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Dog Attack Scene Is Described

Trial: Neighbor, who says she was 'panic-stricken,' testifies she saw a dark object on top of victim while watching through peephole in door.

February 28, 2002|STEVE BERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An elderly woman who lived across the hall from San Francisco dog mauling victim Diane Whipple testified Wednesday that she heard a barking dog and panicky pleas for help just moments before she saw a "dark object" covering a body lying on the floor outside her door.

Esther Birkmaier said she was looking through the peephole in her door when she saw what looked like a dog covering the body of Whipple, who was lying face-down in the hallway.

Later, during cross-examination by a defense attorney, she said the dark object could have been the figure of the dog's owner, Marjorie Knoller, whose attorney has said she tried to save Whipple by covering Whipple's body with her own.

Although Birkmaier never saw the dog biting Whipple, she provided riveting descriptions of the terror she felt as she listened to cries of "Help me! Help me!" the sounds of the snarling dog and Knoller frantically yelling, "Get off! Get off!"

"I was sort of panic-stricken," Birkmaier said, explaining that she didn't open her door for fear she would be attacked. At one point, something, which she assumed was a dog, crashed against her door with such force that she feared it would give way, Birkmaier said.

Whipple, 33, a college lacrosse coach, was mauled by two large Presa Canario dogs as she tried to enter her sixth-floor apartment Jan. 26, 2001, in San Francisco. One of the dogs, Bane, tore into her neck, and the other, Hera, ripped at her clothes. Whipple was still alive when police arrived, but was bleeding profusely as she lay on the hallway floor with her clothes stripped off by the attacking dogs.

One of the officers, Inspector Leslie Forrestal, testified in Los Angeles Superior Court Wednesday that Whipple attempted to crawl to her apartment until the officer told her to lie still. She died at the hospital.

Knoller, 46, and her husband, Robert Noel, 60, are charged with involuntary manslaughter and keeping a mischievous dog. Noel was not in the apartment building at the time of the attack. Knoller also faces a second-degree murder charge and could receive a sentence of 15 years to life. Noel faces a possible sentence of four years.

The trial was moved from San Francisco because of intense publicity the case was receiving in the Bay Area. Prosecutors allege that the couple, both of whom are lawyers, knew that their massive dogs, each weighing more than 100 pounds, were dangerous, and that Knoller didn't do anything to prevent Whipple's death.

Defense attorneys Nedra Ruiz and Bruce Hotchkiss say the dogs were not vicious and describe the attack as an unexpected, tragic accident. They said their clients were responsible owners and that Knoller was bitten and bruised as she tried desperately to stop the dogs.

In testimony Wednesday, a paramedic said she treated a minor cut on Knoller's thumb and that her clothes, face and hair were matted with blood.

Birkmaier told jurors she was drawn to her door by loud barking and a woman's voice she did not recognize pleading for help.

During questioning by Assistant Dist. Atty. Jim Hammer, she said that as she peered through the peephole, she saw a portion of Whipple's body lying in the hallway with groceries scattered about.

Although she told Hammer she thought a dark object on top of the body was that of a dog, she conceded during Ruiz's questioning that she never saw the object move, bite the victim or rip at her clothing. Birkmaier acknowledged Wednesday that in police interviews subsequent to the attack, she never referred to the object as a dog. Knoller was wearing a dark blue sweatshirt and sweatpants at the time of the attack.

Hammer then pointed out that Birkmaier, in her initial statements to police and her personal notes on the incident, said she saw a dog on top of Whipple and didn't even refer to a "dark object."

After seeing Whipple on the floor, Birkmaier said she rushed to her kitchen to call police. While in the kitchen, she heard Knoller trying to stop the attack, yelling, "No! No!" at one point and "Get off! Get off!" and "Stop! Stop!" at other times.

After calling police, she went back to her door. "Finally, the barking stopped, the growling stopped and then there was silence," Birkmaier said.

A few minutes later, police, paramedics and dog control officers arrived. Forrestal described the bloody scene, displaying photos of Whipple's body and the blood-drenched hallway carpet and walls. Animal control officer Michael Scott testified that he and a fellow officer had trouble taking custody of the dogs.

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