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Burden of Proof

Dog Mauling Case: Tale of Brutal Killing, Canine Breeding Business Run From Behind Bars

Aired February 5, 2001 - 12:34 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: A San Francisco woman is mauled to death by a 120-pound dog which was allegedly bred to be a killer.

Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: the bizarre tale of a brutal killing, the adoption of a 38-year-old white supremacist prisoner, and a dog- breeding business run from behind bars.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TERRENCE HALLINAN, SAN FRANCISCO DISTRICT ATTORNEY: Something happened here that shouldn't have happened, that a violation of the criminal law took place, but that could go from a misdemeanor to a homicide.

ROBERT NOEL, DOG OWNER: An individual has an obligation to take actions that a reasonable person would take to avoid a perceived risk of injury. All she had to do was close her door. Instead, for whatever reason, she came back out in the hall.

JOHN KAYE, NEIGHBOR: I think he's taking the typical -- stereotypical lawyer response, try to get out from under it and blame the victim.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSSACK: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. Greta is off today.

Ten days ago, as a 33-year-old woman was entering her Pacific Heights apartment, she was killed in a bloody dog attack. Now, the mauling was so horrific that San Francisco police officers on the scene had to receive trauma counseling.

Diane Whipple, a college lacrosse coach was returning from a jog. And she was attacked by one of two Canary Island mastiffs. Now, the two canines were being kept for a 38-year-old white supremacist prisoner by his recently adoptive parents. Marjorie Knoller, one of the dog's keepers, was at the scene of the attack.

Now, late last week, her husband, Robert Noel, placed the blame in the attack on the victim, claiming Whipple struck his wife and didn't close her door quickly enough. He also accused the victim of taking steroids which would allegedly alter the smell of her sweat, and would cause the dog to attack.

Joining us to discuss this unusual case is San Francisco District Attorney Terry Hallinan -- Terrence Hallinan. And he's in our San Francisco bureau. And from Chicago: Dr. Gail Golab of the American Veterinary Medical Association. And here in Washington, Brian Jones, (ph) criminal defense attorney Richard Heideman, and Laura Custer (ph). And in the back: Holly Altendorf (ph) and Mary Jo Peterson (ph). And also joining us from San Francisco is CNN correspondent James Hattori.

James, the facts of this case are at least what caused the death are, you know, pretty well-known. Dogs -- these vicious dogs apparently got loose and killed Ms. Whipple.

But what do we know about the keepers of the dog, the background of the dog in this strange connection with these prisoners that are serving time in the California prison system?

JAMES HATTORI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, the couple that had custody of the dog here in San Francisco, two lawyers, you mentioned Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, they had the dogs for about three months. They apparently obtained it from one of their clients, the man you referred to who's in prison, John Paul Schneider, up in Pelican Bay.

He -- you know, a lot of this information is still becoming public. But he apparently was in an operation, breeding these Canary Island mastiff. They're also -- they're also called Presa Canaria dogs. Medium-size dogs that initially, a long time ago, were bred as fighting dogs.

So this inmate behind bars was running an operation to breed these dogs for profit, apparently. The two attorneys, Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, took custody of these two dogs for the past three months, keeping them in their apartment in Pacific Heights.

There had been, apparently, as we are learning now, a succession of incidents involving aggressive behavior by these dogs. And I'm sure Mr. Hallinan would be able to address to what extent culpability for those incidents will rest on these two lawyers.

COSSACK: James, let's talk -- let's talk a little about the history of these dogs. Bizarre enough to think about prisoners involved in a breeding system -- but -- breeding scheme.

But didn't these dogs -- weren't they -- before they were placed with the Noels -- Mr. Noel and Mrs. Knoller, weren't they with someone else who had a farm, if you will, in California and became aware that these dogs were really much too vicious to be kept around domestic -- other domesticated pets or live stocks?

HATTORI: Well, over the weekend, in fact before the California connection, the original breeder was in Illinois, in the Chicago area, I believe. And he was quoted over the weekend as saying that he was shocked that these dogs would end up in this kind of circumstance. Obviously he does not think they were bred -- he did not breed them for fighting.

These dogs by nature are not necessarily overly aggressive. They are somewhat aloof. But they have -- they can be trained under the right circumstances, like any dog, to be very aggressive.

And so whether or not -- I guess the question is: At what point were they -- did they obtain this aggressive behavior if, in fact, they were trained to fight?

COSSACK: Right.

Terrence Hallinan, you're going to be the one that has to make a decision as to what charges, if any, are brought against the keepers of this dog, or in fact the eventual owners -- the gentleman in prison if you prove that.

HALLINAN: Right.

COSSACK: What kind of charges are you looking at?

HALLINAN: Well, we are looking at a whole panoply of charges. There's misdemeanor having to do with two dog bites.

There are two felonies which are the principal ones we are looking at. One of which is Mischievous Dog section of the law, 399, having to do with having a dangerous dog and negligently failing to restrain it and injuring someone.

And then the other section, which is the attack dog section, that if a dog has been raised to be an attack dog and that the owner knows it's a dangerous dog, and they have failed to take reasonable precautions to protect people from it, that then those are both felonies.

Now, both of them have this other side, which the lawyer family seems to be -- the lawyers seem to be talking about, which is that the victim has to take reasonable care -- precautions to care for themselves.

And then, of course, there're homicide charges that could ensue from it as well.

COSSACK: Terrence, you know, we have a killing here by apparently these two dogs who, you know, acted out in a way that is -- can be described as nothing less than vicious.

What exactly do you have to prove? I mean, it would seem to me that the owners and their responsibility here is going to lie with the keepers when you have two dogs who act out in such a vicious way. There has to be some protection for your citizens.

HALLINAN: Well, "vicious" is understatement. The poor woman, all she had left on her was one stocking. And the coroner says there were more places where he can say she wasn't bit. And he could say she was bit.

I agree with you. I believe that these owners were criminally negligent in their failure to take care of the dogs.

But can we prove it? Can we find the evidence? We're out scouring the town now, trying to find other people who had similar unfortunate experiences with these dogs.

COSSACK: Terrence, let me just interrupt, ask you a question briefly.

If in fact you found that these owners knew that this dog had this kind of vicious propensity, and if in fact you found that the woman who was taking care of the dogs, was holding the dogs, acted in a negligent way, could you bring some kind of a second-degree murder charge on this?

HALLINAN: Second-degree murder is a difficult -- you enter into a difficult area because it has to be inherently dangerous and in that specific instance.

But certainly, there are -- there are -- there are manslaughter charges would be available in this case.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

When we come back, a look at the breed of dog some people call a "land shark." Don't go away.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

A federal judge has ruled that a woman is entitled to sue a former professor for sexual harassment for repeatedly referring to her as "Monica Lewinsky." The professor has since retired from teaching at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: Ten days ago, a 33-year-old woman was attacked and killed by a dog just outside her San Francisco apartment. The dog, which was put down after the attack, was a 120-pound Canary Island bull mastiff named Bane.

Joining us now is Dr. Gale Golab.

Dr. Golab, tell us about these -- this particular bred of animal. And is it inherently vicious?

DR. GAIL GOLAB, AMERICAN VETERINARY MEDICAL ASSOCIATION: There really is any particular breed that's inherently vicious. This particular breed was actually originated back in about the 16th century. And it was originally spread from a Spanish dog and crossed with a English mastiff, and became the Canary Island dog. It was typically used for herding cattle, and also was used for protection in some instances.

COSSACK: OK, so how does this -- how do these dogs then suddenly go from what you've just described to engaging in killing this -- in a very vicious way, this innocent woman?

GOLAB: Well, the tendency, if any dog to bite, depends upon six different factors. One of those is genetic. And certainly in more recent years, these dogs have become bred more for fighting purposes. And so that's something that needs to be considered.

The second one of those things is the dog's early experience. Socialization and training play a huge role in whether or not a dog will end up biting in a particular situation.

Victim behavior is a factor.

The medical and behavioral health of the dog is a factor.

And also environment cues can play a big role in setting up a situation where a dog may bite; whereas in a similar situation in a different environment, it may not.

COSSACK: Is there a way that this dog would just -- or these dogs would just have snapped, and that there would be no notice that its keepers would have had, if they had a particularly vicious or aggressive animal on their hands?

GOLAB: Well, that's a really, really difficult question to answer, because there basically are somewhere between 15 and 22 different types of aggression, depending upon what system you use.

In most instances, there are warnings of some kind. Unfortunately, a lot of individuals are not cognizant of K-9 behavioral signals, because they are very different from what behavioral signals would be on a human. And so they're not as able to recognize them and not as able to respond if they are not cognizant of those.

COSSACK: Well...

GOLAB: So it really depends upon what instigated the attack.

COSSACK: Well, in terms of instigating the attack, I mean, doesn't that assume that there was something that instigated the attack? I mean, what I'm -- what we're suggesting is that perhaps there was nothing that instigated this attack; that these animals just attacked.

GOLAB: Well, it -- that actually -- that particular situation is actually fairly rare. What usually happens is what people think are unprovoked attacks, are actually attacks set up environmentally or set up in a situation in which they occur, people don't recognize what those situational cues might be.

It might be something as simple as a dog that is not comfortable in a smaller, confined space. Or maybe something in terms of the dog's training, where there's some type of cue that's unrecognized and under that situation that dog has been trained to attack.

COSSACK: Terrence, what do you know, as obviously the prosecutor in this case, that is going to -- in your background and your investigation so far that is going -- you're going to be able to prove about the background of these animals and this connection within alleged training to be fighting dogs?

HALLINAN: Well, actually, we-- I can't say what we do know and what we don't know. I can say what we are looking for, what we are trying to obtain evidence of.

We are concerned under these two statutes I was talking about, the mischievous dogs and the attack dogs. One is there are a record of that -- of other attacks that the owners knew or should have known about. And, two, were the dogs in fact trained as attack dogs, trained to fight or attack or kill? That's the statue.

COSSACK: But Terrence...

HALLINAN: That's what we are looking at.

COSSACK: ... wasn't your in investigation that had been done previously to this -- previous to this attack, an investigation into this gentleman and his friends in the prison, this alleged member of the Aryan Brotherhood, who was conducting this training, if you will, as a dog fighting training outside of the prison, wasn't there an investigation done concluded that that in fact had occurred?

HALLINAN: Well, there was an investigation by the California Department of Corrections. They did determine that there was a gang, Aryan Brotherhood gang in the Pelican Bay State Prison that was using training -- using middle men or -- and lawyers to train attack dogs for them that they plan to sell to get money -- to use for their commissary.

But to what extent it applies to these specific dogs in this specific case is a different thing. And as you know, we can't prove a case on generality.

COSSACK: And I think it's only fair that we should add Mr. Robert Noel and Marian (ph) Knoller, the keepers of these dogs, were in no way incriminated in that investigation of what was going on by these guys in prison.

They didn't come back and find these people were involved at all, did they, Mr. Hallinan?

HALLINAN: That's my understanding.

COSSACK: All right.

Doctor, I want to back to what kind of training these dogs would have to receive to make them be that kind of vicious. And what I'm particularly interested in is that kind of sustained viciousness, that, you know, perhaps a dog might bite you or nip at you. But this kind of sustained, almost killing viciousness. What does that do? GOLAB: Well, it -- the type of training that you are looking at here is the similar type of training you would be looking at when you would train any kind of a guard dog for protection. That would be one component of it.

Another component of it would be trying to exacerbate any type of prey aggression that might be present.

The important thing to remember is that a guard dog that's trained that way can actually be a very safe dog, as long as its owners is cognizant of the situation into which it's being placed.

And so just because a dog is trained as a guard dog doesn't necessarily mean that it will -- that it will attack without some kind of a warning.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

Up next: Who do you prosecute in a case like this, and how do you defend? And on what charges do you prosecute?

Don't go away.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: Why has a judge ordered a Pennsylvania woman to wear a badge that reads "Convicted Shoplifter" for the next year anytime she goes shopping?

A: She has been convicted of shoplifting on four occasions. The woman was also fined $100 and given 12 months probation.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: On Friday, one of the keepers of the dog, which mauled the woman to death, placed the blame on the victim. Robert Noel, an attorney, said the woman charged toward his wife and didn't close her apartment door quickly enough.

Noel also accused the victim of taking steroids, causing her to sweat, to carry an odor which incited the 120-pound dog to attack.

All right, Richard, I want to put you on the defense table. This is obviously a very difficult case. How would you go about defending in this case?

RICHARD HEIDEMAN, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: The first thing, Roger, that I would tell these clients is they have to forget that they are lawyers. And they have to be quiet because they are out there saying things that shouldn't be said.

The burden of proving someone guilty is the burden of the prosecution, the burden of the government. Under our constitution, they are presumed to be innocent. The more they say, the more they are laying out a path for the prosecution to follow.

And this case has some very bizarre turns to it. You have here two lawyers, licensed, former government attorneys, now apparently in private practice.

COSSACK: Who would adopt this person in prison?

HEIDEMAN: They adopted a 38-year-old member of the Aryan Brotherhood, which is known to be one of the most violent, racist, anti-semitic gangs in prison, and linked to the Aryan Nation outside of the prison. It's a very dangerous situation.

COSSACK: Who allegedly are running this dog training business to teach the dogs to be attack dog. And now, these end up with these dogs. Doesn't that make it sort of implied that they had some knowledge?

HEIDEMAN: Well, intent will have to be proven. The point is they have to let the government develop their case and then come back with appropriate defenses. The more they continue to lay out all of...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Things.

HEIDEMAN: ... the more they're doing the government's job, including excuses, the more the public will turn against them and the easier for the government to prove them guilty.

COSSACK: All right, we've got -- that's all the time we have for today.

In our society, we refer to dogs to as man's best friend. But we also call them dumb animals. As much as we have a tendency to humanize our pets, we really have no idea when and if an animal could become vicious. In fact, the ultimate responsibility for their care lies with their owners. And that's where the law comes in.

If Mrs. Knoller and Mr. Noel knew that Bane and Hera were animals that could be vicious and could not be trusted, then they must be treated as alleged criminals just as if they were leaving loaded guns for children to play with.

In a civilized society, all of us must take responsibility for what we do, whether it be raising our children or making sure our pets are not dangerous.

I'm Roger Cossack. Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching.

Today on "TALKBACK LIVE," the Holyland theme park: celebration, education or exploitation? Send your e-mail and tune into 3:00 p.m. Eastern time.

And join me again tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

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