By Claire Booth
A name from the past surfaced last week. If you lived anywhere near San Francisco in 2001, you recognize it.
She and her husband, Robert Noel, owned two dogs that got loose in their apartment building hallway and attacked and killed a neighbor. Knoller was walking the dogs at the time. She was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years to life. Last week, she was denied parole and will remain in a California prison for at least three more years.
That’s the short version. The long version proves the cliché that truth is stranger than fiction. I covered the story from the day after the attack all the way through the trial, and it contained one jaw-dropping fact after another.
The dogs were Presa Canarios, an obscure breed that’s a huge, mastiff-type dog with a potentially stubborn and territorial temperament. Knoller and Noel, lawyers with a small joint practice representing mostly prison inmates, kept the dogs in their tiny San Francisco apartment. Noel wasn’t there the night Knoller took the pair up to the roof to go to the bathroom. When she came back down, her neighbor had just gotten home with a load of groceries.
Diane Alexis Whipple was the lacrosse coach at St. Mary’s College across the Bay. She lived down the hall with her partner Sharon Smith. The dogs lunged, dragging Knoller down the hallway by their leashes, she would later say. Within minutes, Whipple was dead from a bite to the neck. An elderly neighbor would testify to hearing the 33-year-old Whipple battle for her life as she hid in terror behind her own front door.
It turned out that Presa Canarios were highly valued in the prison world (“territorial” temperament plus 140 pounds of solid muscle equals bad-ass scary), and these two dogs were owned—through layers of intermediaries—by an Aryan Brotherhood member serving time at the hardest prison in the state. Knoller and Noel were caring for the dogs as a favor because the man, Paul “Cornfed” Schneider, was their legal client.
But wait, there’s more.
We found out that Knoller and Noel adopted Schneider* (then 38 years old) soon after the fatal mauling. Cornfed, in state prison for crimes including stabbing a defense attorney multiple times with a homemade shiv, was a man of “character and integrity,” Noel said by way of explaining the adoption.
The couple started on a publicity blitz, giving interviews and appearing on national morning talk shows. Two weeks after Whipple’s killing, they went on “Good Morning America,” where Knoller said she bore no responsibility for the attack. “She could have just slammed the door shut. I would have,” she said.
They fought the city’s attempts to destroy the female dog, Hera.** (Bane, the male and acknowledged deliverer of the fatal bite, was put down the night of the attack.) They insisted she was docile. Knoller maintained that witnesses who came forward to describe frightening encounters with the dogs in the weeks before the mauling were lying to get attention.
All of this resulted in a huge groundswell of hatred among San Franciscans. I am not exaggerating this. This case was all anyone there was talking about in the first few months of 2001. I wasn’t in a bar or restaurant (I was in the newsroom, writing a story) when news came that the couple had been indicted for murder, but I have to imagine that more than a few watering holes broke out in cheers.
This kind of sentiment made finding twelve unbiased jurors practically impossible. Judge James Warren*** had little choice but to move the trial away. The state court system chose Los Angeles as the new location because its facilities could handle the massive media presence the trial would attract.
And it did. There was a first-come, first-serve line for seats every day. Bay Area media, thank goodness, had permanent seats, so we didn’t have to queue up early. Since we were all working late filing stories, that was a huge help. And I had the added layer of a commute. Everyone else stayed near the downtown courthouse. My newspaper judged that too expensive and put me up out near the Burbank airport. That meant I had to get up early enough to ensure I made it through traffic (which is never bad in LA, right?) and to court on time. Because even though we had those special seating arrangements, there was no pass for being late. Tardy arrivals didn’t get in until the judge called a recess.
The trial lasted more than a month in early 2002. I’d fly down on a Sunday night and back on a Thursday night (court typically wasn’t in session on Fridays). Some Fridays, I’d go back into the newsroom and write a weekend wrap-up. And boy, was there enough material.
There was the prosecutor showing the jury Bane’s mammoth skull. Knoller’s defense attorney throwing herself on the floor and weeping to show how her client said she tried to shield Whipple from Bane’s attack. The judge trying repeatedly to reign in her courtroom theatrics. The second-chair prosecutor with the movie star looks who shot to prominence as a result of the trial and her marriage to an equally glamorous San Francisco supervisor months before.**** And the regular press conferences where both sides’ attorneys would try to spin the day’s proceedings in their favor.
This last one resulted in one of my favorite professional moments, where a fellow newspaper reporter found one of the few chairs in the room and was standing on it to get a better view of the press conference over the crowd of people and TV cameras. I was standing next to him wondering where I could get my own chair, when a cameraman said, “Hey, buddy, do you mind? Your ass is in my live shot.”
After weeks of trial, the jury came back with a verdict of second-degree murder for Knoller and convictions for both of them on charges of involuntary manslaughter and “keeping a mischievous animal that killed a person.” Yes, that is an actual law.
There were a variety of appeals. Noel was sentenced to four years in prison and paroled in 2003. He died last year. Knoller will come up for appeal again in 2022.
Diane Alexis Whipple would have turned 51 years old last month.
*Cornfed was convicted in federal court in 2003 for taking part in a drug smuggling operation from inside California’s Pelican Bay State Prison and for participating in a 1995 armed robbery that resulted in the murder of a sheriff’s deputy.
**After a full-blown hearing triggered by Knoller and Noel’s refusal to give permission for Hera to be put down, a judicial officer ordered her destroyed. The two were also banned from owning any dogs for a three-year period. It was the first time an SF animal control officer had ever levied that penalty. It ended up being the least of the couple’s worries.
***Warren is a grandson of former US Chief Justice Earl Warren.
****That prosecutor, Kimberly Guilfoyle, married Gavin Newsom in 2001. The two divorced in the mid-aughts, in the middle of Newsom’s tenure as SF mayor. Guilfoyle then joined Fox News as a legal analyst. She is currently dating Donald Trump, Jr. Newsom, a Democrat, was sworn in as California’s new governor last month.