prosecutor from 1953 to 1960. He was also a former head of the Marin County Bar Assn. He was active in conservative Republican politics and considered a friend of President Reagan, who as governor appointed him to the California State College Board of Trustees.
Weissich had a heart attack a few years ago, Dufficy said, and slowed down his practice. "He was such a low-key, fair kind of guy. . . . I couldn't see where anybody would get angry with him."
Roger Garety, who succeeded Weissich as district attorney after serving as his chief deputy, said, "Bill was a brilliant attorney, almost scholarly, and a damn good prosecutor, vigorous but fair."
"It's almost kind of a classic fighting D.A. kind of story . . . you write novels along these lines," said Dufficy. "The anger was still seething within this guy, which is pretty incredible."
In a bizarre footnote to the case, two large trunks sent by Schlette arrived at the San Francisco Chronicle building Wednesday. Workers were evacuated for a brief period, until police determined that the trunks contained only court documents, no explosives.
The trunks were addressed to reporter Bill Gordon, who said he received a call about a month ago from an unidentified man who wanted to talk about a murder. Gordon said he believes the caller was Schlette.
"He advised me that (the materials) would solve a murder, possibly several murders," Gordon said.
"I tried to get some identification and meet him or (get) a phone number, but he wouldn't agree to any of that," Gordon said.
Gordon said Chronicle editors and officials from the San Rafael and San Francisco police departments were examining the materials in the trunks.