San Francisco Dog MaulingDiane Whipple returned home to her apartment from grocery shopping in January of 2001 and was attacked by monsters before she got inside. The monsters were being walked by their owner, Marjorie Knoeller, a San Francisco lawyer who could barely control the dogs.
The dogs attacked Diane and tore her clothes off, ripped her throat, bit her all over and dragged her body around the hallway. She was rushed to the hospital but died. While all of this happened, Marjorie stood by as the dogs did their business. She even stepped over Diane's body to get back into her apartment. One of the dogs was left in the hallway, one was brought inside.
When the police and paramedics arrived, they found Diane barely alive, badly bitten, naked and covered in blood. The hallway was covered in bloody handprints, practially soaking the carpet up and down the hallway. A medical examiner would later testify that Diane Whipple received 77 wounds all over her body except for "the soles of her feet and the top of her head." The damage to her larynx combined with the loss of greater than 1/3 of her blood killed her.
This woman's horrible death diverted the world's attention to two large dogs appropriately named Bane and Hera. The 120-pound Presa Canario dogs worked together to maul the 33-year-old woman. The male dog, Bane, took responsibility for Diane's face and neck while the bitch Hera concentrated on the lower body. Pieces of her clothing would eventually be found in both dogs' shit.
The case captured international publicity and put the spotlight on an eclectic collection of hot-button issues: good dogs, bad dogs, bad owners, foolish lawyers, bestiality, prison inmates, racist gangs, bad dog hearings, community outrage, illegal kennels, meth labs, pet ownership liabilities and gay rights.
The freak-show aspect of the case would be magnified even more when the dog owners, defendants Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, opened their mouths to give the prosecution plenty of ammunition. Lawyers both, they started out by attacking the victim and appearing on morning talk shows to predict they would not be held responsible. They blamed Whipple's death on her choice of perfume and on the possibility that she took steroids. At one point, they claimed that Whipple punched Knoller and refused to stay inside her own apartment despite being attacked, and thereby caused her own death. They never apologized.
Neighbor complaints began to pile up after the incident. According to many witnesses, the two dogs had a history of barking, running around without a leash and snapping at children. Bane once attacked a poodle, clamping down on its head and shaking it about. One man testified that Hera bit him on the ass and that the couple seemed dismissive of the incident. Noel, of the incident: "Hmmm, that's interesting."
To be sure, Noel and Marjorie were disinterested, unaffected, probably even bored to hear what people had to say. They thought their big bad-ass dogs were hilarious. From a letter carrier's testimony at trial: "They were in a snarling frenzy. It was very strange. I was terrified for my life and then suddenly it stopped. It was like someone pulled a plug and they began to run back."
How did two high society, big city, apartment-dwelling lawyer creatures end up in the care of these beasts? The story of how Marjorie and Robert came into possession of the dogs cannot be told without including Cornfed.
Once upon a time, San Quentin State Prison inmate Paul "Cornfed" Schneider decided to channel his time and energy into dog breeding. Cornfed was a three-time loser, serving a life sentence for a robbery conviction in Los Angeles and attempted murder while incarcerated at Folsom Prison. Armed with piles of books and magazines, he started a slow and methodical letter-writing campaign from his cell designed to dupe friends, family or lonely women into breeding attack dogs.
Cornfed is an imposing figure with a prison yard build and a dirty white boy look on his face. He is said to be the leader of, a member in good standing or otherwise affiliated with the notorious white supremacist prison gang known as the A.B. or Aryan Brotherhood. Given the combination of one bad dude with a lot of time on his hands, it is no wonder he was able to start up and manage a dog-breeding business from his prison cell. In another lifetime, perhaps Cornfed would have been a sharp car salesman or a motivated businessman instead of a solid con with a life sentence to look forward to.
The plan was to breed dogs that would fight or guard drug labs. A web site called "Dog o' War" was established for the eventual sale of the puppies. The breed that Cornfed eventually settled on was perfect for fighting, guarding and herding: the Presa Canario dog from the Canary Islands. In the 1950s, the monsters were near extinction until saved by being bred with other dogs. They were only recently introducted to the United States, in 1990, now there are more than 1,000 in number. When you Google around the net for information about these creatures, you find plenty of examples of good dogs in the form of valued guards, family pets, loyal companions, friendly dogs and even children-loving dogs. Nature vs. nurture aside, the world learned that Bane and Hera were not good dogs.
Their original owner of Bane and Hera, a stout little woman who ran a (very) small farm in Northern California, wasn't prepared to handle the dogs. At first, as the cliché goes, they were cute. But that was then and now the two would team up together to kill livestock and even a family cat that dared wander too close.
This poor woman, conned into breeding expensive dogs for her prison pen pal Cornfed, couldn't handle the situation. She coped by keeping the dogs chained up far away from persons, places and things that they could maul or otherwise tear apart into small, bloody pieces. Bane and Hera didn't appreciate this loss of freedom and would constantly bite through the chains, chew through the fences and continue to run wild over the farm.
During this period, Cornfed worried the dogs would lose their "edge" and turn into "pussies", incapable of guarding meth labs or otherwise being bad-ass dogs.
Eventually Cornfed's concern about his investment turned into a low-grade panic. After failing to find a new home for the dogs, in the form of shuffling them around the state, he was finally able to talk his lawyers into taking the dogs in for him. Marjorie and Noel were attorneys for the frustrated lifer and would, from time to time, make trouble for California Corrections staff on his behalf in the form of ensuring that the rights and complaints of Cornfed would be taken seriously.
Bane and Hera were turned over to the naive Marjorie and Noel after the prerequisite huffing and puffing involved in sending out scary-looking letters. Despite the agressive behavior and the nature of the dogs, Bane, Hera, Marjorie and Noel became one big happy family. Apparently the two lawyers didn't mind the terrible piss smell that hung in their apartment. The dogs quickly took over the flat. Neighbors would later comment that the dogs "owned" the apartment building and simply tolerated the human residents.
Marjorie and Noel's behavior, following the mauling death, was a combination of many elements no defense attorney wants to clean up after: bizarre, arrogant and shameful. No defense attorney wants a client who is prone to bizarre behavior, arrogant grandstanding and making shameful public statements. This very unlawyerlike behavior probably cemented the couple's doom. The pair appeared on morning talk shows, quacking about how they were innocent, how Hera was innocent and noisily predicted they would not be charged. All of this noise allowed San Francisco's District Attorney to get plenty of useful information to aid his case. Another way to look at it: The defendants made public statements and gave away all their defense secrets... on national television.
The death of Diane Whipple would bring equal rights squarely into the media spotlight. Diane's live-in lesbian lover of 7 years, Sharon Smith, filed a wrongful death lawsuit as Diane's mother. No, seriously: Under California law at the time, only the mother had the right to bring a wrongful death action. So Sharon filed as the mother, contending she had been denied equal rights and that said denial is unconstitutional and that she should be allowed to sue. Since this incident, California has granted domestic partners such rights.
Marjorie and Noel were eventually arrested and charged, Marjorie with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, Noel with involuntary manslaughter. The murder charge made international headlines and probably caused some dog owners to think about insurance. The charge of second degree murder would later be thrown out when the prosecution could not make the case that malice was involved beyond a reasonable doubt. Yes, they were big fucking dogs but no, Marjorie had no idea when they would go off.
As if the case wasn't bizarre enough, a search of Cornfed's cell revealed a number of interesting things. Noel and Marjorie were not only Cornfed's lawyers but they had in fact adopted the con. Naked photographs of Marjorie were found as well. In the couple's apartment, drawings of Marjorie in various states of dress, cavorting with the dogs, were taken by police. The San Francisco Chronicle printed this: "Investigators theorized that possible sexual abuse of the animals may have contributed to the attack on Whipple. But officials said yesterday that it appears found little to support that theory. Yet, according to one affidavit, Pelican Bay Prison Sgt. Joe Akin reported finding ‘a letter disguised as legal mail addressed to (inmate Paul) Schneider’ that discusses ‘sexual activity between Noel, Knoller and the dog Bane.’"
It is possible that the lawyerly pair were star-struck by the beefy he-man lifestyle that Cornfed represented. Whether the two lawyers went over to the dark side or Cornfed talked them into adopting him is unknown. The fate of Robert and Knoller would not be tied to Cornfed's, who would not get to appear in court and was not charged in the incident.
The judge would eventually rule that the couple's association with the racist prison gang and the crazy naked pictures were much too weird for the courtroom and would not be allowed into evidence. The trial was moved to Los Angeles when the defendants asserted that they would not receive a fair trial in San Francisco. Said the trial judge of Marjorie and Noel: "You are the most despised couple in this city -- I don't think anybody likes you."
During the trial, Knoller's testimony revealed her true nature: "I'm feeling awful, just thinking about the horrible way that Ms. Whipple died in that hallway causes me great sorrow and I'm in pain for everybody that knew her and spent time with her." She went on: "I had no idea that he would ever do anything like that. How could you anticipate something like that? A totally bizarre event? How can you anticipate that a dog that you know, that is gentle and loving and affectionate, can do something so horrible and brutal and disgusting and gruesome?"
The final piece of evidence came in the form of a letter written by Robert: "There is no way to ease into this. Bane is dead, as is our neighbor." ... "Neighbors be damned." ... "If they don't like living in the building with [Hera], they can move."
Marjorie and Robert were found guilty and sentenced to prison. At this time, Robert has been released on parole while, if all goes well, Marjorie will join him in early 2004. Cornfed has since been shipped off to another prison for whatever reason. The gay community continues to mark the anniversary of this event. And, with any luck, irresponsible dog owners received a wake-up call. What goes around, comes around: these dogs may not have been born bad but they certainly were bad dogs and one would like to think the bad owners feel lucky they weren't put to sleep as well.