Neighbors applaud guilty verdicts for Knoller and Noel

By Ron Harris, The Associated Press
Friday March 22, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO — All was quiet in front of Diane Whipple’s apartment house Thursday — no flowers, no cards, just a handwritten note taped near the front entrance. 

“Justice! Diane & Sharon. We are with you,” it read. 

Neighbors and friends of Whipple, incensed for more than a year about the dog mauling that left the lacrosse coach dead at her doorstep, reacted emotionally when a jury found the animals’ caretakers guilty on all five charges they faced. 

Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, San Francisco attorneys who kept the dogs for two California prison inmates, were convicted by a Los Angeles jury despite their claims they had no idea the dogs, Bane and Hera, would turn into killers. 

Neighbors applauded the verdict, calling it swift justice for the Jan. 26, 2001, death of Whipple. Both Knoller and Noel were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and having a mischievous dog that killed someone. Knoller also was found guilty of second-degree murder. 

“I’m satisfied. Justice has been served. Now we can start with closure to this,” said Ed Nahigian, a cobbler who works a few blocks away from the building where Whipple was killed. 

Nahigian knew Noel, Knoller, Whipple and her partner, Sharon Smith, as customers to his shoe repair store. Noel and Knoller lived down the hallway from Whipple. Nahigian also said the judge in the case is a customer. 

“I pray that he gives the maximum sentence to these two individuals because in my opinion, and I knew everybody involved here, they deserve it. They really deserve it,” Nahigian said. “Diane Whipple’s memory will live with me in my mind and my heart until I die.” 

Nahigian testified to the grand jury that he “felt overwhelmed” by one of the couple’s huge presa canarios on one occasion. 

Mark Dobson reflected on the case at his home accessories store, Dobson Gray. His 170-pound great Dane, Joseph, was tied to a pole and lounged outside on a piece of bedding, eating biscuits. Dobson said justice had been served. 

“I think it was quite fair. What’s absurd about this whole case is that individuals would have two dogs trained to kill living in a residential apartment,” Dobson said. 

He anticipated harsher laws for dog owners in San Francisco and beyond. 

“I think it was just a bomb waiting to go off,” Dobson said. 

Christy Davidge was a member of Whipple’s lacrosse team at nearby St. Mary’s College for more than a year. She said the coach left a lasting impression on the team, and the guilty verdicts will not totally ease the pain of losing Whipple. 

“I think that personally, either way whatever had happened with the trial, it’s not going to bring her back to us,” Davidge said, speaking on behalf of her fellow team members. “I think she had us look at life a little differently, and when you looked at it through her eyes and saw how much she loved life, it affected us all.” 

In December 2000, Whipple hired her friend, Sarah Miller, to serve as an assistant coach for the Gaels’ lacrosse team. Miller said Thursday she was relieved with the jury’s verdict. 

“I’m very happy with the outcome,” Miller said. “I feel very happy and very relieved with the verdict of guilty across the board. They got what they deserved.” 

Silence and tension filled a room at the city’s largest gay community center, where onlookers leaned forward on the edge of their seats to hear the verdict on television. Whipple was a lesbian, and Knoller’s lawyer charged during the trial that her client was prosecuted in large part because of pressure from the gay community. 

Ruth Herring, development director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, lit a single candle and held it aloft before the verdict was read. After the fifth guilty verdict was announced, Herring placed the candle on top of the television set. 

The candle was lit as a remembrance of Whipple’s life, Herring said. 

“Her death was a horror. No one can erase that,” Herring said. “Sharon chose to make it mean something. This is very, very big for all of us.” 

San Francisco’s gay community rallied around Whipple’s surviving partner as she lobbied for changes in the law that would allow her to file a wrongful death suit and seek damages from the laywer couple and the owners of the apartment building where the attack occurred. 

Carl Friedman, director of the city’s animal care and control department, said the verdict should send a warning message to careless owners to keep big dogs on a short leash. 

“If you’re a landlord, I think landlords are going to think twice about renting to people that might have big dogs,” he said. 

Friedman also said responsible owners of large dogs should take them to veterinarians or animal behaviorists and work with problem animals. 

“This is a wake-up call for everybody,” Friedman said.