Calif. Couple Banned From Owning Dogs
Second Animal in Fatal Attack Ordered Killed
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, February 24, 2000; Page A02
SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 23 -- The husband-and-wife lawyer team whose dogs mauled to death a popular college lacrosse coach have been banned by authorities from owning any dogs for the next three years.
In addition, authorities ordered the second dog involved in the attack on 33-year-old Diane Whipple, Hera, to be destroyed immediately. The couple's other dog, Bane, was destroyed last month on the same night that Whipple died.
"In this case, where a human being has lost [her] life, I feel this is the one thing I can do to help make it safe," said police Sgt. William Herndon, a hearing officer who used an obscure California Food and Agriculture code to impose the maximum penalty on the couple. "If I could have made it 10 years, I would have."
The decision on Thursday was the latest in a tragic and bizarre tale that has led investigators to a white supremacist group at a Northern California prison, an Ohio breeder of the Presa Canario breed of dogs and their relationships to the lawyer-owners of the dogs who killed Whipple. The attack also has sparked national debate about the responsibility of owners of certain breeds of dogs.
Prosecutors are considering filing criminal charges against the owners, Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller. That decision will largely be determined by whether they can prove that Noel and Knoller knew the dogs were violent before the attack on Whipple.
Herndon's decision came after he reviewed statements of numerous witnesses who testified at a Feb. 13 vicious-dog hearing for Hera, a 113-pound female Presa Canario. A postal worker, neighbors and animal control officers testified to the dog's viciousness, and much of their testimony was rebutted in testimony from Noel and Knoller.
Whipple, who coached at St. Mary's College in Moraga, was fatally mauled outside the hallway door of the apartment she shared with her partner, Sharon Smith, in the Pacific Heights section of the city. As Whipple went to open the front door of her apartment, she was met by Knoller and her two dogs, Hera and Bane, a male known in the neighborhood as "The Beast."
The details of what happened next are unclear. What is known is that a few minutes later, Whipple lay mortally wounded on the hallway floor, the attack so ferocious that she was left naked, her clothes in shreds around her. She died later that evening, Jan. 26, at a hospital.
Days after Whipple's death, Noel and Knoller legally adopted Paul "Cornfed" Schneider, one of their clients. Schneider, 38, is an inmate at maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison and is serving a life sentence for assault and attempted murder. Prison officials have said that Schneider and cellmate Dale Bretches are members of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood and used people outside the prison to raise the powerful Presa Canario breed for an illegal dog-fighting ring.
Noel and Knoller became caretakers of Bane and Hera last April, when they sued a California woman, Janet Coumbs, on behalf of Schneider to get the dogs back. Coumbs had been caring for the dogs since they were puppies after ordering them from Ohio breeder James Kolber for an "eccentric artist," according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Coumbs said she was concerned then about the dogs' behavior and installed three security doors on the outside of her house to keep the dogs from coming inside. "They ate my sheep, my chickens and my daughter's cat," said Coumbs, who tried to warn Noel and Knoller before they took them off her property. "They turned to me and said, 'It's not your concern,' "
Corrections officials later said that the two inmates were trying to breed the dogs and sell them to fight but that they had little success in the venture.
Unraveling the complete roles of Noel and Knoller in this tale has proven harder for investigators. Neither returned telephone calls requesting interviews for this article.
Smith, Whipple's partner, said she has not heard from the couple since the attack and is planning to file a wrongful-death lawsuit against them. They have fought, with mixed success, the execution of search warrants related to the case for their apartment. A few days after the attack, Noel delivered a public letter to the district attorney's office, putting some of the blame for the attack on Whipple, whom he wrote might have been taking steroids or wearing a pheromone-based fragrance that could have triggered the male dog to attack.
The letter also said Whipple hit Knoller during the attack. "When Ms. Whipple struck Marjorie in the face, Bane moved forward and made contact with Ms. Whipple's neck and throat," the letter said.
In her testimony before Herndon, a tearful Knoller said that Hera -- the female dog -- did not bite Whipple. "Hera was nowhere near Ms. Whipple during the attack," Knoller said.
In his testimony, Noel described the dogs as loving pets. "Hera and Bane were not in the least aggressive," he said.
Animal control officers gave a vastly different account of Hera. Andrea Runge, the first animal control officer on the scene, described the female dog as acting "crazed" and that there was blood on her coat. Officer Michael Scott testified that Hera was acting "aggressively" and that she was ready to attack him, too.
In his report, Herndon said that for the next three years dog ownership by either Noel or Knoller "would create a significant risk to the public health, welfare and safety." He said he did "not believe that Ms. Knoeller testified completely and truthfully at the hearing."
"I kind of feel that they're in denial," he said.