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Mad Dogs & Lawyers

Was it murder by canine, or just a horrible accident?

Dog attacking

Close-up of fierce dog baring teeth behind wire fence

Graham Monro/Gm Photographics/Getty

It was about four o’clock on a Friday afternoon, January 26th, 2001, when Esther Birkmaier, a single retiree in her seventies, heard screams outside her front door. Birkmaier lives on the sixth floor of an Art Deco apartment building in the Pacific Heights area of San Francisco, one of the city’s prime neighborhoods, known for its panoramic views of the Golden Gate Bridge. As Birkmaier pressed her eye against the peephole, a woman in the hallway outside yelled, “Help me!” Birkmaier couldn’t see much from her limited fisheye perspective, but what she did see shocked her. There was a blond woman on the floor. A huge dog was attacking her.

Birkmaier phoned 911 and reported “dogs running wild” in her hallway. When she hung up, something began pounding on her door. She panicked, phoned 911 again and this time just screamed into the phone. A man heard the screams and also phoned 911 to report what he thought was a rape. Alec Cardenas, a SWAT-team medic and one of the first cops on the scene, arrived about seven minutes later to find the victim lying facedown on the hall carpet in front of her apartment. She was naked, covered in blood, her upper back punctured with dog bites. Blood was splashed on the walls for about twenty feet down the hall. As Cardenas approached, the woman attempted to push herself up and crawl into her home.

About this time, a middle-aged woman who identified herself as Marjorie Knoller stepped out of Apartment 604. She too was covered in blood. But aside from a cut on her hand and a few scratches on her arms, she was not injured. She told the police she had been walking her dog Bane down the hall when he lunged at the victim, who was entering her apartment carrying a bag of groceries. “I told her to stay still,” Knoller said. “If she had, this would have never happened.” Knoller told police she had managed to lock Bane and his mate, Hera, in her apartment. She was afraid to go back inside.

Animal-control officers found Bane in Knoller’s bathroom. The officers inched open the bathroom door and peeked inside. Bane was a massive creature. He weighed 120 pounds and was just under three feet tall, with a brindle coat of black and tan tiger stripes. Most of his weight was centered in his powerful chest, bulging legs and squat head, his most imposing feature. Bane had defecated all over the bathroom. He was soaked in blood. Even his teeth were red.

The animal-control officers carried a tranquilizer gun that shoots darts potent enough to knock out a large dog. They fired three into Bane and waited fifteen minutes, but he remained standing. Two of the officers ended up hooking Bane with “catch” poles and walked him down to their van, where they euthanized him with 25 cc of sodium pentobarbitol a short time later.

Five hours later, the victim, Diane Whipple, a popular thirty-three-year-old lacrosse coach at nearby St. Mary’s College, died at San Francisco General Hospital. Her larynx had been crushed and her throat punctured. But the cause of death was cardiac arrest; she had lost nearly all of her blood. Whipple had been an all-American lacrosse player at Penn State, then an Olympic track-and-field hopeful — an aspiration she was forced to give up in her midtwenties to battle cancer. Less than a week before the attack, she had run a marathon.

One police officer initially called her death a “tragic accident,” but a morally neutral judgment failed to satisfy the public, whose outrage soon turned on Bane’s owners, Marjorie Knoller and her husband, Robert Noel. Outwardly, they seemed exemplary San Franciscans. They were do-gooder attorneys honored by the Bar Association of San Francisco for their work helping the homeless and mentally disabled. They were opera patrons who hobnobbed with some of the city’s wealthiest citizens. Both on their third marriage, they had wed twelve years earlier and were seen by friends such as their colleague Herman Franck as being “deeply in love, devoted to each other.”

But an investigation into their private lives soon yielded secrets that defied explanation. The couple — she is forty-six, he’s sixty — had recently adopted an inmate at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, a thirty-nine-year-old man serving a life term for armored-car robbery and attempted murder. Their “son,” Paul “Cornfed” Schneider, is one of the most feared leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang and is currently facing federal trial on an indictment for racketeering and a series of murders he allegedly orchestrated from behind bars.

Schneider, who lived in an eleven-by-seven-and-a-half-foot concrete cell, had somehow managed to set up a dog-breeding operation — he called it Dog o’ War kennels — outside the prison walls. Schneider’s associates raised Presa Canarios, an unusual breed of attack dog from Spain introduced to the United States a decade or so earlier. Bane, the dog that killed Whipple, was Schneider’s prize stud dog — Presa puppies sell for as much as $2,200. Prison investigators suspected that the dogs were being raised to protect Aryan Brotherhood criminal enterprises such as meth labs.

The fact that Bane and his mate, Hera, wound up living in Knoller and Noel’s Pacific Heights apartment was odd enough. Even stranger was the relationship between Knoller, Noel and their adopted son. It included pornographic letters that the couple exchanged with Schneider and, it was rumored, photographs of Marjorie Knoller having sex with the dogs. It did not help Knoller’s cause that days after the city filed a warrant to search for photos that depicted “sexual acts … that involved dogs” in Schneider’s cell, she admitted that her nickname for one of the dogs had been “my certified lick therapist.”

Nothing in the portrait of the couple that was emerging made sense. Nor did the bizarre statements they made in public. They suggested Whipple might have egged on the attack by wearing a pheromone-laced perfume or by menstruating. When Knoller appeared before a grand jury, she wove an almost moving tale of how she risked her life trying to save Whipple’s, then blew whatever sympathy she was gaining by saying that Bane had sniffed Whipple’s crotch “like she was a bitch in heat.”

Since late January, Knoller has been on trial for second-degree murder and her husband for manslaughter. Because the case has received such extensive coverage in their hometown, the trial is being held in Los Angeles. “Bob and Marjorie were so hated in San Francisco,” says Herman Franck. “You half-expected to see an angry mob with pitchforks and torches to show up outside the courthouse.”

If Knoller and Noel were simply on trial for acting like jerks, this would be an open-and-shut case. But proving that this strange couple had a murderous intent will be difficult for prosecutors. Nor will the trial answer all questions about this case, the story of how the once-prominent San Francisco attorneys wound up adopting an Aryan Brotherhood gang leader and his killer dog reveals as much about individual human folly as it does about the peculiar, corrupting hell of the American penal system. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that their journey into this hell was paved with good intentions.

Originally locked up in 1985 for an armored-car robbery, Paul Schneider has been incarcerated since the early 1990s in the Security Housing Unit of Pelican Bay State Prison, where he is locked in his cell twenty-two and a half hours per day, never allowed outdoors, and only permitted contact with the outside world through letters and strictly monitored visits. Keith Whitley, a former guard who first encountered Schneider in 1987, calls him “the most dangerous man in California.” Schneider is deemed such a security risk that when he was moved last fall out of Pelican Bay in preparation for his federal trial, U.S. marshals and the California Highway Patrol blocked traffic on the Oakland Bay Bridge in order to transport him across it in a heavily defended motorcade.

When I first meet Schneider, he appears across the reinforced-glass visitation window at his temporary home in the Sacramento County jail looking amazingly fit despite his chalky complexion. Throughout the interview, a steady clanking sound emanates from deep within the jail — chains sliding, locks tumbling, doors slamming, which together sound like the rumbling of the empty stomach of a mechanical beast. Schneider has thick blond hair combed straight back, a direct, blue-eyed gaze, stands about six feet two and weighs 220 pounds. Muscles, traced with blue veins, bulge beneath his pale skin. His right hand is tattooed with an A and a B, spare advertisements for his affiliation with the notorious Aryan Brotherhood gang.

Schneider, born in 1962, grew up in Cerritos, California, with two younger sisters, his mother and his stepfather, a retired Air Force officer who ran an industrial-cleaning service. He portrays his childhood as a happy one. “My stepdad used to take me flying in Cessnas,” he says. “I worked on pit crews for drag-racing boats.”

He says that he always loved dogs. When he was about sixteen, Schneider found a summer job with a Los Angeles company called Continental K-9, which specialized in lending junkyard-protection dogs to small businesses in the city’s crime-ridden industrial zone. He would drop off the dogs at night and pick them up early in the morning. Most of the animals were semi-wild, vicious mutts. “Thieves would cut tendons in the dogs’ legs,” he says. “That was when I learned how loyal dogs are. They would still try to do their job even when their legs were sliced.”

In 1979, after graduating from high school early, Schneider joined the Air Force and was assigned to a special Strategic Air Command unit in eastern Washington. He worked as a crewman aboard KC-130 aerial-refueling tankers, large planes that accompanied heavy bombers to the edge of Soviet airspace. He lived a week at a time in an underground bunker called a “mole hole,” and he participated in round-the-clock drills in which crews were told nuclear attack was imminent and were given five minutes to scramble their jets. They were never told whether these drills were actual or make-believe Armageddon until their missions were over. The isolation and intense psychological pressure of his military duty would later prove excellent preparation for Schneider’s ability to withstand tortuous conditions within the corrections system.

Schneider’s sister Tammy offers a much darker view of her brother’s childhood than the idyllic picture he paints. Tammy, 38 and married to a firefighter, lives in a rural community about an hour from where she and Paul grew up. She is an attractive woman with an almost doll-like presence, an impression created by her limited ability to move her hands or arms as a result of brain cancer she has battled for twelve years. According to Tammy, the house where she and her brother grew up was run on a regimen that blended military discipline and sadism. “Our house was a prison, and our stepdad was the warden,” she says. He would wake the children up in the middle of the night to make them scrub pots or scour the bathroom floor with toothbrushes. Tammy’s first beating occurred when she was eight. A couple of years later, her stepfather began to sexually abuse her. “Paul was very protective of me,” she remembers. “He stood up to our stepdad. That man used to beat the shit out of Paul.”

Schneider did not last long in the authoritarian world of the military. According to Tammy, he and his wife split up two years after he enlisted, and he was kicked out of the Air Force for writing bad checks. He moved back to Cerritos and became the manager of a local pizza parlor. On one of his nights off, he put on a mask, armed himself with a handgun and robbed the restaurant. A short while later, he began to notice the big sacks of money carried by armoredcar drivers at the Alpha Beta supermarket where Tammy worked as a checkout girl. He developed an irrational personal hatred of the guards. “I couldn’t believe how arrogant the guards were,” Schneider says. “They’d come into the store, with their little revolvers pointing to the ground, and they’d bump into people without even apologizing. I wanted to show them that they weren’t so tough.”

Schneider robbed the guards and got away with nearly $100,000. Several weeks later, according to his sister, he showed up at his stepfather’s house flaunting a new motorcycle. His stepfather, suspecting that Schneider was behind the robbery, tipped off the cops, who began to build a case against Schneider. In 1985, at the age of twenty-three, he was arrested and eventually sent to New Folsom State Prison, in California. By July 1987, he had earned his way into the Aryan Brotherhood by stabbing a guard in the neck.

Schneider thrived in the brutal prison environment, pitting his will against the authorities’ every chance he had. In 1990, when he was brought into a courthouse under heavy guard to testify in a case involving another inmate, Schneider pulled a knife he had fashioned from a prison soup ladle and stabbed a defense attorney several times. Like a magician guarding the secret behind a trick, Schneider has never revealed how he smuggled the weapon into the courtroom, though his victim’s wounds contained unmistakable clues: They were infected with fecal matter.

After the incident, Schneider penned a declaration explaining why he’d attacked the attorney. The assault stemmed from his desire to humiliate a warden at New Folsom State Prison. “I took [associate warden] Campbell’s boasting of his new vaunted security procedures as a challenge,” he wrote. As for why he chose his victim, he wrote, “I didn’t like his attitude, his smart-aleck remarks, nor his demeanor. So, I stabbed him. In retrospect, it was a bad idea.”

Schneider picked up a life sentence. Displaying an uncanny ability to harass the system even in defeat, he successfully sued the prison administration for excessively X-raying him every time he was transported before and after the soup-ladle-knife smuggling episode and collected $11,666.66.

In the meantime, Schneider was transferred to Pelican Bay State Prison shortly after it opened in 1989. The prison was intended to be the crown jewel of the California Department of Corrections, which operates one of the largest penal systems in the world, a gulag with ninety-eight facilities, more than 300,000 inmates under its jurisdiction and nearly 50,000 employees.

Pelican Bay rises unexpectedly out of redwood forest a few miles off Highway 101, on the desolate Northern California coast, 360 miles north of San Francisco. Its antiseptic corridors resemble passageways in a large, slumbering spaceship. “When you first go inside Pelican Bay,” says Russell Clanton, an attorney who represents several inmates there, “it feels like being inside an enormous sensory-deprivation tank.” The 3,200 inmates are stored like factory-raised poultry in small concrete cells.

Within a few years of the prison’s opening, reports began to leak out suggesting that Pelican Bay’s neat facade served mainly to conceal its interior horrors from the outside world. In two early incidents, guards were caught using medical facilities to torture inmates — strapping one man to a gurney and beating him, submerging another in scalding water and flaying him with wire brushes. Eventually, several brutality cases filed on behalf of inmates were rolled into a class-action suit. After a two-year trial that ended in 1995, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson ruled that prisoners at Pelican Bay had been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. His lengthy opinion detailed “assaults, beatings and naked cagings in inclement weather” and concluded that “the misuse of force at Pelican Bay is not merely aberrational but inevitable.” (Since the ruling, prison authorities say conditions have improved.)

In 1997, Schneider was taking a shower in Pelican Bay when, he claims, a guard popped open an electronic door and allowed a sworn enemy from a rival African-American gang called the Black Guerrilla Army to enter the shower area and ambush him. Schneider overpowered his assailant. The guard intervened with a weapon misleadingly named a “gas gun.” The firearm actually uses a gunpowder charge similar to a twelvegauge shotgun to fire plastic projectiles the size of ping-pong balls. Schneider took multiple shots to the head and was taken to the infirmary with a concussion and lacerations. Afterward, Schneider, a jailhouse lawyer of some renown, sued the prison over the incident. His case, however, was thrown out of court.

Upon his release from the infirmary, he was sent into Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit. Schneider speaks of living in the extreme confinement of the SHU with a sort of twisted pride. “They put us in the SHU to keep us away from the rape-os and chesters,” he says, referring to rapists and child molesters. “I’m proud of that. I don’t want to be associated with them.”

The role of the Aryan Brotherhood, like other race-based gangs, is a complex one within the hostile prison universe. On the one hand, these gangs enforce segregation. But the gangs are also likely to do business with each other: smuggling drugs, manufacturing weapons, running numbers and brewing alcohol. The gangs also share (along with many guards) a more or less openly homicidal contempt for sex offenders. Under Schneider’s leadership, the Aryan Brotherhood is alleged to have recruited at least three guards in its efforts to identify and attack sex-offender inmates. In its case against Schneider, the federal government charges him with masterminding the murder or attempted murder of twenty-four people, including the killing of a cop.

In person, Schneider maintains an unnervingly pleasant, almost bland smile, whether he’s discussing killing rapists or reading one of his favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien. He says his entire mental and physical effort in the SHU “is structured around not going insane.” The last stop for those who lose this battle in the SHU is the prison psychiatric unit. Here, the most critical mental cases can be put on heavy doses of psychotropic drugs, then given “group therapy.” In these sessions, individual prisoners are locked in telephone-booth-size boxes with plexiglass-and-barred fronts that prisoners call “man cages,” and these are propped upright, arrayed in groups of four or six around a therapist.

“You definitely don’t want to lose your marbles in the SHU,” Schneider says. “But you can find things that cheer you up — getting a cup of instant coffee, news or a box of saltines. It’s important to keep your day full.” He stays in shape by wrapping the law books he keeps in his cell and using them as weights. Sometimes he lays his cellmate, a murderer named Dale Bretches, across his arms and bench-presses him like a barbell.

Several years ago, Schneider and Bretches began producing artwork. Since they were forbidden art supplies by prison authorities, they collected scrap paper and soaked it in toilet water until the ink came off. They made pigments by scraping the colors off ads in magazines. “If you want a lot of red,” Schneider says, “you look for a Marlboro ad.”

His intricate creations look like a cross between tattoo art and the air-brushed murals that adorned vans in the 1970s. The paintings are frequently chock-full of runes — cryptic symbols found in the works of Tolkien. Schneider often depicts himself in his paintings as a bare-chested Norse god riding on the prows of ships surrounded by noble animals.

Devan Hawkes, a special intelligence officer for the CDC, has spent years investigating Schneider. He believes the runes found in Schneider’s work contain “secret codes” that convey instructions to Aryan Brotherhood associates outside prison.

Looking for subjects to draw, Schneider began to pester his sister for pictures of the “white Siegfried and Roy tigers” and for copies of Field and Stream, which he claims was banned by the prison because it contained photos of guns. Then Schneider came across a magazine that would change his life: Dog Fancy. “Looking at dogs made me forget I was in prison,” says Schneider. Soon, they inspired him to become a dog owner once more.

After they were arrested last March for the dog-mauling case, Knoller and Noel were so broke they were unable to make bail. They have spent nearly a year living separate but parallel lives in different wings of the San Francisco city jail. When he enters the jail visitation room in his orange jumpsuit, Robert Noel slides into a chair and smiles warmly. Noel is an imposing six feet four. His golden-boy features have aged comfortably beneath his shaggy blond hair and walrus mustache. Though he faces up to three years in prison, he projects confidence and freewheeling good cheer.

After chatting amiably about his once high-powered social life, Noel produces a copy of a painting that Schneider made. It depicts Noel, Knoller and Schneider at a medieval feast presided over by their “royal dog,” Bane. Noel traces his finger across the paper and says dreamily, “There’s our family,” then points to the big dog in the foreground and says affectionately, “That’s the Banester.”

Noel’s first wife, Karen, whom he divorced in 1986 after nearly twenty-three years of marriage, says, “Robert is mentally ill.” She furnishes no proof of her opinion but adds that his three children ceased having contact with him several years ago. Noel’s only biological son, his namesake, Robert Jr., who is thirty-one, said of his father, “He’s a jackass. I don’t like my dad, and I never have.”

Noel grew up in a working-class home in Baltimore. His father was a pipe fitter and his mother a beautician. His only brother works in the electrical trades. Robert, the family over-achiever, entered the University of Maryland on a Marine Corps scholarship, similar to ROTC. He married his high school sweetheart, Karen, the day after John F. Kennedy was shot. A year later, he entered law school. In 1969, when he was twenty-seven, Noel took a job in the Justice Department. When he was thirty-four, in 1980, he moved west to become an assistant U. S. attorney in the Southern District Court of San Diego.

Working for the government began to disillusion him. “Being inside the system gave me a unique perspective on its power to crush the individual,” he says. He quit the U.S. attorney’s office after a year and joined a prestigious corporatelaw firm in San Diego. By 1987, he had divorced, moved to San Francisco, briefly married and then divorced a legal secretary, then met and fell in love with Marjorie Knoller — all in the space of about a year. “I would trust my life in Marjorie’s hands,” he says.

The impression that Marjorie Knoller makes upon entering the visitation room is one of meekness. Her faded, silver-threaded brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and her brown, dark-ringed eyes have a worried softness. On March 27th, when the police entered the home of friends in Northern California, where she and her husband were eating dinner, and told Marjorie she was under arrest for second-degree murder, she collapsed and had to be carried out on a stretcher. During subsequent court appearances, her physical and mental states deteriorated. Rolled into the courtroom in a wheelchair, she seemed almost cuckoo, babbling to herself and cursing the prosecutors. By the end of the summer, bruises began to appear on her thighs and lower back. Then, where there had been bruises, hardened nodules of subcutaneous fat, shaped like fingernails, burst through the surface of her skin. Doctors diagnosed it as a nervous-vascular disorder and put her on medication, alleviating her symptoms enough for her to sit comfortably and walk unassisted.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Knoller was a straight arrow who dreamed of becoming an FBI agent. “Marjorie didn’t go with the crowd,” says her mother, Harriet. “She skipped her high school graduation. She told me, ‘Mom, I’m not going. All the kids in my class are on drugs.”

She met Robert Noel when she was thirty-two, a divorced law-school graduate just starting her career at the firm where Noel was already a big shot. They made a lunch date one day and moved in together a week later. By May 1988, they had both resigned their jobs and hung out their own shingle. They moved away from the commercial-contract and tax law that had been Noel’s area of expertise and took on more pro-bono work. Then, in 1994, their life was to change drastically when they were referred to what seemed like an interesting case.

The client was a man named John Cox, a guard at Pelican Bay State Prison who had recently broken ranks with fellow corrections officers by testifying on behalf of inmates who’d been brutalized in the prison. Now Cox was being harassed on the job and wanted to sue the California Department of Corrections. Knoller and Noel leapt at the chance to represent him. Within a few months they abandoned what remained of their commercial-law practice to concentrate on representing prison guards in grievances against the CDC.

“The good Lord blessed our family by bringing Bob and Marjorie into our lives,” says Monica Bermender, who is represented by Noel and Knoller in an ongoing First Amendment federal-court case. “They believed in me and in our family when nobody else would.”

Despite their devotion to their cause, Knoller and Noel racked up an uneven, some say abysmal, record. They lost the harassment case for their first client, Cox, and he subsequently hanged himself. Susan Beck, who analyzed their cases against the CDC in an article in The Recorder, a Bay Area legal newspaper, concluded that Knoller and Noel often made basic procedural mistakes and developed legal strategies based on unsupported conspiracy theories. “Noel comes across as someone who is competent, but it appears to me there have been serious problems with his conduct on some cases,” says Neal Sanders, an expert in prison law.

The fact was that neither Knoller nor Noel had much experience trying criminal cases. Entering the miasma of the prison universe, they were clearly in over their heads. “Prison is like its own ecosystem, with its own rules,” says attorney Russell Clanton. “Life inside the wire is unlike anything most people outside of it can even conceive.”

The low point of their legal career came in 1997, when they defended a Pelican Bay guard accused of colluding with the Aryan Brotherhood to set up child molesters for beatings and murder. Their defense failed, and not only was the guard found guilty but one of the inmates they called as a witness was subsequently murdered.

“It was devastating for us,” says Knoller. “I was in shock.”

Schneider was among the witnesses they called in that case and was presumably marked for death like the other inmate. “We sent a letter to the CDC informing them of our concerns for Paul’s safety,” says Knoller.

It was about this time that Schneider’s dreams of once again owning dogs began to take root. Ads in the back pages of Dog Fancy and Dog World featuring an unusually fierce breed of dog captured his interest. Called Presa Canarios, they were often touted as “guardian dogs,” as “man stoppers,” tough enough to “take out pit bulls.” Presas are “holding” or “gripping” dogs that were bred by Spanish cattlemen on the Canary Islands in the sixteenth century to pin down bulls for slaughter. They are what breeders call “lip and ear” dogs: They immobilize much larger animals such as bulls by clamping their jaws over their most vulnerable features — their lips or their ears. American-bred Presas look like pit bulls but are about twice as big, sometimes weighing as much as 160 pounds. Dog behaviorist and breeder Saul Saltars calls many of the Presa lines sold in America “junk dogs” — Presas mixed with pit bulls, Great Danes, English mastiffs. “Some breeders take liberties with what they call Presas,” he says. “You might not know what you’re getting, how stable the dog will be.”

Schneider began dreaming of ways to purchase his own Presas in 1998. He had $23,000 to invest, given to him by a fellow inmate who had won a medical-malpractice suit. Schneider’s plan was to use surrogates outside prison to breed Presas. He purchased more than $1,000 worth of dog-breeding manuals. He sent letters to breeders and trainers. Most refused to have anything to do with a prison inmate. Nevertheless, he located a breeder in the Midwest who seemed like a good prospect. According to the CDC investigation, his name was James Harris, and he operated a Presa business, Stygian Kennels. Schneider would arrange to buy Bane from Harris.

According to Tracy Hennings, a Presa breeder familiar with Stygian Kennels (now defunct) and its brood of pups, “Bane was not a pure Presa. He was a questionable mix of at least four different breeds.”

But Schneider, conducting his business from inside his eleven-by-seven-and-a-half-foot concrete box, was unable to do the sort of on-the-spot research other buyers might have undertaken. He had a source for dogs. All he needed was a place to raise them.

Initially, he wrote to his sister Tammy asking whether she and her husband, Greg Keefer, would raise dogs for him. Tammy recalls her reaction when she received this letter from her brother. “What the hell is an inmate doing with dogs? No way.”

“One time Paul got us into some deal where he sent us money from one of his legal settlements to buy TV sets for his buddies in prison,” Greg Keefer says. “Next thing, FBI agents came to our door and said we were on someone’s hit list because we didn’t get him a TV.”

“I love Paul,” says Tammy. “But the guy’s in prison for a reason.”

Rebuffed by his family, Schneider found the assistance he needed from another quarter. His cellmate, Dale Bretches, the murderer, was receiving regular visits from a woman in a Christian outreach program who came from a small agricultural town about 190 miles from Pelican Bay, called Hayfork. Bretches asked her whether she knew any other good Christians in Hayfork who could visit his cellie, Schneider, and help him out with a problem.

Janet Coumbs is a Mormon woman in her late forties who lived on a four-acre sheep farm in Hayfork, California, with her eighteen-year-old daughter, Daisy. She is a somewhat heavyset woman who scraped by on disability checks and by selling “little baby sheep” to local families for slaughter. A friend of hers stopped by her ramshackle house one day and told her about the mission work she did at Pelican Bay, trying to bring Jesus into the life of a murderer named Dale Bretches. “[She] told me I wasn’t doing my Christian duty by not going with her to the prison to help other inmates,” said Coumbs.

Coumbs made her first visit to Schneider in January 1998. Within a couple of months, Schneider had persuaded Coumbs to lend her farm to his Dog o’ War kennels. Every two weeks, she was supposed to send Schneider pictures of the dogs and letters describing their life on the farm. One photo showed Bane cuddling with a cat. This enraged Schneider. “You’re making a wuss out of Bane,” he wrote. “These are royal dogs, and they need to look majestic.”

Several months later, Schneider and Coumbs had a falling-out. According to Schneider, the root of their conflict was romantic. He says, “She kept dropping hints about how she wanted me to convert to Mormon and marry her.” After Schneider says he spurned Coumbs’ romantic overtures, she stopped sending letters and visiting him altogether. Coumbs has also told investigators that Schneider threatened her. “Things can happen to you and your home,” he allegedly told her. (Reportedly, Coumbs is now in the witness-protection program.)

In late 1999, Schneider turned to Knoller and Noel to help him retrieve his dogs from Coumbs. Perhaps because of their dismal performance as attorneys, Schneider had resorted to Knoller and Noel only after another Bay Area attorney had turned him down.

True to form, the lawyers threw themselves into this new ill-fated cause. They threatened to sue Coumbs if she didn’t turn the dogs over, and then they spent their own money to hire an animal-transport service and showed up in person at Coumbs’ farm on March 31st, 2000. There were now eight Presas on the farm, four of them pups sired by Bane.

For the previous year, Bane had been chained to an iron stake. Noel beams when he recalls seeing the dog for the first time. “Bane was confident, proud, handsome,” he says, adding, “Bane had an eye for ladies. He sees Marjorie, rolls over on his back and, bam, that big red arrow popped out. He had a hard-on that big.” Noel gestures with his hands, indicating Bane’s penis length, then grins. “Boy, was that dog hung.”

Noel and Knoller transported seven of the dogs to homes in Southern California belonging to relatives of Schneider’s prison buddies. They kept Hera, a female that developed a heart condition, and, after spending $3,000 on her veterinary bills, moved her into their Pacific Heights apartment. In early September, they brought Bane to live there as well. Greg Keefer says that before Knoller and Noel rescued Bane, the dog had been neglected. “Flies had chewed Bane’s ears down to their nubs,” Keefer says.

By now, they were writing letters and sending dog pictures to Schneider several times a week. Their odd relationship with him was reaching full bloom. Knoller says she first floated the idea of adopting Schneider, explaining this unusual arrangement in practical legal terms. “By adopting Paul,” says Knoller, “we now have a say in his medical treatment. If something bad happens to him in the prison, we can sue. We adopted him to give him protection.”

Her analysis is legally true — and adult adoption has long been a method employed by gay couples to form family units with legal standing — but it fails to explain the couple’s interest in a violent inmate. Knoller suggests that she and Schneider had a lot in common, such as a mutual interest in The Hobbit and in runes. “Paul has an inner life he shares with us,” Knoller says. “He’s special. He’s our kid, and we love him.”

She seems almost convincing, like a doting mom, but if that’s true, what about the rumors of bestial photos and kinky fantasies traded with Schneider? Knoller allows that “threesomes are a pretty standard erotic fantasy.” She says, “It’s a tradition to write erotic letters to inmates. It helps them.” Then she tries a different tack. “Paul was writing a novel, an erotic medieval fantasy. We wrote chapters back and forth. We were all characters in it.”

Knoller says that, along the way, “I flashed my breasts in some pictures. Bob might have sent one of these to Paul. There was nothing with dogs.”

Noel describes their unusual family unit in noble terms: “We were a part of keeping something in Paul alive. Bane punched a hole through that cement box Paul lives in and gave him a window on the world. We wanted to help keep that window open.”

A couple of weeks before Knoller and Noel went up to Janet Coumbs’ farm to pick up the dogs, they had hired a local veterinarian named Dr. Donald Martin to examine them. Though he gave the dogs shots and went home, something about Bane troubled the veterinarian. A few days later, he sent Knoller a letter to inform her of his fears about the dog. “I would be professionally amiss if I did not mention the following so you can be prepared,” he wrote. “These animals would be a liability in any household.”

Knoller says she didn’t read the letter until long after receiving it. She and Noel nicknamed the dogs “the Mutleys” and “the kids.” They structured their lives around the animals, never leaving them alone for more than an hour. Bane was “the Banester.” Several mornings a week, Knoller woke up early and cooked bacon, pork and hamburger for the dogs, which she fed to them along with their dog food.

Keith Whitley, the former guard who used to socialize with Knoller and Noel, noticed the change in them. “I’d get on the phone with Bob to ask him about a case,” he says, “and all he did was talk about how big Bane’s balls were.” Whitley visited their apartment about a week before the fatal attack: “They used to have this charming flat. The dogs turned it into a piss pot. Bob had to bring the dogs out one at a time when he introduced them to me because he couldn’t control them.”

Awful things started happening almost immediately after they brought Bane home. Bane got into a fight with a dog at a beach four days after he arrived in San Francisco and nearly snapped Noel’s finger clean off. Bane and Hera scared the hell out of people in the building and neighborhood. Henry Putek, an unassuming parakeet owner who also lives on the sixth floor, was pinned against a wall one evening when Bane slipped out of Knoller and Noel’s partially open door and charged him. “He stared at me silently,” said Putek. “With drool hanging down, stinking and smelly.”

Neighborhood residents claimed that Bane and Hera attacked at least three local dogs, nearly killing one of them, a German shepherd. People who lived in the area describe their encounters with the dogs in almost supernatural terms. One neighbor recalls that birds started flying crazily when Bane and Hera walked by. Another resident, Alex de Laszlo, remembered encountering the dogs outside a local coffee shop. “I put my hand on Bane’s head,” he said. “It held a sensation very distinct from any dog I had ever petted before. There was incredible tension. There was something strong and dark about this animal.”

From the vantage point of his concrete box at Pelican Bay, Schneider had an entirely different perspective: “Everything was going perfect. I was getting photos of Bane. Bob and Marjorie told me everything he was doing.” Schneider says Bane was growing up right. “I never wanted to see Bane go looking for fights,” he says. “But if he was forced into it, I would want him to represent himself well, and not run away crying.”

At this point, Schneider was on the verge of realizing an impossible dream. One of his associates on the outside had secured space in Dog World to place an ad for Schneider’s Dog o’ War kennels. “Life was so good, I felt like I did when I was on the streets,” says Schneider. “In some ways, I felt better.” He sent a picture of Bane to his sister with the caption “El Supremo Bane. Born to raise hell.”

On January 11th, 2001, Robert Noel wrote Schneider one of his almost daily letters recounting everything that had transpired that day with “the kids.” Nearing the end of the letter, Noel described an encounter between the dogs and a neighbor. “As soon as the [elevator] door opens at six, one of our newer female neighbors, a timorous little mousy blond who weighs less than Hera, is met by the dynamic duo exiting and almost has a coronary.”

The “mousy blond” he referred to was Diane Whipple, the St. Mary’s College lacrosse coach who died exactly fifteen days later in that same hall way. Whipple had had run-ins with the dogs and had made her feelings about her neighbors clear. She claimed to her girlfriend, Sharon Smith, that one of them had snapped at her two weeks earlier. She told her friend Sarah Miller that Noel “was an asshole. He better do something about those dogs.”

On the afternoon of January 26th, Whipple arrived home carrying a bag of groceries with some tacos she planned to make for dinner for Smith and herself. Around twenty minutes earlier, at about 3:40, Knoller says she had been working on legal research alone in her apartment (Noel was out of the city on business) when Bane started to whimper. She put him on a leash, walked him on the roof of the building and came inside to put a bag of Bane’s poop in the garbage chute when she noticed Whipple standing about thirty feet away by her door.

“She was staring at Bane,” says Knoller. Then, for no obvious reason, Knoller says, Bane dragged her toward Whipple. “I battled him the whole way,” Knoller insists. While Knoller struggled with Bane and Hera, who had also come into the hall, for several minutes, she says that Whipple simply stood silently in front of her apartment. Her front door was open, but according to Knoller she didn’t bother to go inside, even after Bane jumped up on the wall and stuck his head in her crotch. All she said, according to Knoller, was, “Your dog jumped on me.”

Knoller says that she finally tried to push Whipple into her apartment for her own good, but Whipple resisted, at which point Bane bit her throat and proceeded to rip her clothes apart. Knoller claims the entire attack lasted a good twenty minutes, during which time, she says, “I put my life on the line. It’s only dumb luck he didn’t kill me.”

Knoller denies that Hera took part in the attack, though Hera was also found with blood on her coat by animal-control officers. Later, after Hera was taken into custody by animal control, an employee at the city kennel where she was being kept observed fibers that appeared to be multicolored fabric coming out in the dog’s stools, though no one at the time thought — or volunteered — to collect this as evidence. Dog behaviorist Saul Saltars points to the shredding of Whipple’s clothing as evidence that one or both of the dogs had been taught to be hostile. “Someone trained that dog to bite rags,” says Saltars. “It’s a technique to build aggression.” While Knoller and Noel claim the dogs weren’t trained to be aggressive, police recovered a book from their apartment titled Manstopper!, a training manual that teaches owners techniques, such as ragging out, to nurture viciousness in dogs.

Though the grand jury largely rejected Knoller’s account of the attack (they found it hard to believe that Whipple would stand motionless for such a long time while Bane rampaged through the hall), until now there has been no concrete suggestion that Knoller fabricated her story. But according to Schneider’s sister Tammy, Knoller called her that evening and offered an account of the attack that diverges significantly from what Knoller told the police and the grand jury. “Marjorie said she and her neighbor ‘got into it,’ ” says Tammy. “They had an argument before anything happened with those dogs. Marjorie asked her to shut her door so she could take her dogs out in the hall, and that lady was like, ‘No, I’m not shutting my door now. Fuck you!’ “

Knoller denies this ever occurred, but if this is true, Knoller’s defense — that the attack happened spontaneously — is suspect. From the standpoint of the law, a powerful attack dog might be viewed as a weapon not much different from a gun. In other words, if you were holding a gun, and your neighbor was found shot to death, it’s a lot harder to prove the whole thing was accidental if people found out you and your dead neighbor were having an argument right before your gun shot her.

There is one element of Knoller’s account of events that afternoon in the hallway that no one disputes:

What was the last thing Diane Whipple said to you?

” ‘Help me,’ ” Knoller whispers. Then she pauses. Knoller says, “My husband still talks about Bane like we used to, how much he loves him. I can’t think of that dog the same way. All I see is the horror. the horror.”

Knoller’s adopted son expresses his feelings about the attack differently. Schneider’s blue eyes peer out impassively from behind the security glass at the visitation booth, and he says, “For once, I try to do something good, and look what happens. Ain’t that buzzard luck.” 

In This Article: Coverwall, prison

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