SEATTLE -- It was a distasteful story from any angle. But when two KING-TV reporters discovered in 1985 that a juvenile court judge allegedly had seduced teen-aged boys when he was a young lawyer and was seeing juvenile offenders privately away from the courthouse, many at the station thought the report should be broadcast.

Instead, as happened often in the troubling career of King County Superior Court Judge Gary Little, there was silence.

The president of KING-TV Channel 5, an NBC affiliate here, killed the story. Little's friends in the city's political and business community said nothing. The state's Commission on Judicial Conduct kept secret a long report on Little's private contacts with youths whom he initially had met in court and who stayed overnight at his Seattle home and his cabin on Sinclair Island.

The years of dismissal and denial ended with the crack of a .38-caliber revolver echoing down the empty halls of the King County Courthouse on Aug. 18, a Thursday night. Informed that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer would publish the story of his secret life the next morning, Little committed suicide outside his courtroom.

The note he left said: "For me, it is an appropriate end to the present situation."

The Post-Intelligencer article ran as scheduled on the next day's front page, underneath the report of Little's suicide and beside a third piece detailing how the legal establishment had suppressed reports of his controversial behavior for so long. The jarring news began an orgy of self-examination, and the legal and philosophical debate continues today with an intensity rarely seen in any U.S. city.

Little, 49, was described by many as a warm and caring jurist, but mourning over his death has been eclipsed by the uproar over the failure of so many institutions -- courts, judicial watchdog agencies, the news media -- to act when they learned of the judge's alleged sexual practices.

The explanations have centered on the traditional decorum and protectiveness of Seattle politics, libel laws, the gay-rights movement, the reluctance to besmirch a judge and, particularly, Little's solid public reputation and widespread friendships.

"I've been a reporter for 24 years, including seven years with NBC," said Jim Compton, one of two KING-TV reporters who had the Little story in 1985, "and I have never seen a story that struck a dagger into the heart of a community like this one has."

The state attorney general and several state legislators have called for reform of the Commission on Judicial Conduct, which under its rules was barred from looking further into Little's past than Dec. 4, 1980, when the commission was created. The commission admonished Little for out-of-court contacts with juveniles in 1981 but took no action when further contacts were reported in 1984 and 1985 and demanded that all investigations of Little's conduct remain secret.

The Seattle Times reported three weeks after Little's suicide that then-presiding Superior Court Judge Jack Scholfield removed Little from juvenile court work in 1981 but restored him to it early in 1982 on the recommendation of commission Executive Director Esther Garner. Little was transferred permanently to nonjuvenile cases in 1985. Garner and other commission officials say their rules forbid comment on commission decisions and recommendations.

"What we see here is a rather colossal failure of the system to police its own," said J.D. Alexander, executive editor of the Post-Intelligencer. "Rather, it was structured and manipulated to protect its own."

Little killed himself after Post-Intelligencer reporter Duff Wilson told him of allegations by five men now in their mid- to late-30s, including three former students at Lakeside School where Little taught a pre-law class in the early 1970s. Wilson reported that the men said "Little used his position as a well-connected attorney and a teacher at the exclusive private school to manipulate them and to coerce them into sexual relations." Although only one of the men was identified in the article that ran the day after Little's death, all five agreed to support their allegations in court if necessary, Alexander said.

One of the men, identified as "Brad," a former Lakeside student and son of a prominent Seattle businessman, said he had been admitted to a local psychiatric ward three times in the last five years after suicide attempts. He blamed many of his emotional problems on Little. "I basically saw myself as kind of hopeless and helpless and not being able to trust anyone," he told Wilson.

The Post-Intelligencer has been widely praised for the article, but it and The Seattle Times received many letters blaming the press for Little's suicide and defending Little's record and his right to privacy.

In its article about the suicide, the Post-Intelligencer reported that Little called his friend Camden Hall, a senior partner in the law firm representing the Post-Intelligencer, seven hours before to say he planned to kill himself. But the article did not mention Hall's connection to the newspaper and did not say whether Hall had conveyed the suicide warning to the newspaper's management.

Alexander says that failing to identify Hall was an oversight. He has refused to comment on any warnings, except to say that editors often must balance the personal distress a story may cause against its importance to readers.

Hall and other friends of Little have emphasized the continued lack of any evidence that Little molested anyone after his election to the Superior Court in 1980. Hall said that the streetwise youths Little sometimes took home would be the least likely to cover up a sexual involvement because of embarrassment, yet all have denied he took advantage of them. "I think Gary took his public trust seriously," Hall said.

According to friends and news accounts here, Little was rarely brilliant but always devoted to his work, dogged, friendly and seemingly candid.

Little's father, a shipyard worker and truck driver with a burglary conviction on his record, hanged himself after being jailed on a traffic charge when Little was 8. While Little's mother continued to work as a stenographer, his grandmother helped raise him and his younger sister and filled him with ambition for worldly success.

Although not the top student at Lincoln High, he was involved in nearly every important school activity and won a scholarship to Harvard. He immersed himself in Democratic politics in college and at the University of Washington Law School and continued to deal with a wide circle of politically influential friends as an assistant state's attorney general and chief counsel for the Seattle School District.

In his spare time, he became a teacher and mentor to boys with ambitions like his own. Here, a few of his students alleged, his sexual interest in boys revealed itself.

Little, interviewed by Wilson for the last time the day of Little's suicide, would not discuss his private life and emphasized that he had already announced his retirement from the bench and his plans to move to California. "If I was running for the bench," he told the reporter, "I think some of the questions you ask me would be appropriate. But I am not. I am leaving."

Little was unmarried, and some of his friends say they suspected he was homosexual. Wilson, in an interview, called Seattle a "liberal city" and speculated that some people refrained from criticizing Little for fear of being accused of unfairness to gays.

But the almost daily coverage of the scandal since Little's death has revealed that rumors of his out-of-court contacts with juveniles and lenient attitude toward blond, blue-eyed boys in court were courthouse gossip for several years. Attorneys with juvenile clients who fit that profile would try to get their cases assigned to Little. Two of the men interviewed by Wilson said they told the Commission on Judicial Conduct of being molested by Little years before and got no response.

Many people who have hailed Wilson's stories have demanded to know why none of this information was made public before, particularly when Little was known to have been seeing juveniles in private.

Sturges Dorrance, general manager of KING-TV, said Compton and another Channel 5 reporter, John Wilson (no relation to Duff Wilson), secured taped accounts in 1985 from four adults who said Little had molested them when he was teaching at Lakeside. They also had evidence of Little's out-of-court contacts with youths whose cases were before his court.

Dorrance said corporate president Ancil Payne killed the story despite heated objections from the two reporters, because "we could not make a connection between what he had done 15 years ago and what he was doing today." Without some evidence of sexual contact between Little and juveniles with whom he was dealing as a judge, Dorrance said he and Payne concluded it would be "unethical" and possibly libelous to blacken the reputation of an otherwise reputable judge.

Last June, when Little's out-of-court contacts became an issue in his short-lived campaign for reelection, station management allowed Compton and John Wilson to broadcast a long report on what they had known for three years about those contacts and include a brief, shadowy tape of a man saying he had been "manipulated" by Little many years before.

The Seattle Times reported in 1985 that Little had been admonished for out-of-court contacts with juveniles. Times managing editor Alex MacLeod said reporters also tried to confirm rumors of Little's previous sexual contacts with teen-agers, but all they could find were "people who would not be identified and would not be very clear" about what happened.

Dorrance said despite all that has come out since, "I still personally feel that our decision in '85 {not to air the charges of molestation} was the right one." Opinion on that question remains sharply divided, both at KING-TV and across the city.

In a column for The Times, former KING-TV reporter Don McGaffin castigated himself and much of the rest of the city's media for failing "in those weird, mawkish, out-of-date responsibilities that come with reporting the news." He suggested that reporters spared Little in part because they considered him "brilliant, sophisticated and wonderfully worldly" and had so often depended on him as a news source.

McGaffin said once in 1968, when Little was handling university student riots for the state attorney general, he opened Little's office door unannounced and found him kissing a blond, blue-eyed male student. He did not mention the incident to anyone, even after allegations about Little's out-of-court association with juveniles began to surface.

The worst offenders, he said, were the management of KING-TV and The Seattle Times, who "have to live with the knowledge that they had evidence that Little might inflict himself on boys in county custody. And neither reported the story."

In an answer to McGaffin and other critics, Times executive editor Michael R. Fancher wrote that The Times promptly published whatever relevant information it had but could not confirm until after the suicide the "rumors, gossip and innuendo about Judge Little."

"Journalists find it ironic that we are criticized on the one hand for not having revealed the truth about Gary Little years ago, while we are criticized for hounding him to death," Fancher said. "We become the focus of people's inability to find easy answers for something they cannot grasp -- how such things could happen."