- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

LOS ANGELES (AP) A woman who witnessed the fatal mauling of Diane Whipple through the peephole of her apartment described the horrifying scene in court yesterday 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 barking and cries for help. When she peered through the peephole, she said, she saw a body on the floor and a dark shadow that looked like a dog.

She said she watched for two to three minutes before calling 911 and telling the dispatcher, "I think they're attacking the owner, too."

The dogs' owners, Marjorie Knoller, 46, and Robert Noel, 60, are on trial in the death of Miss Whipple, 33. Their powerful presa canario dogs killed the college lacrosse coach in the hall outside her apartment last year.

Mrs. Knoller, who was with the dogs when Miss Whipple was attacked, is charged with second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and having a mischievous animal that killed a human. Mr. Noel, her husband, faces the latter two charges.

Attorneys for the couple said that the dogs' behavior was unexpected and that Mrs. Knoller was injured trying to stop the attack.

Mrs. Knoller's attorney, Nedra Ruiz, suggested during cross-examination that the shadow Miss Birkmaier saw was not a dog but Mrs. Knoller throwing her body over Miss Whipple to protect her.

Miss 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.

Miss Birkmaier said she heard something hit her door and feared the dogs might break into her apartment. She rejected Miss Ruiz's suggestion that the sound was Mrs. Knoller banging on the door to get her attention.

Miss 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, the couple repeatedly insisted that the 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.

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