from The Contra Costa Times

    Published Tuesday, January 30, 2001 

Dogs' owners could face serious charges

Investigators must establish if the S.F. couple knew the animals that mauled Diane Whipple were potentially violent


SAN FRANCISCO -- The owners of the dogs that mauled a 33-year-old St.
Mary's lacrosse coach to death last week could face charges as serious as involuntary manslaughter if they knew of their dogs' potentially violent nature and didn't take adequate steps to protect the public, officials said Monday. 

"The law does not allow you to be irresponsible," said Kimberly Guilfoyle, assistant district attorney for San Francisco.

If negligence is alleged, the owners could be charged with a felony or a misdemeanor and face two to four years in state prison, Guilfoyle said. 

Diane Whipple was unlocking the door to her apartment at the 2300 block of Pacific Avenue when two Presa Canario dogs -- a rare breed historically bred for guarding farms and sometimes used for dogfighting -- charged at the petite woman and latched onto her throat. 

Investigators are looking at whether the dogs showed signs of aggressive behavior in the past, whether the dogs had been trained to fight or kill and most importantly, whether the owners knew about it. 

The owners, attorneys Marjorie Knoller and her husband Robert Noel, could not be reached for comment Monday. 

In an unusual twist, two white supremacists serving time at Pelican Bay State Prison are now part of the investigation.

Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections, said inmates Paul Schneider and Dale Bretches are being investigated for any role they might have played in organized dog fights.

The owners both visited Schneider and Bretches at Pelican Bay in their professional role, Heimerich confirmed.

Noel acquired the two dogs three months ago. Three-year-old Bane, the 120-pound Presa Canario, was euthanized Saturday. 

The other dog was 113-pound Hera, 2, also an English mastiff-Canary Island mix. She remained in Animal Care and Control on Monday, pending the outcome of the investigation.

"(These dogs) are not meant to be household pets," said Vicky Guldbech, captain of field services for San Francisco Animal Care and Control. 

There is no indication Noel received the dogs from the inmates or that the animals had been used in fights. Neither inmate was ever charged as a result of the probe.

"We did run an investigation into a fighting dog ring with links to those two inmates," Heimerich said. State officials have turned their information on Schneider and Bretches over to San Francisco police investigators.

"Schneider is a validated gang member belonging to the Aryan Brotherhood," Heimerich said. He described the organization as a violent white supremacist group.

Bretches is also a member of the tight-knit supremacist sect.

Schneider, 38, is serving time for a robbery conviction in Los Angeles County and attempted murder while incarcerated at Folsom Prison. He has been in Pelican Bay since 1986, Heimerich said. Schneider is currently serving life without the possibility of parole.

Bretches, 44, is in Pelican Bay for second degree murder and was also found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon while incarcerated, according to state records. He is currently serving life without the possibility of parole.

"Noel and Knoller have visited Mr. Schneider in an attorney capacity at Pelican State Prison," Heimerich said. Both attorneys have also visited Bretches, he said.

San Francisco investigators would not say if Noel had acquired his dogs from Schneider or Bretches. 

In an interview with the San Jose Mercury News on Friday, Noel said he acquired the two animals several months ago as a favor to a female friend who was concerned they were being neglected at a breeding facility in Los

"They were chained outside in the weather," Noel said. He did not name the friend or the facility.

Noel said he filed a pro-bono lawsuit to free the dogs. He was successful, and ended up taking the dogs himself -- acting as a "foster parent," he said -- rather than turning them over to his friend.

Police are also interviewing neighbors to see if the dogs exhibited menacing behavior. 

"We've had tremendous response from the public in this case," said Lt. Henry Hunter. 

There were no formal complaints made against the dogs before the attack, Hunter said.

It's not illegal to own a dog that's been trained to fight or kill, but if you own such an animal, you must take reasonable measures to protect the public, Guilfoyle said. 

St. Mary's is holding a memorial for Whipple at 7 p.m Thursday at the college chapel. 

Nationwide, the number of deaths from dog attacks has been small. During 1997 and 1998, there were 27 fatalities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dog bites that cause less severe injuries, however, are common. Nearly 4.7 million people -- or 1.8 percent of the nation's population --- were bitten by dogs in 1994, when the last survey was conducted. More than 6,000 people were hospitalized after the attacks.

Critics have focused attention on pit bulls, Rottweilers and several other breeds, but there have been at least 25 types of dogs involved in fatal attacks since 1979, noted Kim Blindauer, a CDC epidemiologist.

Rather than banning specific breeds, Blindauer said, communities should enact and enforce leash and fencing laws and procedures for dealing with dogs that exhibit signs of violence.

"Many communities that have the laws don't enforce them," Blindauer said.

People should watch for signs of aggressive behavior in animals, said Jean Donaldson, director of the behavior and training department at the San Francisco SPCA. 

"The likelihood is that people see signs and ignore them," Donaldson said. "Usually, there are small signs all along. You cook up the right circumstances and a lot of dogs are capable of doing this type of thing."

"Unless this woman was a 300-pound body-builder, if these dogs with 4-wheel drive and 120 pounds each, wanted to take her for a ride, she's going." 

Officials at Animal Control tried to quell the growing public concern. 

"We're just asking everyone to calm down," Guldbech said, adding that the center has been inundated with "hysteria" calls. "This is a horrific tragedy. People are frightened; somebody was killed."

But, she said, "this was an isolated incident." 

Staff writers Sonia Krishnan and Sandy Kleffman , and the Associated Press, the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2001 Contra Costa Times

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