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Descent into Darkness

Two liberal San Francisco attorneys got involved in the Aryan Brotherhood. It cost them their freedom, and their souls.

LOS ANGELES -- Bill Kuenzi was visiting a friend in San Francisco's posh Pacific Heights neighborhood on the afternoon of Jan. 26, 2001. He was unlocking his friend's third-story apartment door when he heard a woman begin to scream.

"It was high-pitched, desperate, continuous screaming," Kuenzi testified in Superior Court in Los Angeles early this year, "of a woman who was obviously being attacked. I knew I had to do something and I tried to call 911 on my cell phone."

Kuenzi's phone didn't work where he was. So he went to the stairs for better reception and began climbing toward the screaming. The cell phone still didn't work.

Kuenzi continued until he reached the fifth floor. Then fear stopped him. The screaming was coming from the sixth floor.

"I assumed it was a domestic violence situation," said Kuenzi, a 35-year-old stockbroker. "Or a woman being sexually assaulted. I realized that when I climbed to the sixth floor landing, I would be exposed to the situation, which I knew was violent, and I was scared."

He had good reason. The violence that Kuenzi feared was not being perpetrated by some enraged boyfriend who might be calmed down, or even a rapist who could be scared off by the arrival of other people.

The attack taking place a floor above Kuenzi was being carried out by two huge Canary Island mastiffs bred as vicious attack dogs by a pair of prison cellmates who belong to the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood — possibly the most frightening race-based prison gang in this country.

The dogs were mauling to death Diane Whipple, a petite 34-year-old college lacrosse coach and resident of the sixth floor.

Descending again, Kuenzi finally got through to police. As he reached the ground floor, he heard Whipple's cries change to a low moan.

"Then the screaming stopped," he said.

Known as Presa Canarios, the dogs belonged to Whipple's neighbors, Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, husband-and-wife attorneys whose practice had put them in contact with the two life-term prisoners at Pelican Bay, the most secure facility in the California system.

With Noel and Knoller's help, Paul "Cornfed" Schneider and Dale Bretches were running a dangerous business — against prison rules that outlaw such long-distance entrepreneurship — that they called Dog o' War.

Officials believe that huge dogs were being raised for sale to guard methamphetamine labs.

Noel, 60, and Knoller, 46, were convicted here in late March of involuntary manslaughter and, in Knoller's case, second-degree murder as well. They face sentences of up to four years and 15 years, respectively, for their roles in Whipple's death.

These were hardly your run-of-the-mill Aryan Brotherhood associates. Noel is a former federal prosecutor, and both attorneys had a fondness for the opera and causes like helping the homeless and the mentally ill.

But in the days following Whipple's death, both made grotesque comments that essentially blamed the victim for her own death. For them, it seemed clear, Whipple's savaging was, at worst, an inconvenience and annoying public relations problem.

Beyond the issue of criminal liability for the dogs' behavior lies the deeper puzzle that seems beyond logical explanation:

What was the Aryan Brotherhood doing in the latte-and-Pellegrino realm of Noel and Knoller's toney Pacific Heights neighborhood? What possible explanation was there for the couple's transformation from socially aware attorneys into apparently depraved human beings?

Those questions may never be fully answered. But the circumstances of Whipple's death and the events leading up to it — including the attorneys' illicit ties to the Aryan Brotherhood — make it clear that Noel and Knoller's descent into darkness involved the age-old attractions of power, violence and forbidden sex.

'Afraid for our Lives'
The bloodshed that Schneider and Bretches' Dog o' War business visited upon an upscale apartment building in San Francisco was beyond the emotional and professional scope of the emergency workers who responded.

The first police officers at the scene found Whipple in the sixth-floor hallway, nude, mutilated, covered in blood, and trying to crawl to her open apartment door.

On the witness stand in the Knoller-Noel trial, veteran officers said they radioed for backup before giving Whipple first aid.

"We were afraid for our lives," Patrol Sgt. Lesley Forrestal explained. "We saw what the dogs had done to her and we didn't know whether we would be attacked, too. I radioed that I was going to shoot on sight."

Whipple was beyond help. Her larynx was crushed and her jugular vein had been severed by dog bites. She would die in the emergency room 70 minutes after the attack.

Meanwhile, as more police and paramedics arrived minutes after Forrestal's call, Marjorie Knoller emerged from her apartment down the hall, her sweatshirt bloodied, blood on her hair and face, and small cuts on two fingers of one hand that she claimed she had suffered in trying to stop the fatal attack.

Knoller, a small woman, usually did not try to manage both dogs herself because Bane, the 140-pound male, substantially outweighed her. Hera, the 115-pound female, was plenty.

On the day of Whipple's death, Knoller says she took both dogs out because Noel was away. When she opened her apartment door, Bane supposedly bolted in a mad rush for Whipple, dragging Knoller after him down the hall toward Whipple, who just had time to unlock her door and set one grocery bag down inside her apartment.

Then, in a scene that suggested a horror movie, Bane mauled Whipple from head to toe while Hera ripped off her clothing.

Michael Scott was the second animal control officer to arrive at the scene.

"I was told that the bigger of the two dogs — Bane — was in the bathroom," he testified. "I could hear him, panting, snarling and pacing behind the bathroom door. The bathroom door was being covered by a police officer with a machine gun, backed up by another officer with a drawn gun."

Two other officers stood with drawn guns guarding the door to the bedroom where Hera could be heard bashing the door from inside, so hard that Scott feared the door might give way.

Scott cracked the bathroom door and fired three tranquilizer darts at Bane, none of which had any effect. Then he attempted to remove Bane with a come-along, a device with a steel braid loop that functions as a rigid leash.

"When I tried to move the dog," Scott said, "he rushed me and almost knocked me off my feet. I was lucky I was wearing a bulletproof vest. It took all my strength to force him with the come-along away from the door opening and shut the door."

Scott waited until a third animal control officer arrived. Then the two of them were able to control Bane, using two come-alongs. He was quickly put to death.

If that had been all, as horrible as it was, that might have been the end of it. But lawyers Noel and Knoller could not seem to keep their mouths shut.

Faulting the Pheromones
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.

A Flirtation No Longer
What happened to Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller?

One lawyer at the trial suggested that Noel, himself a big man, was attracted to the extreme machismo and violence that was represented by Schneider and was so different from his own well-to-do life.

A former Pelican Bay guard quoted in Rolling Stone magazine said he saw Noel change. "I'd get on the phone with Bob to ask him about a case," Keith Whitley said, "and all he did was talk about how big Bane's balls were."

Noel himself bragged to the magazine about the size of the dog's penis and its erections.

Noel made similar comments in some of his correspondence, and he seemed to revel in the fear that the dogs inspired in his neighbors. He did not seem to mind Knoller's apparent attraction to Schneider, however, and in fact wrote in sexual terms about his wife in letters to the Aryan Brotherhood boss.

Knoller seemed simply smitten. "I think Marjorie Knoller just fell in love with Schneider," said Hawkes, the gang expert. "She fell in love, and that's it."

Clearly, the couple was consumed with the dark world they now lived in. Police found in their apartment a book entitled Manstopper! that described how to train a killer dog.

Some experts believe that the lawyers had trained the dogs in their apartment using a rag-biting technique — training that could explain Hera's tearing off of Whipple's clothing.

"They used to have this charming flat," said Whitley, who visited just days before Whipple's killing. "The dogs turned it into a piss pot."

Whatever the reasons, how far Noel and Knoller had traveled into a world of violence and death became even more apparent on Sept. 5, when Schneider and seven others, one of them a former girlfriend, were charged with racketeering in the attempted murders of 24 people over a 15-year period.

Schneider is also charged with the 1995 murder of a sheriff's deputy killed by Aryan Brotherhood associates who were carrying out a series of robberies allegedly ordered by Schneider from his prison cell.

Those charges are in addition to the attempted murder and the armed robbery convictions that earned him a life sentence.

For three years, Noel and Knoller flirted with the violent codes, along with the explosively repressed sexuality, of prison gang life. Little by little, they abandoned the trappings of middle-class professional life, taking up the work and attitudes of the Aryan Brotherhood instead.

Now, barring a highly unlikely sentencing decision, Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller are about to join that life for themselves.

David Barry is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.