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California and the West

Guard Dog Operation Downplayed

Corrections: Officials say the enterprise linked to the mauling death of a San Francisco woman never got off the ground.


SAN FRANCISCO — State prison investigators say the dog that killed a San Francisco woman last week was part of a fledgling operation by the Aryan Brotherhood called the "Dogs of War," an enterprise to train fighting guard dogs that never got off the ground and never made the prison gang its intended profits.

They say the operation, despite its ominous title, consisted of six dogs at most, half of them eventually killed by the mixed breed Canary Island-English mastiff named Bane. This was the same powerfully built dog that mauled to death 33-year-old Diane Whipple at the door of her San Francisco apartment Friday.

Corrections investigators said Wednesday that earlier reports of the dogs being trained to guard methamphetamine labs were "pure speculation," and that whatever the prison gang intended to do with the animals, it was never able to carry out its plans.

"It was a fledgling enterprise at best, and half the dogs were eaten by Bane, according to our sources," said one corrections investigator close to the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The story here is that a fine young woman was killed. All this other drama about meth labs and a big prison dog-breeding ring is made-for-TV stuff."

State corrections investigators said they began a serious investigation into the Aryan Brotherhood more than a year ago when a woman raising the dogs told them she was being threatened by the inmates. She said she was being threatened for not teaching fighting skills to Bane and a handful of similarly bred dogs shipped out from the Midwest, investigators said.

The trail then led to Pelican Bay State Prison, the remote lockup near the California-Oregon border that holds leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican Mafia and Black Guerrilla Family in one of the most secure housing units in the country. Even so, the Aryan Brotherhood has managed to run drugs and direct murders from inside the prison, so the tip that the group had organized a fighting-dog ring was taken seriously.

That sent investigators to the cell of Paul "Cornfed" Schneider, 38, one of the most notorious inmates in California, and his fellow gang member, Dale Bretches, 44, both of whom had set up the "Dogs of War" enterprise, corrections officials said.

Schneider, who is serving a life sentence plus 11 years for stabbing a guard as well as one of his former attorneys, is a reputed U.S. Air Force-trained expert in escape and survival who boasted a "highly developed talent for weapons manufacture, use and concealment," according to a letter from one of his attorneys obtained by The Times. In addition to his prowess with knives, Schneider is an accomplished pencil and crayon artist.

At the direction of Schneider and Bretches, the dogs ended up at a remote farm belonging to Janet Coumbs of Hayfork, Calif. Coumbs, who had been visiting Schneider in prison as part of a Christian outreach effort, was enlisted by the gang members to teach the dogs to fight, corrections investigators said. But she resisted, and at some point, two associates of the gang visited her.

"They tell her to get with the program, you either teach the dogs to fight or you get your arms and legs broken," said the corrections investigator. "Coumbs is one tough lady or she apparently didn't understand who she was dealing with, because she told them she wasn't going along with the plan."

Herman Franck, a Spokane lawyer who has represented Schneider in the past, scoffed at the idea that Schneider and Bretches were running a ring to breed attack dogs.

"These guys are artists," Franck said. "They wanted to have someone raise the dogs so they could have their pictures and paint them. . . . As far as I know they were just giving the dogs away, not making any money from it."

Franck said both men love the Presa Canarios, or Canary Islands, breed of dog. They adorned their prison cells with self-made artwork of the animals. The two also produce art featuring horses and "all kinds of furry animals," said Franck, who added that in much of their work "the animals will be next to a beautiful woman."

Corrections investigators have turned their information over to San Francisco police. Detectives are trying to determine if two San Francisco lawyers--who gained ownership of Bane and a second dog that attacked Whipple--knew the animals were violent.

City detectives said they are investigating reports that the two dogs kept by attorneys Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller were involved in a spate of attacks in recent months. A postman reported that he was bitten by one dog while delivering mail. Another mailman told police that the dogs lunged at him while being restrained by either Noel or Knoller.

"We have reports that these animals were aggressive toward people in the past, and we're following up every lead," said San Francisco Police Lt. Henry Hunter.

Hunter said police are also investigating an incident at San Francisco's Baker Beach in which Bane, which literally means death, allegedly attacked Noel.

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