Politics & Policy

Barking Mad

San Franciscans live and let live--and let die.

If you go to San Francisco, you’re going to meet some nutty people there. I’m thinking right now not about same-sex marriages, but the notorious San Francisco dog-mauling case. As it turns out, there’s a connection.

You may recall that grisly dog-bites-man story. In 2001, a woman neighbor of two San Francisco lawyers who were taking care of their prisoner friend’s Presa Canarios–huge, aggressive mastiffs the prisoner planned to breed and sell to drug-dealers–was attacked by the dogs in the hall outside her apartment and mauled to death as she returned home from grocery shopping.

You may also recall some of this story’s lurid details. The married, middle-aged attorneys, Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, had a relationship so strange with the then-39-year-old prisoner, Paul “Cornfed” Schneider, that they adopted him. “He’s our kid, and we love him,” they deadpanned.

Their defense lawyer at the criminal trial at one point got on all fours like a dog in the courtroom to make a point and suggested that because the victim, Diane Whipple, and her roommate hadn’t complained about the dogs to the proper authorities they were somehow themselves responsible for the gruesome killing. There were reports of bestiality and pornography concerning Noel, Knoller, and Schneider and the dogs.

A jury found Knoller, who’d been walking the dogs when they attacked, guilty of second-degree murder in March, 2002. But three months later San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Warren tossed out that verdict, although he let stand lesser ones of involuntary manslaughter against both Knoller and her husband. Both are now free on parole: Noel was released to northern California in September, and Knoller to southern California in January.

Now San Francisco city attorneys want a Mar. 29 court hearing about the legality of the city’s same-sex marriage licenses moved to Judge Warren’s court. That hearing consolidates two requests by traditional-marriage advocates to stop the licenses. Both were refused: One by Judge Warren, who was outed by San Francisco magazine as gay a couple of years ago and is the grandson of U.S. Supreme Court Judge Earl Warren, and the other by San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ronald Quidachay. Judge Quidachay would normally preside over the Mar. 29 hearing because his case was filed first.

Obviously, gay-marriage advocates want the hearing moved to Warren’s court because they think it more likely that he’d rule in their favor. But I suspect that this would be less because Warren himself is gay than because he has San Francisco-style notions about law and order and social justice.

As it happens, Diane Whipple was a lesbian. But that didn’t stop Judge Warren from reversing Marjorie Knoller’s second-degree-murder conviction for her death, even though Knoller (who had repeatedly shown an inability to control the two large dogs) had displayed reckless disregard for her neighbor’s safety.

There’s a legal tradition based on English common law that every dog is entitled to one bite. But Bane and Hera (as these dogs were named) had used up theirs long before the fatal mauling. They’d previously bitten Diane Whipple on the wrist, another neighbor through the seat of his pants, and growled and snapped at dozens of people and attacked other dogs in the vicinity. Bane had even bitten the tip off Robert Noel’s index finger. Thirty-four witnesses testified in court that they’d found the dogs frightening and dangerous and had told the Noels so.

As recounted by true-crime writer Aphrodite Jones in her book, Red Zone: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of the San Francisco Dog Mauling (out in paperback this spring), the story is even creepier than you may remember from the headlines. Yes, Jones told me over the phone, she saw evidence revealing Noel and Knoller did indeed have a sexual relationship with their dogs.

“There is a nude picture of her [Knoller] with the dog in the background, and the dogs were on all kinds of weird medications,” she said. “Think what that does to the mentality of these dogs.”

Such lurid details are the reason people buy books like this. So rest assured that in Red Zone you will learn that prisoner Schneider was adept at hiding weapons in his within him. That when Field & Stream was banned from Pelican Bay penitentiary because of its gun photos, Schneider–who enjoyed drawing animals–had to find inspiration in other magazines, and dark was the day he discovered Dog Fancy. That Schneider, Noel, and Knoller imagined themselves as heroes in some sort of twisted Arthurian-Gothic-Celtic-Aryan Brotherhood romance, with the dogs in supporting roles. And that dumpy Marjorie was in the habit of mailing Schneider snapshots of herself naked or in a black corset and blonde wig.

Wait–there’s more! Knoller is Jewish, Irish Catholic Noel converted to Judaism (or, more likely, said he did) when he married her, which inspired the 6′3″, 300-pound lawyer to claim he felt personally intimidated when a German plumber who’d come to fix a showerhead spoke with a German accent and saluted when he said goodbye. So the Noels, who were in the habit of taking anyone who annoyed them to court, filed a $50,000 lawsuit against the plumber.

“More than just left-wing liberals,” Jones writes, “[The Noels] were people on a mission to have the world see things their way…they had huge complaints about the U.S. government and major concerns about the corrupt ways of corporate America.”

But Noel and Knoller were also more than just left-wing, litigation-happy lawyers on a mission; they were San Francisco left-wing, litigation lawyers on a mission. And that, I suspect, may have been the fuse to this particular bomb.

Although their apartment building was in the pricey Pacific Heights neighborhood (junkyard dogs, in other words, weren’t exactly part of the local scene) not one of almost three-dozen witnesses who testified against the Noels had seen fit to complain to their landlord about these tenants, who were keeping two huge and aggressive dogs in an 800-square-foot apartment. Nor, apparently, did they report the problem to animal control authorities. And so a civil suit Diane Whipple’s roommate brought against the apartment building’s owners was, not unreasonably, thrown out.

Why hadn’t the neighbors complained? Why were Noel and Knoller and their dogs allowed to intimidate everyone around them without repercussions? Jones told me that the witnesses had never really talked to each other about their dog problem before the killing–”they didn’t have a critical mass” to complain as a group”–and they were frightened of being sued by this intimidating lawyer couple if they did. But I think there’s more to it than that.

San Franciscans may organize public puke-ins and city-wide gridlock if they feel U.S. foreign policy is harmful or disruptive, and their city officials may take it upon themselves to defy state law in the name of a newly invented civil right. But they’re willing to live with an astonishing amount of civil disorder in their own backyard. Tolerance of aggressive panhandling is the most visible expression of this phenomenon; tolerance of aggressive dogs may be just another variant.

“It is a city of animal lovers,” agreed Jones, “and it is the last bastion of live-and-let-live liberalism as we know it in America.”

The problem with this sort of excessive tolerance, of course, is that innocent bystanders like Diana Whipple can suffer the consequences. And some judges won’t even call it murder.

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog “Cathy’s World.” She is an NRO contributor.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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