Published January 13, 2015
A woman who witnessed the fatal dog-mauling of Diane Whipple through the peephole of her apartment described the horrifying scene in court Wednesday and said she heard the dogs' owner yelling, "Get off!" and "No, no, no!"
Esther Birkmaier, 78, was calm and detailed as she described hearing bark're attacking the owner, too."
The dogs' owners, Marjorie Knoller, 46, and Robert Noel, 60, are on trial in the death of Whipple, 33. Their powerful Presa Canario dogs killed the college lacrosse coach in the hall outside her apartment last year.
After Birkmaier testified, prosecutors called the first police officer on the scene to identify photos showing Whipple's badly mauled body. Jurors saw pictures of the woman's gnawed neck, puncture wounds on her legs, buttocks and abdomen and blood streaked along her arms. She died shortly after the attack.
Whipple's mother, who was seated in a front row of the courtroom, left in tears. Knoller and Noel averted their eyes, and some jurors looked away.
San Francisco police Sgt. Leslie Forestal testified she found Whipple in the hall trying to crawl toward her apartment.
"I told her to please be still, we had an ambulance en route and to try to be calm," Forestal said.
The officer said she drew her gun because no one was sure where the dogs were. Then, she testified, an apartment door opened and Knoller stepped out. When the officers asked about the dogs, she said they were in her apartment. Forestal said she saw no wounds on Knoller, though one sleeve of her sweatshirt was torn.
Knoller is charged with second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and having a mischievous animal that killed a human. Noel, who was not there when the attack occurred, faces the latter two charges.
Attorneys for the couple have argued the dogs' behavior was unexpected and that Knoller was injured trying to stop the attack.
Knoller's attorney, Nedra Ruiz, suggested during cross-examination Wednesday that the shadow Birkmaier saw was not a dog but Knoller throwing her body over Whipple to protect her.
Birkmaier admitted her view was limited, but said, "As I was looking through the peephole, all I thought about was a victim on the floor and a dog."
She described hearing the dogs barking and growling, and then hearing someone yelling, "Get off!" and "No, no, no!"
"It was loud and shrill, and I recognized it to be Marjorie's voice," she said.
Birkmaier, who had lived in the apartment building for decades, said she feared the two dogs, each of which weighed more than 100 pounds.
"I made every effort to avoid them," she said. "I had told Mr. Noel and Ms. Knoller of my fear of dogs and they respected that. If I saw them in the lobby, they told me to take the elevator, and they held the dogs back."
In grand jury testimony, Knoller and Noel repeatedly insisted their dogs had never lunged at anyone, never bit anyone and never acted aggressively toward people.
Prosecutors have called nearly 30 witnesses to testify about frightening encounters with the dogs, though none of the witnesses had been injured and none filed any kind of complaint.