Couple Indicted in Deadly Dog Mauling
Wife Faces 2nd Degree Murder Charge in Killing of Lacrosse Coach
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 29, 2001; Page A03
SAN FRANCISCO, March 28 -- A husband and wife lawyer team whose dogs mauled to death a popular lacrosse coach in a savage attack that horrified this city have been indicted for murder and manslaughter in connection with the attack.
Authorities arrested Marjorie Knoller, 45, and her husband, Robert Noel, 59, late Tuesday hours after Knoller testified before a grand jury here about the attack on Diane Whipple, who was fatally bitten as she struggled to get inside her apartment last January.
Knoller, who was present during the attack on Whipple, faces charges of second-degree murder. She and Noel were both charged with involuntary manslaughter and failing to control a vicious animal.
"It is a more substantial hurdle that we'll have to face" to get a conviction, "but we feel confident about the evidence," said Kimberly Guilfoyle, assistant district attorney.
The latest installment of this tragic and bizarre case ended Tuesday night at a ranch owned by friends of the couple in Corning, about 170 miles north of San Francisco.
An unmarked police car had been trailing Noel and Knoller since the couple left a courthouse here early Tuesday afternoon, after more than three hours of testimony before a county grand jury by Knoller. About an hour after leaving San Francisco, Noel was pulled over and cited by a California Highway Patrol officer for reckless driving after his car reached speeds of more than 90 mph, and he made unsafe lane changes, according to Guilfoyle. He then drove 90 miles north to the friend's ranch.
"We wanted to be prepared in the likelihood that an indictment was returned," Guilfoyle said. "These are very serious charges, and we wanted to make sure that they didn't flee."
Whipple, 33, a coach at St. Mary's College in Moraga, was killed on Jan. 26 by the dogs, both Presa Canarios, in an apartment building where Knoller and Noel also live. She was attacked outside the sixth-floor apartment she shared with her partner, Sharon Smith, who has already filed a wrongful death suit against the couple.
Several days after the attack, in an 18-page letter to the district attorney delivered through a local television station, Noel partly blamed Whipple for her own death, saying that the aroma of a certain perfume she wore or from steroids she might have been taking could have caused the dogs to set upon her. Then, authorities said that the couple was raising the dogs for two inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, including Paul "Cornfed" Schneider. The dogs were being trained, prison officials said, as fighting dogs and to guard illegal drug labs.
Soon afterward, Noel and Knoller stunned the public when they announced that they were adopting Schneider, who state corrections officials say belongs to the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist group.
The grand jury heard testimony from 50 witnesses, including Noel and Knoller, and from residents who live in and near the couple's apartment building, some of whom previously have told reporters that the two dogs had bitten or attacked them. Prosecutors also presented 2,800 pages of documents, many secured through 10 search warrants. Both dogs have been destroyed.
Bail was set today at $2 million for Knoller, $1 million for Noel. After the court proceeding, Assistant District Attorney James Hammer said the couple got high bonds partly because they are flight risks.
The attack -- so vicious that it left Whipple bloodied and her clothing stripped from her body -- sparked national debate about the responsibilities of owners of certain breeds of dogs. Here, at least one dog owners group applauded the indictments.
"It's absolutely appropriate to focus on the owners," said Laura Cavaluzzo, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Dog Owners Group. "We've all been painted with the same tar because of what they did. They are not like us."
Barbara Patton-Sichel, who owns the ranch where Knoller and Noel were arrested, said she doesn't want to see her friends convicted and imprisoned. "An accident is an accident," Patton-Sichel said. "There was nothing at all about this tragedy that was planned."