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Veterinarian Says He Warned That Dogs Constituted a Danger

Trial: Witness in fatal mauling case says he wrote a cautionary letter to one of the owners 10 months before the attack.

February 21, 2002|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A veterinarian testified Wednesday that he warned an owner of two Presa Canario dogs of their violent nature 10 months before the animals mauled a San Francisco woman to death.

Dr. Donald Martin, testifying in the trial of two dog owners charged in connection with the fatal mauling, told jurors that for the first time in his 49 years of practice, he felt compelled to write a letter about the possibility of the dogs' hurting someone.

In the letter, Martin said the dogs, each of which weighed more than 100 pounds, were difficult to vaccinate, had not been trained and would be a liability in any household.

"I felt concerned," the veterinarian told jurors in Los Angeles Superior Court. "I felt that these dogs had a potential of being very serious."

Martin said the dogs were massive and aggressive, adding, "These dogs could do bodily damage."

But defense attorneys suggested in their cross-examination that the dogs, Bane and Hera, were merely rambunctious because they had been chained and confined by their previous owner, Janet Coumbs.

The dogs attacked and killed Diane Whipple, a 33-year-old lacrosse coach, outside her Pacific Heights apartment door in January 2001.

The dogs' owners, Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, both attorneys, face charges of involuntary manslaughter and keeping a mischievous dog. Knoller also faces a charge of second-degree murder because she was in the apartment hallway when Whipple was attacked.

Prosecutors argue that Knoller and Noel ignored more than two dozen warnings and prior incidents. The dogs had bitten or lunged at several other people, including Whipple, prosecutors said during opening statements Tuesday.

Defense attorneys, however, maintain that the attack on Whipple was unexpected and could not have been prevented. Knoller's attorney said her client risked her life trying to save Whipple during the attack.

Coumbs, a Northern California woman who kept the dogs on her farm until April 2000, also testified Wednesday that she told Knoller and Noel that the dogs weren't safe. They tore through fences, broke free of chains and destroyed dog houses on her four-acre farm, Coumbs said.

"It was a nightmare," she said.

Coumbs testified that she told the couple that Hera had killed her chickens, sheep and a cat and should have been destroyed. But she admitted feeling that, despite his behavior, the other dog, Bane, was a part of her family.

The dogs were put to death after the fatal mauling.

Coumbs testified that she bred and raised the dogs at the urging of a state prison inmate she befriended. She told jurors that the inmate, Paul Schneider, suggested she buy the dogs, breed them and sell the pups to make money.

Coumbs said she didn't know that Schneider was considered a member of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang or that he had allegedly set up a Web site advertising the killer dogs.

Prosecutors say the two defendants are associates of the white supremacist gang and participated in the scheme to breed, raise and train the dogs.

Soon after Coumbs obtained the dogs, she testified, Schneider became angry at her for not sending enough pictures and for making "wusses" of them.

Knoller and Noel took the dogs to their San Francisco apartment as a result of a lawsuit, and later adopted Schneider as their son.

Coumbs is now in the witness protection program.

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