Murder-by-dog convict Marjorie Knoller is denied parole
SACRAMENTO––The California Board of Parole Hearings on February 15, 2022 again denied parole to Marjorie Knoller, 67, convicted of murder-by-dog for the January 26, 2001 death of St. Mary’s College lacrosse coach Diane Whipple, 33, at the door to her San Francisco apartment.
Knoller was previously denied parole on February 9, 2019.
“At the conclusion of a nearly four-hour hearing, the two-member panel of the Board of Parole Hearings said Knoller presented a danger to society if released,” summarized KGO reporter Ed Walsh. “They cited her prison record, which included two disciplinary actions against her.”
Added Walsh, “The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office formally opposed parole. Allison Macbeth, assistant chief attorney at San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, told the panel that Knoller represents a threat to the community and has not taken responsibility for her actions that led to the attack on Whipple.”
Testified Knoller herself, sidestepping a direct admission of responsibility, “I’ve always felt responsible for Diane’s death, in terms of not being able to prevent it or help do more to prevent (the male dog) Bane from doing what he did and stripping her completely naked in that hallway. But Diane seems to have gotten lost and her loss seems to have gotten lost in the publicity that ensued regarding this incident.”
Knoller has often blamed adverse publicity for her conviction.
Humane community ran through red lights
Don Thompson of Associated Press described Knoller’s conviction, after her previous failure to win parole, as “a bizarre dog-mauling case that tested the limits of the state’s murder laws.”
It was all of that, and more.
The Knoller case flashed a string of red lights that much of the humane community ran through in embracing advocacy for dogs bred to kill.
Among the red lights were the association of dangerous dogs with militant white supremacy, drug-related crime, bestiality, pornography, animal hoarding, dogfighting, human-to-human violence including murders by prison gangs, and an inverted variant of political liberalism that presents ruthless victimizers as victims of society.
Among the animal advocacy trends visibly emerging through those associations were the use of blame-the-victim media blitzes and spurious lawsuits to defend dogs who have killed animals and humans.
Knoller case marked refocus of no-kill goals
Equally problematic, the Knoller case marked a refocus of advocacy for no-kill sheltering away from spay/neuter, to prevent the birth of animals in need of impoundment and perhaps euthanasia, toward preserving dangerous dogs’ lives, in particular, at any cost in suffering, including to the dogs themselves.
For 90 years before the death of Diane Whipple, the humane community prided itself on being the “Voice of the Voiceless,” as expressed in the 1910 Ella Wheeler Wilcox anti-hunting poem by that title.
The poem at length decries “the rapture of killing things,” a long phrase that Wilcox used to describe sadism.
Humane organizations had long recognized that discouraging “the rapture of killing things” required more than just discouraging hunting, dogfighting, cockfighting, and other sadistic uses of animals.
Discouraging “the rapture of killing things” also included protecting other animals, and humans, from dogs bred or trained to kill.
How San Francisco no-kill success evolved into catastrophic failure
But the Knoller case came on the heels of a decade-plus of no-kill advocacy, led by the San Francisco SPCA, which took the city to quasi-“no kill” status by giving up the animal control housing contract it had held for 100 years, to instead emphasize spay/neuter and promote shelter adoptions.
The San Francisco formula worked, and was and is widely emulated. Ten years after the San Francisco SPCA quit doing animal control, the city of San Francisco had the lowest rates of dog and cat intake and euthanasia, relative to human population, of any U.S. community.
What did not work, including for Diane Whipple, was that both the San Francisco SPCA and the San Francisco Department of Animal Care & Control went on from reducing shelter killing through promoting spay/neuter and adoption, to trying to further reduce shelter killing by redefining what they considered dog behavior dangerous enough to warrant euthanasia.
“St. Francis terriers”
Five years before Whipple’s death, in 1996, the San Francisco SPCA tried to rebrand pit bulls as “St. Francis terriers,” in order to rehome more––and was obliged to suspend the program after several of the first rehomed “St. Francis terriers” killed cats.
Despite that failure, then-San Francisco SPCA president Richard Avanzino pushed pit bull advocacy after moving across San Francisco Bay to head the no-kill advocacy foundation Maddie’s Fund in 1998.
Then-San Francisco SPCA attorney Nathan Winograd has also pushed pit bulls since founding his own No Kill Advocacy Center in 2006.
And so has then-San Francisco SPCA behaviorist Jean Donaldson, in her subsequent career as author and celebrity dog trainer.
Neither Avanzino, Winograd, nor Donaldson, and certainly none of their legions of disciples, have ever acknowledged any responsibility for creating the atmosphere of tolerance of dangerous dog behavior that contributed to Diane Whipple’s death.
Complaints ignored––until too late
Bane and Hera, the two Presa Canarios that killed Whipple, remained in custody of Marjorie Knoller, and her husband and fellow attorney Robert Noel, in their apartment right across the hall from Whipple, despite at least 30 complaints about their behavior.
The complaints, reiterated to public safety agencies after Whipple’s death, came over many months from a multitude of neighbors and pedestrians, none of whom seem to have been taken seriously until too late.
Whipple herself had been bitten on the left wrist by one of the dogs who killed her in December 2000, but escaped serious injury, said Sharon Smith, her companion of six years, because Whipple’s watch took the force of the bite.
Smith and Whipple had only moved into the building a month before Whipple was killed, five days after her birthday.
Noel nearly lost right index finger
Even Noel himself “said Bane had his share of run-ins with other dogs––one of which ended in Noel having his right index finger almost severed,” wrote Suzanne Herel of the San Francisco Chronicle. But Noel claimed the other dog started the fight, Herel reported, and said he did not know which dog injured him.
At a February 2001 hearing on whether Hera should eventually be euthanized or be returned to Knoller and Noel, mail carrier John Watanabe testified that an encounter with both Bane and Hera had him “fearing for my life.”
Former Knoller and Noel neighbor David Moser testified that Hera bit him on the buttocks. Dog walker Ron Bosia stated that Hera seized a poodle by the head, in front of Noel, and would not let go.
“A liability in any household”
Then-San Francisco animal control officer Vicky Guldbech, who later was operations director for the animal control department, read to the court a letter from veterinarian Donald B. Martin to Knoller and Noel, warning them when they first obtained Bane and Hera that the dogs “would be a liability in any household.”
Meanwhile, people who called public safety agencies to complain about Bane, Hera, and the attitudes of Knoller and Noel in defiantly walking both Presa Canarios toward people who were trying to avoid them, were repeatedly told that they should not judge dogs by their looks.
Never mind that Presa Canarios, a mix of pit bull and mastiff, have for more than 500 years been bred to look like exactly what they are: war dogs and fighting dogs, essentially the same dog as the bull mastiff, though English bull mastiff fanciers tend to deny the parallel ancestry.
Before the Diane Whipple attack, such war dogs were perhaps best known having helped the Spanish conquistadores to destroy entire Native American civilizations––and for having often been fed on Native American captives, served still alive.
Kelly Sue Jaime
Presa Canarios should already have headed anyone’s list of inherently dangerous dog breeds after Kelly Sue Jaime, 22, was on January 15, 2001 killed just inside the door of her apartment in Saginaw, Michigan, by two Presa Canarios allegedly owned by relatives who lived downstairs.
That attack, closely presaging the Diane Whipple death, occurred only eleven days before Whipple was mauled.
Kelly Sue Jaime, whose maiden name was Leonard, had married Ryan N. Jaime, a soldier stationed in Texas, just three weeks before her death.
But the Kelly Sue Jaime fatality attracted almost no media notice, and was not pursued by anyone as a criminal case.
Who was Diane Whipple?
Diane Whipple, before she was killed, was already well-known––and well-liked––in the world of women’s sports.
A two-time All-American lacrosse player in high school, Whipple was an All-American again at Pennsylvania State University, and was twice a member of the U.S. Women’s Lacrosse World Cup team before taking the coaching job at St. Mary’s College. There she transformed an inexperienced squad with a losing record into a winner.
Along the way, as an 800 meter runner, Whipple came within seconds of qualifying for the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, but did not attend the actual Olympic team tryouts.
On the day Whipple was killed, Knoller took Bane and Hera to the rooftop of the six-floor apartment house to relieve themselves.
Though each dog had repeatedly menaced and even bitten fellow tenants, Knoller did not muzzle them. They were reportedly leashed, however, as Knoller led them from down from the roof, encountering Whipple as she tried to unlock her apartment door while carrying two bags of groceries.
Weighing more together, at 233 pounds, than Whipple and Knoller combined, Bane and Hera raced to attack Whipple. They dragged Knoller behind them, Knoller claimed later.
Forensic evidence showed that Bane tore Whipple’s throat so severely as to almost decapitate her, inflicting 77 other bites to almost every part of her body. Hera helped to tear most of Whipple’s clothing off.
Knoller claimed she threw herself on top of Whipple to try to save her, but her account was not supported by the physical evidence, which included cuts and bites to her extremities and a torn sweatshirt sleeve, but no injuries to the parts of her body which would have shielded Whipple.
Police and an ambulance responded promptly to calls from two other residents of the building who heard Whipple scream, but Whipple died 70 minutes later, having lost half the blood in her body.
Animal control officer Michael Scott testified that Bane was still in such a fury when he arrived that three tranquilizer darts had no effect.
Bane was euthanized later that day by San Francisco animal control staff.
Hera, held as evidence, was euthanized on January 30, 2002.
Falsely contending that Hera was in Knoller’s words “a rescue dog with a heart murmur,” who only tore Whipple’s clothing, Knoller and Noel lost appeals filed on her behalf all the way up to the California Supreme Court.
The “rescue dog” ploy was yet another of many arguments Knoller and Noel introduced that have since become routine.
“In the days following Whipple’s death,” recounted David Barry in a detailed account published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “both [Knoller and Noel] made grotesque comments that essentially blamed the victim for her own death. For them, it seemed clear, Whipple’s savaging was, at worst, an inconvenience and annoying public relations problem.
“Knoller told reporters she’d instructed Whipple to stay still, adding coolly that the woman would still be alive if she had done so.
“Noel made a thinly veiled dig at Whipple’s sexual orientation, suggesting she might have excited Bane by a pheromone-bearing perfume or the use of steroids.”
This claim was included in a written statement released to media only hours before Whipple’s funeral, attended by more than 400 mourners.
“Peaceful animals with no record of violence”
“Appearing before a grand jury, Knoller reportedly claimed that Bane had sniffed Whipple’s crotch ‘like she was a bitch in heat,’” Barry continued.
“Again and again, the pair described their dogs as peaceful animals with no record of violence.”
Noel also “repeatedly seemed to blame Whipple for triggering the dogs to fatally attack her — claiming “she may have been on her period,” wrote Barbara Kate Repa for The New Fillmore.
Good Morning America
“Less than two weeks after the mauling,” Repa recounted, “Knoller was interviewed by Elizabeth Vargas on Good Morning America, in a segment that included the following exchange:
Vargas: “Do you think you bear any responsibility at all for this attack?”
Knoller: “Responsibility? No, not at all.”
Vargas: “Why not? You were unable to control them. Why aren’t you at all responsible?”
Knoller: “I wouldn’t say I was unable to control them.”
Vargas: “You couldn’t stop the dogs from attacking Diane Whipple.”
Knoller: “I wouldn’t say that it was an attack. Ms. Whipple had ample opportunity to move into her apartment. She could have just slammed the door shut. I would have.”
Whipple’s key was still in the lock when police photographed the scene.
200-mile high speed chase
Shocking at the time, when all dogs combined killed fewer than 10 people per year, such statements are now amplified across social media almost daily, in response to an average of 38 fatal attacks per year by pit bulls alone since 2017.
Knoller and Noel, after their multi-count indictments were issued, led police on a 170-mile high speed chase before they were taken into custody.
Seized from Knoller and Noel’s apartment were three handguns, a shotgun, a computer, 11 packets of letters, magazines, and photographs, and Manstopper, a guard dog training manual with photos of Bane on the cover.
The manual was said to have been inscribed by Dale Bretches, 44, cellmate of Paul “Cornfed” Schneider, 38, at Pelican Bay State Prison, where the two reputedly directed the activities of the nationwide Aryan Brotherhood white supremacist prison gang while serving life sentences.
Bretches, convicted in 1979 of second degree murder for killing a man in a San Diego, was in 2012 allowed to distribute his own book about breeding and training dangerous dogs, Dog O’War, after a five-year court battle.
In the book, according to San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Bob Egelko, Bretches “refers to Knoller and Noel as do-gooder attorneys who were unfairly prosecuted because of pressure from the ‘San Francisco’s homosexual syndicate.’
“The book was printed in 2005 by a self-publishing company, iUniverse,” Egelko wrote, “but Bretches and his lawyer halted publication after Pelican Bay’s warden barred distribution in the prison. Prison officials cited their rule against inmate-run businesses and also said some of the content could threaten prison security, including descriptions of dog fighting and Bretches’ fighting skills, the identification of another inmate as an informer, and numerous antigay passages.”
Guard dogs for meth labs
Knoller and Noel had represented Bretches and Schneider in several lawsuits against the California Department of Corrections.
“Evidence brought out in the trial,” wrote Barry in his account for the Southern Poverty Law Center, “would show that [Knoller and Noel] had taken in the huge, frightening dogs to accommodate Schneider and Bretches, who were allegedly running the dog business in order to produce fighting dogs and guard dogs for methamphetamine labs run by the Mexican Mafia.
“The cellmates denied that, although their artwork and correspondence make perfectly clear that a chief aim was to breed animals who were as large and terrifying as possible.”
The Aryan Brotherhood, formed at San Quentin Prison in 1967, “is not a political organization and has no direct connection with the Aryan Nations, the neo-Nazi organization that was based for more than 25 years in Idaho,” reported Barry.
“The California Department of Corrections attributes at least 40 prison killings to the group, with seven murders at Pelican Bay alone in just two years, 1996 and 1997. Officials have labeled Schneider as an Aryan Brotherhood ‘shot-caller,’ meaning that he is believed to order killings for the group, both inside and outside prison.”
Bane, Hera, and six other Presa Canarios were bought for Bretches and Schneider by intermediary Brenda Storey, police testified, and then were raised by Janet Coumbs, then 49, of Hayfork, California.
“The inmates became unhappy [with Coumbs] when she told them that six puppies were killed by their mother,” recounted San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken. “Coumbs [also] complained that the dogs had eaten her chickens, her sheep, and her daughter’s cat.”
“California Department of Corrections prison gang expert Devan Hawkes learned of the dog-raising business in 1999,” continued Barry, “when Coumbs reported that she had been frightened by individuals at Pelican Bay who had consigned a number of Presa Canarios to her care.
“Schneider and Bretches had invested almost $20,000 cash in the business, which they told Coumbs had come from the settlement in a lawsuit won by another inmate.
“Even as Hawkes looked into the apparent violation of rules prohibiting inmates from running unapproved businesses, Schneider asked Noel and Knoller to help recover the dogs from Coumbs, who found them terrifying. Noel and Knoller did so, taking Hera and Bane into their own apartment,” in early 2000, after placing six other Presa Canarios elsewhere.
Animal care standards
Noel and Knoller “used to have this charming flat,” friend and former Pelican Bay prison guard Keith Whitley told Rolling Stone. “The dogs turned it into a piss pot.”
That Noel and Knoller did not maintain high animal care standards might have been no surprise.
Noel had in 1996 represented an individual who headed a short-lived no-kill organization that briefly held the animal control sheltering contract for the city of Petaluma, but was removed in November 1995 amid complaints about overcrowding and deteriorating animal health.
Noel on behalf of that individual sued ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton for publishing a two-sentence summary of the matter, at request of one of her supporters. All nine counts of the Noel complaint were dismissed in 1997.
Knoller & Noel legally adopted Schneider
Topless photos of Knoller were found in Schneider’s cell, along with correspondence among Noel, Knoller, and Schneider, described by those who have read it as “erotic.” In one letter Noel boasted to Schneider of an incident in which Bane and Hera rushed out of an elevator, nearly knocking down Whipple, whom Noel mocked as a “timorous little mousy blond” who “almost had a coronary.”
Knoller and Noel were discovered to have completed a legal adoption of Schneider several days after Whipple was killed, reportedly to facilitate overnight visits.
San Francisco prosecutors Terrence Hallinan, James Hammer, and Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom were prevented by San Francisco Superior Court judge James Warren from presenting evidence that Knoller and Noel had sexual relations with the dogs, which they contended might have contributed to the fatal attack.
Knoller and Noel were tried in Los Angeles, rather than San Francisco, in order to find an impartial jury.
Knoller on March 21, 2002 was convicted of second degree murder. Both Knoller and Noel were also convicted of manslaughter and keeping a dangerous animal.
Judge Warren, on appeal, in 2004 threw out the second degree murder conviction, and allowed Knoller to be released on bail, as she had completed her manslaughter sentence.
The California First District Court of Appeal in May 2005 reinstated the second degree murder conviction. Further litigation of the conviction and sentence continued until in February 2016 the conviction was affirmed by U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Triple life sentence
Schneider, claiming to have left the Aryan Brotherhood in 2003, is now serving a triple life sentence. Originally sent to Pelican Bay for armed robbery and drug trafficking, Schneider was eventually convicted of other crimes including arranging a robbery that resulted in the 1995 murder of Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Trejo, attempting to murder two other people, and conspiring to kill three more, including Robert Scully, convicted of firing the shotgun blast that killed Trejo, a 35-year veteran of law enforcement.
Assistant prosecutor Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, then wife of Gavin Newsom, governor of California since 2010, divorced Newsom in 2005, went on to stardom in a variety of broadcast roles for the Fox television network, and since 2018 has reportedly been dating Donald Trump Jr., beginning before his divorce.
Penny Whipple Kelly, mother of dog attack victim Diane Whipple, together with Whipple’s companion, Sharon Smith, in December 2002 accepted an undisclosed cash settlement from Marina Green Properties Inc. and Rudolph and Annette Koppl, managers and owners of the San Francisco apartment house where Whipple was killed. Smith donated her portion of the settlement to charities favored by Whipple.
Sharon Smith also reportedly won $1.5 million from Knoller and Noel in a landmark case that established the right of same-sex partners to sue for spousal loss. Smith donated some of the money to help fund the Saint Mary’s College of California women’s lacrosse team.
Noel died on his birthday
Disbarred in 2002 as result of his manslaughter conviction, Noel worked for a time after his 2003 release from prison as a baker.
Experiencing health issues, Noel later lived out of a van for several months with a German shepherd he called a “service dog.”
Noel died in a La Jolla nursing home on June 22, 2018. It was his 77th birthday .
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Thank you for this in-depth and enlightening article. It’s easy to forget just how recent the wave of aggressive breed mania really is.
I went to shelter dog walks and fundraisers for years and it was extremely rare to see a pit bull, let alone these massive designer pits. Now they’re a good half of the shelter population and the shelters are desperately pushing and promoting them. I’ve stopped going to dog fundraisers and events.
The book “Best Friends: The True Story of the World’s Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary” was published in 2001, and there isn’t one word about pit bulls in it––incredible when one considers the major preoccupations of the group today. The same is true of much other material published by animal welfare groups, then vs. today.
I no longer donate to animal shelters or rescue groups due to their pit advocacy. And when asked, I tell them why.
They’ll start getting my money again when they stop endangering the public to satisfy breed advocates.
Jamaka Petzak says
I remember the Whipple case very well, and was understandably horrified by it and its aftermath, as I am by former favorite sanctuary, Best Friends’ advocacy for pitbulls in the wake of the Michael Vick case, the long-running series “Pit Bulls and Parolees” and Cesar Millan’s series.
Much is said of the fact that the USA has the largest number of incarcerated individuals of any nation on earth. Much is also said of many Americans’ mental instability, criminal behavior, violent tendencies, political extremism, and irrationality. It is not surprising at all, then, that blaming and further victimizing the victim and victim advocacy entities, along with deifying and advocating for criminals, particularly violent criminals and entities, are the order of the day.
Most of the rest of the world knows that this society is out of control. Tragically, most of this society either does not know, or does not care.
Sharing with gratitude.
Annoula Wylderich says
An absolutely horrifying account, made worse by the fact that the victim was blamed. How anyone can construe attempting to unlock one’s door to carry groceries inside as provoking an animal is nuts and shows complete lack of accountability or remorse. That’s like pouring salt on the wound for the victim’s family.
Shauni Gothic says
Excellent article and very well written.
Public opinion seems extremely divided on the issue of pit bulls.
My opinion is that the only good pit bull is a dead pit bull.
Each to their own I guess.