from The Los Angeles Times

    Published Wednesday, January 31, 2001

Killer Dog Linked to Ring Run by Inmates

Attack: The breeding operation was directed by white supremacists inside Pelican Bay prison, authorities say

By MARIA L. La GANGA and JOHN M. GLIONNA, Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO--What first looked like a terrifying tragedy--young woman killed by rogue dog--has revealed an illegal guard dog-breeding operation run from behind the walls of the state's most secure prison, law enforcement officials said Tuesday.

Authorities investigating the death of Diane Whipple, 33, are on the trail of a bizarre story, complete with white supremacists, a surprise adoption and the Mexican Mafia.

The dog that killed the college lacrosse coach in her apartment hallway here was raised at the direction of two members of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist gang, who were illegally controlling a guard-dog breeding operation while incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison, corrections officials said.

Whipple was mauled to death Friday by Bane, a 123-pound English mastiff-Canary Island crossbreed. The dog belonged to two attorneys who had represented Paul "Cornfed" Schneider, 38, and Dale Bretches, 44, who are serving lengthy sentences for violent crimes, said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections.

San Francisco police are investigating whether Bane and eight other dogs were being raised at a remote Northern California farm as professional fighting dogs or guard animals for members of the Mexican Mafia, another prison gang, said San Francisco police Lt. Henry Hunter.

And in a strange twist, the attorneys acknowledged in a brief telephone interview with The Times on Tuesday that they had filed court documents in San Francisco to adopt Schneider, who is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for attempted murder and aggravated assault while in prison.

The adoption was granted by Superior Court Judge Donna J. Hitchens on Monday, according to court documents, which say the attorneys and the inmate have "agreed to assume toward each other the relation of parent and child."

Couple Could Face Charges

The attorneys, Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, who owned Bane and another English mastiff-Canary Island mix named Hera, could be charged with a felony in the death of Whipple within three weeks, San Francisco Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan said Tuesday.

Hallinan said they could be charged with responsibility for injuries caused by trained fighting dogs. They could face as much as four years in prison and a $10,000 fine, if convicted. Authorities would have to prove that the owners knew that Bane and Hera had a propensity for violence.

Until Noel and Knoller took custody of the animals 10 months ago, the dogs were being cared for by Janet Coumbs on her Hayfork, Calif., farm, where they had already killed more than two dozen farm animals, including a ram, sheep, chickens and a house cat, the Trinity County woman said in an interview.

Coumbs said she had unwittingly become involved in the dog operation after she began visiting Schneider at Pelican Bay as part of a Christian outreach. Coumbs said she and her 17-year-old daughter "felt like prisoners to those dogs."

Whipple died Friday after a brutal attack that has stunned this normally animal-loving city. The athlete and coach had just gotten home from her job at St. Mary's College in Moraga when Bane gripped her throat, while Hera tore at her clothing. Knoller tried to intercede to no avail.

Whipple was taken to San Francisco General Hospital, where she died several hours later. Bane was put to death over the weekend. Hera is in protective custody, awaiting a Feb. 13 hearing about her fate.

As the incident gained attention, police began receiving calls about the couple and the animals, including reports from neighbors and others alleging that Bane and Hera had attacked other animals.

One of the callers was Coumbs.

Coumbs, 49, who suffers from arthritis and asthma, said she began corresponding with Schneider in 1997 after a friend suggested that she reach out to local prison inmates. She visited Schneider several times before he proposed that she begin raising the animals as a way to make extra money on her tiny farm.

Coumbs said she was instructed to contact a kennel in Chicago and select two puppies. Looking at pictures the kennel supplied her, she decided on Bane, then three months old, and a 9-month female. The dogs were later delivered to her at the Sacramento airport after she paid $1,200 apiece for the animals, money that she said Schneider supplied her.

Schneider soon instructed her to purchase two more females from a kennel in Ohio. "He said I could make more money by breeding the dogs," she said.

But the arrangement went sour when Coumbs stopped receiving money for the dogs' upkeep from Schneider and from a Sacramento woman, who she said also instructed her on the dogs' care. Schneider never told Coumbs to train them to attack, she said, and she did not, but "he told me not to make wusses out of them."

In debt for the dogs' care, Coumbs said, she declined to answer a letter sent by the convict. Months later, she was sued by Noel and Knoller for custody of the animals.

Lt. Ben Grundy, a spokesman for Pelican Bay, said Schneider and Bretches allegedly ran the dog-breeding operation from behind bars by writing to accomplices in code to hide the identity of those involved and the extent of the operation.

The prison investigated the operation, which Grundy described as "lucrative," between October 1999 and April 2000. At that point the research was turned over to the FBI.

According to a U.S. Department of Justice advisory that Hallinan received Tuesday, detailing the prison's investigation, an Aryan Brotherhood group at Pelican Bay had allegedly maintained a business to buy and sell fighting dogs for profit.

The Department of Justice report said the gang used associates outside the prison to raise and sell the dogs and funnel the profits back to incarcerated gang members, Hallinan said, adding that some dogs were to be sold to the Mexican Mafia.

It is illegal for inmates to operate moneymaking enterprises from inside prison. But Heimerich said the FBI found no evidence of illegal practices outside the prison involving the dog-breeding operation. As a result, charges were never filed.

Last April, Knoller and Noel got custody of all nine dogs from Coumbs and took Bane and Hera home to their one-bedroom apartment. Authorities are investigating what happened to the other seven animals.

The attorneys would not comment on the incident or the investigation.

According to Heimerich, however, the two attorneys were frequent visitors to Schneider in Pelican Bay, visits that overlapped with the dog-breeding operation. They also had represented Schneider in at least one lawsuit.

Officials Got Letters

In 1998, Knoller and Noel wrote on behalf of Schneider to a laundry list of public officials, including California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and then-U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.

In the letter, Knoller and Noel wrote that they have represented half a dozen Pelican Bay state correctional officers charged with civil rights violations against inmates.

Two guards had been found guilty of conspiring with inmates who belonged to white supremacist groups, including the Aryan Brotherhood. The guards and inmates had conspired to set up brutal attacks against convicted child molesters and other inmates at the bottom of the prison hierarchy.

At one point in the 39-page letter, obtained by The Times, Noel and Knoller pleaded with Del Norte County and federal officials that Schneider's life was in danger because he was being forced to share a cell with another inmate.

"I strongly urge you to offer Mr. Schneider the immediate option of being single celled," Noel wrote then-warden of Pelican Bay, Robert Ayres, in March 1998. "I strongly urge you to consider an immediate transfer of Mr. Schneider to another institution for his safety."

The letter was written during a war inside the ranks of the Aryan Brotherhood, internecine violence marked by several murders. At the time, according to Noel, the Aryan Brotherhood inside Pelican Bay had splintered into at least three factions, two of which were allegedly trying to murder Schneider.


Times staff writers Mark Arax, Rebecca Trounson and Josh Meyer contributed to this report.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Time

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