Descent into Darkness
San Francisco, a dog-friendly town known also for its sizable and politically powerful gay and lesbian population, was horrified by the brutal death of Whipple, a world-class marathon runner who lived with her partner Sharon Smith, an investment company manager.
What made it even worse were the words of the lawyers, who virtually blamed Whipple for her own death. Knoller told reporters she'd instructed Whipple to stay still, adding coolly that the woman would still be alive if she had done so.
Noel made a thinly veiled dig at Whipple's sexual orientation, suggesting she might have excited Bane by a pheromone-bearing perfume (pheromones are chemicals produced by an animal that stimulate other animals) or the use of steroids.
Appearing before a grand jury, Knoller reportedly claimed that she had tried to save Whipple's life, but then added that Bane had sniffed Whipple's crotch "like she was a bitch in heat" — a comment that did not sit well with grand jurors.
Again and again, the pair described their dogs as peaceful animals with no record of violence.
There was more. Two weeks before Bane's fatal attack on Whipple, Noel wrote Schneider in a joking, sarcastic tone, telling of an incident in which both dogs rushed out of the elevator and almost knocked Whipple down, terrifying her.
Noel mocked Whipple as a "timorous little mousy blond" who "almost ha[d] a coronary" during the incident.
In contrast to the couple's courtroom claims that the dogs had no history of threatening behavior, the prosecution presented testimony about more than 30 incidents of terrifying encounters between neighbors and the dogs — and it was hard to avoid the impression that the lawyers had enjoyed the fear their dogs provoked.
It turned out that a veterinarian, after examining the dogs when the lawyers first got them, had written the couple with a warning: "These animals would be a liability in any household."
Outside the courtroom, prosecutor James Hammer acknowledged that Whipple's death most likely would not have been investigated as a crime without Noel and Knoller's statements.
The outraged response to those remarks, Hammer said, included so many reports of previous frightening encounters with the dogs that there was immediate pressure for a criminal investigation. That probe turned up more and more evidence that the dogs had always presented an unmistakable threat.
Outrage over Noel and Knoller's apparent indifference to Whipple's death intensified with the news of the Aryan Brotherhood connection.
Evidence brought out in the trial would show that the lawyers had taken in the huge, frightening dogs to accommodate Aryan Brotherhood members Schneider and Bretches, who were allegedly running the dog business in order to produce fighting dogs and guard dogs for methamphetamine labs run by the Mexican Mafia.
The cellmates deny that, although their artwork and correspondence make it perfectly clear that a chief aim was to breed animals that were as large and terrifying as possible.
But the news that really rocked San Francisco came four days after Whipple's death, with the revelation that Noel and Knoller had legally adopted Paul Schneider, 39, a particularly ruthless leader of the Aryan Brotherhood.
From Pacific Height to Pelican Bay
Most San Franciscans were probably only dimly aware of the Aryan Brotherhood, the widely feared white prison gang formed in San Quentin in 1967 in response to the founding of the Black Guerilla Family and the rising power of Nuestra Familia and La Eme, which is short for the Mexican Mafia.
Though powerful in the prison system through violence and intimidation, the Aryan Brotherhood does not actively recruit outside prison walls. It is not a political organization and has no direct connection with the Aryan Nations, the neo-Nazi organization that was based for more than 25 years in Idaho.
Inside the 160,000-inmate California prison system, the Aryan Brotherhood claims only a few dozen full members. Its power is sustained by its reputation for ruthless, unhesitating violence.
The California Department of Corrections attributes at least 40 prison killings to the group, with seven murders at Pelican Bay alone in just two years, 1996 and 1997.
Nationally, the Aryan Brotherhood is believed to have several hundred members, although no one is sure of the precise number; experts say there are major concentrations of members in the Florida, Missouri and Texas prison systems.
The group's history and undisputed position at the top of the white prison-gang pyramid makes the Aryan Brotherhood the status gang for young Skinhead prisoners, many of whom already belong to newer gangs like the Nazi Low Riders, the Peckerwoods or PEN1, short for Public Enemy Number One.
During the trial, which was moved to Los Angeles because of massive pre-trial publicity in San Francisco, Knoller's attorney Nedra Ruiz, a histrionic and confrontational woman who seemed to have a gift for antagonizing the courtroom, derided the significance of Noel and Knoller's Aryan Brotherhood connection.
Ruiz went to great pains to paint the pair as fine, warm-hearted, public-spirited citizens devoted to good causes, a couple who loved their dogs as family members.
Ruiz said that Noel and Knoller had become involved with Schneider and Bretches through their commitment to individual rights, first by representing prison guards against the California Department of Corrections, then by representing prisoners in lawsuits against prison guards and the department.
Their track record, however, seems a little more ambiguous than the trial lawyer suggested.
Into the Abyss
Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller met while working at a San Francisco law firm where they concentrated on various aspects of commercial and tax law.
In 1994, they took their first prison case, representing a Pelican Bay guard who claimed that other guards were harassing him because he had testified on behalf of brutalized inmates. They lost the case, and their client hanged himself.
Three years later, the couple seemed to be moving in a different direction. Now they were representing a Pelican Bay guard accused of conspiring with the Aryan Brotherhood to help arrange beatings and murders.
They lost this case as well, but not before calling Paul Schneider as a witness. Schneider was serving a life sentence for robbery and attempted murder — he had once stabbed a lawyer he didn't like in a courtroom, after smuggling in a prison knife that he apparently concealed in his rectum — but Noel and Knoller seemed to like him just the same.
Schneider, a well-muscled, 220-pound blond, was no garden-variety criminal. Prison officials say Schneider and Bretches' cell in the maximum-security Secure Housing Unit serves as the Pelican Bay State Prison headquarters of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Officials have labeled Schneider as an Aryan Brotherhood "shot-caller," meaning that he is believed to order killings for the group, both inside and outside prison.
California Department of Corrections prison gang expert Devan Hawkes learned of the dog-raising business in 1999, when a woman named Janet Coumbs reported that she had been frightened by individuals at Pelican Bay who had consigned a number of Presa Canarios to her care.
Schneider and Bretches had invested almost $20,000 cash in the business, which they told Coumbs had come from the settlement in a lawsuit won by another inmate.
Even as Hawkes looked into the apparent violation of rules prohibiting inmates from running unapproved businesses, Schneider asked Noel and Knoller to help recover the dogs from Coumbs, who found them terrifying. Noel and Knoller did so, taking Hera and Bane into their own apartment.
At the same time, the lawyers' involvement with Schneider was deepening. After Whipple's death, the authorities learned that Schneider had had topless photos of Knoller in his cell, and they also served a search warrant looking for photos that supposedly depicted Knoller and the dogs having sex.
There were erotic letters from the lawyers to the man they now call their son. And there was Schneider's prison artwork, much of it depicting a nearly nude Knoller with the big dogs.