Terror on a Leash

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If St. Francis, the patron saint of animals, had walked the streets of the city that bears his name last week, he might have been the only pedestrian untroubled by the pets that until now were treated better here than in most American cities. "People are crossing the street to avoid dogs and phoning up to ask, 'Are my children safe?'" says Jean Donaldson, behavior and training director at San Francisco's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. So many hundreds have called that Donaldson is busily arranging town-hall meetings on how to protect yourself from dog attack (roll into a ball, covering your neck, face and gut). "You're more likely to get hit by lightning," she explains, "but there's a knowledge void. Our image of dogs has been shattered."

Until Jan. 26, all you needed to know about dogs in San Francisco was this: though most landlords won't allow them, most dotcoms will, and pet shelters won't kill them if they're at all adoptable. But that Friday Diane Whipple, 33, a lacrosse coach, stepped out of the elevator in her tony Pacific Heights apartment building with her shopping bags. She was set upon by Bane and Hera, 123-lb. and 112-lb. Presa Canarios belonging to the two attorneys down the hall. By the time the police arrived and rushed her to the hospital, she was mortally wounded. Officers who saw the grisly scene needed trauma counseling.

Bane was put down shortly thereafter (Hera is still awaiting her fate), but it was the dogs' owners, Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, who attracted most of the attention. It was later revealed that they had a close relationship with Paul ("Cornfed") Schneider, an Aryan supremacist, accomplished knife fighter and crayon artist serving a life term in California's maximum-security Pelican Bay prison. According to prison authorities, Schneider--who covers his cell with pictures of furry animals--has been directing the raising of attack dogs from behind bars. Noel and Knoller got their pets from one of Schneider's pen pals in California, who was raising at least six of them for him. Even stranger, the attorneys last week legally adopted Schneider, 38, as their son.

The animals are a mix of English mastiff and Canary Island cattle dog, which as a purebred was considered so dangerous that Spain outlawed the Canario in the 1930s, nearly causing its extinction. Were the two dogs trained to kill? And if so, did the couple know what they were capable of? Noel and Knoller denied any culpability in an unusual, 18-page letter faxed to local district attorney Terence Hallinan. In it Noel described Bane--whose name literally means "death"--as "a really gentle animal" and Hera as "a neighborhood favorite." He claimed that Knoller tried to hold the dogs back during the attack, but Whipple refused to get into her apartment and even punched Knoller in the eye. Knoller sustained injuries from the dogs too, he asserted.

There are no other witnesses to corroborate that account, but Hallinan is skeptical. For one thing, Knoller "does not have bruises or bites"; for another, he says, the letter's account contradicts some of what she told police right after the attack. "There could be an argument for second-degree murder," says Hallinan. Nevertheless, he expects Noel will fight him all the way: "He's a pretty litigious guy."

Others argue that even if the couple didn't know how deadly the dogs were, they still bear responsibility. "They took dogs bred for controlling cattle and pulling coal carts and put them in this small apartment," says Kenneth Phillips, California's leading dog-bite lawyer. "In my opinion that's negligence right there." (The dogs' previous owner told the San Francisco Chronicle that they killed her sheep, chickens and family cat.) Meanwhile, the people of Pacific Heights--many of whom say they lived in terror of the dogs--have another question to ponder. During the attack Whipple reportedly screamed for five minutes, yet no one opened a door to help. Not only is it hard to imagine St. Francis in San Francisco these days; seems it's even harder to find a Good Samaritan.