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California and the West

Dog's Owner Says Victim Failed to Save Self

Mauling: 'All she had to do was close her door,' man says of woman who died. He and wife have controversial association with white supremacist.

February 05, 2001|MARK ARAX and MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — Standing in a soft, cold rain with the low-slung walls of Pelican Bay State Prison behind him, attorney Robert Noel seemed prepared for what he now considers the inevitable.

He and his wife, he said, fully expect to be arrested for the mauling death of their neighbor, a San Francisco lacrosse coach who was killed by the couple's "lovable mutt."

Noel, 59, had come to the front gates of the remote prison--home to the dog's original owner, a violent white supremacist whom Noel and his wife adopted just last week--to mount a defense for his family and his pets.

"All she had to do was close her door," Noel said, insisting that 33-year-old Diane Whipple played a part in her own death Jan. 26 in the hallway of the apartment building they shared in San Francisco.

Noel had come back to this prison town Friday the same way he had left it a few years ago, swirling in controversy and putting forth an explanation of events that most everybody found bewildering.

It was here in 1997 that his career took a strange turn that endeared him to members of the Aryan Brotherhood and ultimately led to the mauling death. That turn began during a lengthy criminal trial when Noel wove an extravagant conspiracy theory to defend guards and their white supremacist cohorts accused of brutality. In one court filing after another, Noel unsuccessfully argued that the local district attorney, FBI agents and state corrections investigators framed the guards and directed inmate murders.

His contentions seemed quite a departure for the former tax attorney and federal prosecutor who once won a U.S. Justice Department award for his vigilant pursuit of lawbreakers. "I suggest to you the possibility that the [district attorney] and his team of associates from the Department of Corrections have complicity in the deaths," Noel wrote to a federal prosecutor in one of several letters alleging a widespread conspiracy.

It was also here, inside one of the nation's most restrictive prisons, that Noel and his 45-year-old wife, Marjorie Knoller, met one of California's most notorious and deadly inmates, an Aryan Brotherhood enforcer who would become their adopted son and alter the course of their lives.

As a favor to inmate Paul "Cornfed" Schneider, Noel and Knoller agreed to take in his fierce, powerfully built dogs, including the Presa Canario-English mastiff mix named Bane that attacked and killed Whipple at the doorstep of her Pacific Heights apartment.

Now Noel and Knoller face possible manslaughter charges, if it can be shown that they knew of and ignored Bane's impulse to violence.

On Friday, Noel said his recent troubles can be traced to San Francisco Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan, whom he accused of being out to get him. He not only blasted Hallinan, but the prosecutor's father and brother as well.

The broadside, which Hallinan described as ludicrous, surprised no one here. It all has a familiar ring, said Del Norte County prosecutor Jim Fallman, part of the dissonant world view of Noel and Knoller.

"They've put together some pretty wacky conspiracy theories, and I've been at the center of a few of them," Fallman said. "Their approach to defending their clients is basically throw everything out there, anything in the world, and just hope that something sticks."

Chet Miller, a former corrections investigator at Pelican Bay who was sued by Noel and Knoller in a 1998 racketeering case that was dismissed, agreed. "They're fascinated by conspiracy theories, and they see them everywhere," he said.

How did two everyday, if not always quiet, financial attorneys fall into a hard-to-fathom world where they took up the banner of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., rogue guards and members of the Aryan Brotherhood? How did the lines become so blurred between attorney and client that they felt compelled to adopt the 38-year-old Schneider, a lifer with a bright mind and an artist's pen who once stabbed a guard and an attorney?

Whipple's death is the kind of urban nightmare that taps into many people's fears. But as details of the attack and Noel and Knoller's lives have trickled out over the last week, the case has become stranger still.

Perhaps the biggest mystery is how two attorneys twice honored by the San Francisco Bar Assn. for their advocacy for the homeless, could end up adopting Schneider and caring for two animals that investigators say were part of the inmate's plan to breed "dogs of war."

An expert in weapons manufacture and concealment, Schneider stands 6 foot 2, with a muscular body marked by bold tattoos, including the letters "AB" on his left hand and "White Supremacist" scrawled in German around his navel, according to James Aiello, his court-appointed private investigator.

A decade ago, Schneider stabbed Sacramento attorney Philip Cozens--whom he had lured to his courthouse jail cell with a polite note--because he didn't like the way Cozens was defending a fellow gang member.

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