Killer Dog, Weird Couple

by Alexander Cockburn

West of the Rockies people may pretend an interest in Enron, the treatment of the Al Qaeda prisoners in Guantanamo, even the volcano in the Congo but where their attention is truly fixed is an LA courtroom where the dog-maul trial is in its opening throes.

Since day one, which was almost exactly a year ago, the case has always been a show-stopper: killer dogs, a lesbian with her throat torn out, impenitent dog owners, UNNATURAL ACTS, plus porn photos mailed to a con nick-named Cornfed, roosting in California’s toughest prison. No wonder people skip past the Enron stories.

The case got moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco because Judge James Warren agreed that the dog owners, lawyers Marjorie Knoller (46) and her husband Robert Noel (60) couldn’t get a fair trial in the Bay Area. The San Francisco DA, Terence Hallinan, has charged them both with involuntary manslaughter, with Knoller also facing a second degree murder rap. Unable to make bail now at $1 million each, they’ve been in jail since last spring, As jury selection proceeded last week, there was a torchlight vigil in San Francisco, remembering Diane Whipple, 33, the lacrosse instructor and runner, who had her throat ripped out by the late Bane, a presa canario dog weighing 120 pounds, about the same as her victim.

In Knoller’s carefree estimation Bane and another presa canario, Hera, who’s currently on Death Row, all appeals exhausted and awaiting execution, were “no more dangerous than chihuahuas”. It’s one of the remarks that has created the widespread public impression that Knoller lacks contrition for Bane’s conduct. And in truth, she could have handled things better. Suppose, for example, when she returned to her apartment in the high price neighborhood of Pacific Heights, saw Bane ripping the throat out of the blood-spattered naked body of Whipple, she had screamed with horror, fought to pull Bane off, then rushed to call 911. Such conduct might have found favor with the public, or with a jury. As things stand, she took in the scene, dug around in her purse for her keys, went inside and didn’t dial 911. The neighbors made the emergency call.

And take Noel. He hasn’t won too many fans either, in part because of letters found in the cell of Paul “Cornfed” Schneider, 33, adopted as a son by Noel and Knoller not long after the fatal mauling, and currently residing in Pelican Bay Prison on a life sentence for aggravated assault and attempted murder. Schneider and another Pelican Bay inmate had organized the training of Bane and Hera as part of a business venture, selling presa canarios as guardogs, probably to drug gangs.

One letter from Noel to Schneider expresses amusement at an attack by Bane on a blind woman. Another ridicules Whipple as “a mousy little blonde”, who was terrified of Bane after an earlier confrontation. And business seems to have had a slightly unusual alliance with pleasure. In one letter, Mr Noel alluded to sexual arrangements of an unspecified nature between the various dramatis personae. “I wanted to thank you,” he graciously informed Schneider “for the thoughts expressed about your feelings about how comfortable you would feel about Marjorie and I inhabiting your body and mind.” Hmm.

Similarly unalluring was Noel’s speculation, installed in a lengthy letter to DA Hallinan after Whipple’s death, suggesting that Whipple had brought about her own demise because her perfume had given off pheromones that whipped Bane into a frenzy. Knoller expanded on this theme in her grand jury testimony, cited by the prosecution, in which she said Bane’s initial interest in Whipple appeared to be sexual. “He was sniffing, he was acting agitated,” Knoller testified, adding she had never seen Bane respond that way to a human being. “He was sniffing her and acting peculiar” Also, “He put his head in Miss Whipple’s crotch” and responded to her as he would to a “bitch in heat.”

Of course the defense is desperate to persuade Judge Warren to shield the jury from insinuations of bestiality between Knoller, Noel, Bane and Hera. California juries have so far refused to convict owners of killer dogs of murder. Most defense lawyers quoted in the press agree that even in this case it might be hard to nail Knoller on second degree murder or even on involuntary manslaughter, particularly Noel who wasn’t even present. But if they get painted as dog fuckers all bets are off.

The prosecutors are similarly eager to get dog perv innuendoes in front of the jury. James Hammer, from the DA’s office, argued for admission of sex-related materials into the trial last week, and though he didn’t directly level charges of bestiality, he argued that “any evidence, if it exists, regarding any inappropriate sexual conduct by the dogs” would be relevant and should not be excluded.” Then he rolled out the magnificently melodramatic assertion that “They blurred the boundaries between dogs and humans, with fatal consequences.”

Nedra Ruiz, Knoller’s lawyer, furiously battled such slurs and maintained that the only sex-related incident with the dogs, Bane and Hera, happened when the animals ran into Knoller and Noel’s bedroom while they were having sex. It was probably that pheromone thing again. Ruiz dismissed the “boundary-blurring” stuff as “specious filth”, albeit adding prudently: “Your honour, there is no sex in this case, in terms of the touchy-feely stuff that that word normally invokes.”

This careful phraseology might be Ruiz’s way of coping with what an AP story describes as letters from the couple to Schneider detailing sexual activity among Noel, Knoller and Bane, along with photos of a naked Knoller. The defense has managed to get these letters and photographs suppressed. One rumor suggests Knoller was giving Bane a blowjob. It’s all more sedately put in the late J.R. Ackerley’s book My Dog Tulip, bible of British pooch lovers and now a big hit over here.

The defense has scheduled 35 character witnesses, many of them eager to attest to the late Bane’s gentle disposition, and is also trying to suppress non-sex related material such as photographs of Bane’s teeth. As defense counsel Hotchkiss put it in a court filing. “All large dogs have big teeth and are capable of killing a human. Malice cannot be implied by mere possession of a large dog.”

All California’s large dog owners say Aye to that, including me, who espies on a daily basis the shining fangs of the 75-pound Jasper, part Irish wolfhound with genetic reminiscences of border collie, lab and maybe Airedale, chomping eagerly on bones (left-overs, I hasten to say), or chewing with less relish his Dr Hill’s Science Diet (lamb and rice mix). Just the other day I got a note from Pacific Gas and Electric giving me the meter-reader’s schedule and reminding me that recent changes in California’s statutory code make owners liable to felony charges if their dogs injure any one. Jasper, a stray who was plucked off the streets of Laytonville, narrowly missed the lethal needle and then lucked out, gets stern lectures these days about the need to keep his mouth shut, particularly in the presence of meter readers.

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