Dog and pony show

With players straight out of central casting, San Francisco transforms the most gruesome and deadly canine attack in recent memory into a soap opera.

Published May 10, 2001 4:41PM (EDT)

Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, the couple charged in the dog-mauling case that has appalled and fascinated this dog-loving city, came to court to be arraigned Wednesday, and there was only a little bit of strangeness, which itself is strange for this very strange pair.

Unable to post their respective $2 million and $1 million bails, Knoller and Noel have been in the city jail for six weeks, facing charges of second-degree murder (for Knoller only), manslaughter and failure to control a vicious dog stemming from the Jan. 26 mauling death of their neighbor Diane Whipple, killed in the hallway of their apartment building by one of two Presa Canario dogs Knoller and Noel were caring for. The husband and wife were scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday morning -- their fourth such date, delayed so far by defense motions -- and they finally were arraigned in the afternoon, but not before Knoller skipped the morning session claiming illness, and rolled into the continued afternoon session in a wheelchair, looking drawn and grim, head resting on one fist.

Noel's morning appearance had been accompanied by a good-sized crowd of reporters and a pint-sized crowd of second-graders, who fidgeted in the first two rows of the gallery. One of the second-graders is named Vivian, and when she saw 64-year-old District Attorney Terrence Hallinan she said, "Hi, Daddy!" The D.A. doesn't appear in court for just any old arraignment, so this was a good day for a field trip.

The media throng was smaller than the throngs at previous court dates. "Maybe it's delay fatigue," one writer said. Reporters, who fidgeted and gabbed as Judge Philip Moscone spent a half hour at the afternoon session working his way through the Master Criminal Calendar, setting court dates for this defendant and that, were visibly pleased by Knoller's appearance in a wheelchair. Some days, you see, your lead just writes itself.

When they make the movie about the San Francisco dog-mauling case -- and they will make that movie -- you'll watch it, and you'll sit there saying, "Come on. Oh, come on!" But believe that movie. This case, from those initial, shocking news reports on, has given and given and given some more. Every time you think it's gone ahead and become the damndest thing you ever saw, it just goes right ahead and tops itself.

Has there ever been a more appealing victim than Diane Whipple, the sunny, beloved lacrosse coach who was once a star collegiate athlete? Has there ever been a more sympathetic grieving significant other than Whipple's classy, well-spoken lover, who by the way was her lesbian domestic partner, and who discovered that California allows spouses, but not domestic partners, to file wrongful death lawsuits? She's fighting the good fight against that law by filing suit anyway. And have there ever been alleged perps more unlikable than Knoller and Noel, who seemed officious and uncaring in the aftermath of her death?

And that was just the start of things. That was before they adopted a 38-year-old Aryan Brotherhood member serving a life sentence, before they told a court that the dogs were sweethearts, one of them a "certified lick therapist," before allegations of an unusual sexual relationship that might have involved the dogs, before a gay former seminarian and a stunning former Victoria's Secret model were appointed to prosecute the case.

Whipple was attacked outside her apartment by Bane, a hulking 123-pound male Presa Canario, as Knoller tried unsuccessfully to control the dog. A female dog of the same breed named Hera, almost as large, was present and may have taken part in the attack.

It was revealed in the ensuing days that Knoller, 45, and Noel, 59, who are lawyers, got the dogs from clients of theirs, a pair of cellmates at Pelican Bay, California's toughest prison, named Paul John "Cornfed" Schneider and Dale Bretches, members of the racist Aryan Brotherhood prison gang who are both serving life sentences without possibility of parole. Prison officials alleged that Bane and Hera had been part of a scheme by the prisoners to raise vicious dogs and sell them to the Mexican Mafia, another prison gang, for use as fighters and meth lab guards. Neighbors began coming forward saying that they'd been terrified of the aggressive animals, and wishing they'd reported them to authorities. Bane was put to death. Hera is being held as evidence. She will likely be euthanized too.

Three days after Whipple's death, Noel and Knoller adopted "Cornfed" Schneider, 38, a move that left the public, not to mention corrections officials, slack-jawed. "We're a little puzzled," said a prisons spokesman with considerable understatement. Noel called Schneider "a man of more character and integrity than most of the people you're going to find in the California Department of Corrections administration." Noel has defended several inmates and guards in lawsuits against the Corrections Department. One of the crimes Schneider's in the pokey for is attempted murder -- of his lawyer. (Not Noel -- or, presumably, "Dad.")

Then Noel and Knoller released a rambling, 19-page letter to the district attorney that accused the sunny, beloved Whipple of bringing on the attack herself by wearing a certain scent and refusing to retreat to her apartment, and portrayed Knoller as a would-be hero, valiantly attempting to save her neighbor. The letter was so patently insulting, so self-serving and offensive, that it stunned a city that is generally beyond stunning.

A few days later the lawyers held a press conference outside the gates of Pelican Bay prison in which they repeated their theory that Whipple may have been using steroids, or wearing pheromone-based perfume, or carrying groceries, any of which might have caused Bane to attack her, and that Whipple -- who had previously been bitten by Bane and was terrified of him -- not only failed to stay in her apartment when she had the chance to do so, but actually punched Knoller in the face during the attack, despite Knoller's warnings that Bane was trying to protect his owner from a perceived attacker.

By this time the story was the biggest local talker since the night four years ago when the campaign manager for the 49ers' new stadium initiative had a birthday party where the entertainment was highlighted by a live sex act that included a Satanic ritual, public urination and the creative use of a whiskey bottle.

And the strange sexual angle in this case hadn't even come up yet.

Documents unsealed by the court in late March in response to a legal challenge by news organizations showed that authorities suspected that the dogs had been sexually abused. Investigation revealed no evidence of this, but there was talk of sexually explicit photos of Knoller and Noel, maybe involving the dogs, and sexually explicit communication between the couple and Schneider. Transcripts from the grand jury that handed down the indictments have been sealed by Judge Moscone pending a hearing. Media outlets and prosecutors are hoping to have them released, which would bring any such evidence to light.

Did we mention that Moscone, whose license plate reads "Big Fly" (which is what moscone means in Italian) is a cousin of George Moscone, the San Francisco mayor who was assassinated at City Hall in 1978? Does that matter? No. It's just one more thing you won't believe when you watch the movie.

If Knoller and Noel had any hope to gain points in the court of public opinion, it was because they were dog owners in a city that's just mad about dogs. "There's dog crazy owners everywhere you go, but I think San Franciscans really care about their dogs," says Laura Hawkins Smith, who runs K9to5, a South of Market dog day-care center that was the first of its kind in the Bay Area. "I have owners who [messenger] over their dog's lunch if they forgot it."

San Francisco, a city named after the patron saint of all things fish and fowl, furry and floppy-eared, is a place where dog owners storm municipal meetings to fight leash laws at the beaches, where neighbor battles neighbor over off-leash areas in local parks. It's a city that seven years ago became the first in America that doesn't put adoptable dogs and cats to sleep. And two years ago it almost became the first to adopt a policy that would have changed the words "pet owner" to "pet guardian" in city ordinances, an honor that went instead to Boulder, Colo. And this isn't a new thing: Two of the city's earliest celebrities were Bummer and Lazarus, a pair of stray mutts that roamed the post-Gold Rush Barbary Coast stealing food and killing rats, the latter earning them municipal sanction for the former.

But alas for Knoller and Noel, San Francisco is also a conscientious city, and they did not seem to be conscientious dog owners. Art Tomaszewski, walking his dog in Dolores Park in the Mission District in the days after the attack, said the mauling was topic A among dog owners, and the general consensus was, "They're like your children. You're responsible for what they do."

Just as bad for the couple, sad to say, is the matter of looks. This shouldn't matter, and it's one of those things that the movie is going to be panned for, but the fact is that Noel and Knoller aren't a pretty pair, and everyone on the other side is at least interesting looking. There's Hallinan, the white-haired, twinkly eyed, ruddy-faced D.A. There's chief prosecutor James Hammer, 39, the boyish-looking, straight-shooting former Jesuit, who's assisted by Kimberly Guilfoyle, the 32-year-old former lingerie model who is widely viewed as hard-working, talented and serious, but who will probably spend the rest of a brilliant career reading the words "former lingerie model" before her name. She hangs out with the city's glitterati, and is said to be close to getting engaged to Supervisor Gavin Newsom, who's part of the Getty/Coppola crowd. And there's Sharon Smith, Whipple's domestic partner, who is handsome and poised and given to tasteful navy blue pantsuits. I hate to be writing about this stuff, really I do, but we're talking about public perception here, and the public likes stylish, good-looking people better than it likes frumpy, not-so-good-looking people.

Wednesday, journalists thronged around the attorneys after the morning session, at which defense attorneys asked for a continuance and said they planned to file a demurrer challenging the indictment. Smith, who had sat in the front row of the gallery with her lawyer and a friend, all wearing blue ribbons to commemorate Whipple, patiently told reporters that she's working with an author named Joe Harrington, who's writing a book about the case called "Death of an Angel."

"The book's going to be written, with or without my involvement," she said. "Joe told me he was writing a book. I did feel it was a little early, but I'd rather be involved and telling my story and our story than not be involved and have somebody try to guess what happened from the outside." She said reading the manuscript was "very painful." Asked whether she thought all the media attention was a good thing or not, she chuckled and said, "I'm generally a pretty private person, so I'm not thrilled with all the attention, but the media's been very respectful."

Asked that same question the day before on the phone, Hammer, the prosecutor, exhaled loud and long -- 15 seconds to be exact. "I think the public has a right to know what's going on, you know? Is the D.A. doing a good job? Are they being careful? Are they being fair?" he said. "I can see how you can totally lose perspective, but I have to say, the sign of my mental health and professional health is when we said no to the 'Today' show a second time. I mean, I told a friend of mine, 'I think that's a good thing.' You know, it's like, yeah, it's important to do because I think people have a right to know. But then, the next time, we have work to do. But I can see getting sucked into it."

At the afternoon court session, Knoller and Noel declined to enter pleas. Their court-appointed attorneys filed their demurrer and the judge set a hearing date of May 21. The demurrer charges that California's vicious dog statute preempts murder or manslaughter charges. In other words, since the vicious dog law covers the crime alleged, Knoller and Noel can't also be charged with the more serious crimes. "We don't agree with that theory," Hallinan told reporters outside the courtroom, "but we will of course be here on the 21st to contest that."

A reporter told Hallinan that Smith had expressed displeasure at children being in the courtroom for the morning session, since this case is so disturbing. "That was my daughter's class," he said. "They've been planning an excursion to the Hall of Justice for the last month and then when this hearing came up I suggested that if they came, here would be a hearing they could sit in on where there might be something exciting. Nothing much exciting happened, but that's why they were here. And I think I'll get a few lawyers out of it."

And then the district attorney and his two underlings began making their way down the hallway toward their office, surrounded by reporters, preceded by five TV camera operators, slowly walking backwards, spotlights blazing.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

MORE FROM King Kaufman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------