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Zoned Out 

For her hot new dog-mauling book Red Zone, eye-pleasing author Aphrodite Jones re-created dialogue and scenes; her publisher and the Chron don't seem to mind

Wednesday, Aug 6 2003
The dedication that begins Red Zone, billed on its blood-colored cover as "the behind-the-scenes story of the San Francisco dog mauling," gives the first hint that the next 300 pages are bound to be a little kooky. "To Diane Alexis Whipple," writes author Aphrodite Jones, "whose sacrifice forces us to think about the relationship of Man and Animal, and consider our responsibility to animals, first on a domestic level, then globally."

It's a strange lesson, and an even stranger book, to come out of the sad death of Whipple, the women's lacrosse coach at St. Mary's College who was famously mauled in 2001 in the hallway outside her Pacific Heights apartment. The dogs that attacked her -- a rare breed of fighters called Presa Canarios -- belonged to Whipple's neighbors, two quirky, socialite attorneys named Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel. Knoller had struggled with the dogs as they set upon Whipple, who died shortly after the attack from deep wounds to her jugular, but authorities quickly concluded that Knoller had not struggled enough. In the coming months, as the two attorneys went on trial and were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, the world learned that Knoller and Noel kept the dogs in their tiny apartment at the behest of one of their clients, a state prison inmate named Paul "Cornfed" Schneider. Schneider, a kingpin in the Aryan Brotherhood, had actually been adopted by Knoller and Noel, who possessed a strange infatuation with the charming, sadistic inmate.

It's a story that gripped the world, and it certainly deserves a literary treatment.

Aphrodite Jones, a stunning 44-year-old former syndicated-features writer with an uncanny ability to sweet-talk law enforcement sources and look good on television, had five true-crime tomes to her eye-catching name (which she shares with her maternal grandmother) before turning her attention to the dog-mauling case. "Frankly, I found it to be surreal," says a weary Jones by phone from South Florida, the latest stop on her national book tour. "It was another O.J. The courtroom was packed, filled with wires, cameras, booms, flashing, insanity. I thought, 'Oh my God, this is a book.'"

Sort of. Red Zone is a tirelessly sensationalistic account of the dog-mauling tale, filled with the sort of trite rhetorical devices (the liberal use of italics, the inclusion of Diane Alexis Whipple's middle name to signify moments of high drama, an opening quote from the Book of Revelation) that typify slapdash crime books. To back up her claims, Jones cites some 15,000 documents, many of them sealed before Department of Corrections sources turned her on to them, including scandalous letters and photographs exchanged between the attorneys and Schneider. But Jones -- whose William Morrow publisher (an imprint of HarperCollins) has landed her countless media interviews, appearances on At Large With Geraldo Rivera and Court TV, and a fawning and credulous Datebook cover story in the San Francisco Chronicle -- reprints precious few of the documents she's gleaned, seldom attributes the sources for her contentions, and provides no index or footnotes. The slim-or-missing attribution becomes especially problematic because, as she acknowledges in an astonishing author's note at the conclusion of Red Zone, Jones "re-created" certain events and dialogue in the book. "I do this to give the reader the opportunity to be 'in the moment' while reading a real-life tale," she writes. In a recent interview, Jones said she feels free to crawl into characters' heads to reveal their innermost thoughts, re-creating scenes and dialogue she had not witnessed, because, "I'm a writer, and I know the difference between books and journalism."

Beyond the questionable sourcing and re-creations, Jones writes so badly, within a confounding nonlinear structure she refers to as "the puzzle," that she all but obfuscates the so-called bombshell of her book: Noel and Knoller were involved in a bizarre romantic triad with Paul Schneider, which might, just might, have included some less-than-wholesome interactions with dogs.

And what did Schneider think of Jones' conclusions? We don't know, because Jones decided not to talk to him. Here's her matter-of-fact explanation, verbatim: "I didn't want that man in my aura. Nowhere near my aura. Because then you're getting my essence."

Besides, Jones didn't need to interview a dangerous prison inmate to know everything she needed to know about the book's true main character: herself.

Born in Chicago and raised on Long Island, Jones got her first writing job reporting on celebrities for United Features Syndicate. When she got bored with interviewing famous people and writing often vapid stories about their often vapid lives, Jones earned a Ph.D. in literature, moved to Kentucky, and taught English at a local college. Meanwhile, she was sending manuscripts to New York publishers, one of whom eventually persuaded her to try her hand at true crime. Her first book, The FBI Killer, became a TV movie starring Patricia Arquette; her next, Cruel Sacrifice, which recounted the murder of a 12-year-old cheerleader, rose to No. 4 on the New York Times best-seller list. Jones hit the big time in 1996 with her book All She Wanted, the story of a 21-year-old Lincoln, Neb., girl named Teena, living as a man named Brandon, who was murdered along with two friends. The story led to the independent film Boys Don't Cry, which earned actress Hilary Swank an Academy Award and solidified Jones' reputation as an exhaustive researcher, bedeviling vixen, and relentless self-promoter.

By the time Jones started pitching a book about the dog-mauling case, editors in New York were well aware of her ability to sweep into courtrooms and turn sorrowful crimes into trashy profit. Henry Ferris, executive editor at HarperCollins, jumped at the chance to work with the skirt-wearing, smile-flashing, cell phone­dangling Jones, he says, and bought her idea because she promised a behind-the-scenes story that hadn't been told before.

"She's a pretty amazing investigative reporter," Ferris says from his office in New York. "She had done a lot of the research already, and once we bought the book from her, it was a matter of her sitting down to write it."

Ferris wasn't bothered by Jones' penchant for re-creating scenes, he says, because she's a "total and complete pro."

"There's nothing fictionalized about this book," Ferris insists. "And this book was vetted in the same way all of our books are vetted. Well, not all of our books -- we don't vet our fiction."

Still, some of the people who pop up in the book would seem to have legitimate reasons not to be pleased with Jones' work. Whipple's partner, Sharon Smith, who emerged from the case to advocate on behalf of gays and lesbians, refused to talk to Jones. Her attorney and spokesman, Michael Cardoza, says Jones would approach Smith during breaks in the trial, when Smith, after listening to more grisly testimony about her lover's death, was usually sobbing. "Aphrodite would come up at very inappropriate times and ask Sharon if she could talk," Cardoza says. "And I would say, 'No, Aphrodite. Go away.' Aphrodite alienated herself from the get-go."

It may be no coincidence, then, that Jones goes out of her way to strike an anti-Smith note throughout the book. Near the end, she writes: "No one who visited [Smith's] Tiburon home ever bothered to notice whether Diane Alexis Whipple's green marble urn was present ... or if anyone had noticed, they certainly made no mention of it in the press."

Cardoza sighs. "If you read that paragraph carefully, it says nobody mentioned the urn was there, and it gives the impression it wasn't." He sighs again. "Well, I've talked to five people who saw it. Why is Aphrodite saying this? She's just upset because Sharon wouldn't talk to her, and she's taking a cheap shot."

Jones has continued her incongruous anti-Smith tirades in interviews during her book tour. Because Smith is now pregnant and in a new relationship, Jones openly questions her prior commitment to Whipple; Cardoza calls those questions "offensive." But perhaps most tellingly, Jones aims her harshest criticism at Smith for her comments to the San Francisco Chronicle that she wouldn't read Red Zone because she had already "lived the story."

"What did she live?" Jones fumes from South Florida. "She didn't live any of this. Did she live in Pelican Bay Prison? I'm not trying to bash Sharon Smith, but she has no idea what this story is about."

On other points, Cardoza confirms much of what Jones wrote. She re-creates a private conversation between Cardoza and Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, wherein Cardoza urges Guilfoyle Newsom to step aside for a more experienced lead prosecutor. Cardoza says the re-creation is accurate, give or take "a few minor points." But he disputes Jones' claim that Smith fired her PR agent, who Jones writes was "so calculating and pushy that he reduced more than one news anchor to tears." In fact, Cardoza says, the publicist wasn't fired, and the only reporter he reduced to tears -- to the applause of daily journalists watching in a courtroom hallway -- was Aphrodite Jones.

Despite Jones' leaden, nonrhythmic writing ("Noel's act was really quite good, so the prosecutor decided to pull out all the ammunition, to wipe Noel's charming smile away," she writes on Page 259), some national publications have given Red Zone decent reviews. Certain reader comments on, however, are perhaps more perceptive:

"[I]t reads like a literary version of the Jerry Springer Show," writes one customer. "It's no wonder that none of Diane Whipple's friends or family members would cooperate with Jones. They probably smelled her coming a mile away." Says another: "There is nothing new in this book that wasn't already written about in the newspapers. The author devotes her whole 'career' to capitalizing on other people's tragedies. Disgraceful, self-serving trash."

On July 7, the Chronicle devoted its entire Datebook cover to a story about the release of Red Zone. The article, which plugged a book-signing by Jones that very evening, was headlined, "Dog-mauling author reveals world of lust in which attorneys lost control." The Chronicle published some photographs and excerpts from letters that Jones' publishers did not; otherwise, the story, by Chronicle Magazine writer Marianne Costantinou, may be most notable for its breathless, can-you-believe-it tone. After verifying the authenticity of pictures and letters Jones gave her with a law enforcement source, Costantinou presented Jones' conclusions and evidence as if they were gospel, never once mentioning the author's penchant for "dramatization" or her admission, in her own author's note, that she re-creates scenes and dialogue for the sake of narrative.

In an interview a few weeks after the story ran, Costantinou admitted she had misgivings about the reporting in the book, but didn't think her story was the place to raise them. "One of the things that did piss me off as a reporter was that there was no attribution, you never knew who the source was for all this stuff," said Costantinou, who somehow found herself in the four-page acknowledgement at the end of Red Zone, alongside Joan Didion, Norma Jean, and "the legacy of Lewis and Clark." "I don't read much nonfiction, but apparently that's a common device -- the re-creating of scenes."

Maybe, but perhaps a bit more detached skepticism on the part of the Chronicle would have spared it the wrath of its readers, who can clearly distinguish thinly sourced dramatization from real journalism.

"On the prurient-interest scale, I consider myself average," wrote Greta Heinemeier of Mountain View, one of several who sent letters to Datebook the week following the Red Zone story. "However, after reading a couple of paragraphs of your article about Knoller and Noel, I quit in profound disgust, not wanting to participate one more second in such utter trash. I have absolute disdain for everyone involved, from the prisoners, to the 'author,' to those involved at the Chronicle.

"Comparatively, the dogs started looking benign."

It's 5:30 p.m. in South Florida, and Melanie Bonvicino, personal assistant to Aphie (as everyone calls her), is about to dash to a party. But first she's trying to convince an SF Weekly reporter to run the same kinds of photos -- Marjorie Knoller in lingerie, sketches Schneider made of the unholy trinity -- that the Chronicle did. "What the Chronicle did was credibilize Aphrodite's story," Bonvicino explains. "The most important thing is the veracity. Aphrodite might not be an easy personality, but the truth is she's worth everything and then some."

When the reporter demurs, asking only to speak with Jones about her book, Bonvicino makes one last desperate pitch: "This could be a career-maker for you."

Jones' career needs no such help. In addition to her writing and TV commentary, she's become an animal advocate, speaking at wildlife centers and charity benefits about protecting natural habitats. "We need to start realizing we have a crisis on our hands, and my main message is that activists confuse and twist the issue of saving animals with the idea that we can't eat meat, or wear suede and leather," Jones says. "I wear fur and leather, I'll tell you right now. When I'm in Sundance, at the film festival, I wear a fur coat. I'm freezing, I'm thin, I need to have something around me."

She's fielding offers to write about other high-profile crimes, and poking around the Bonnie Lee Blakely murder, which actor Robert Blake has been accused of committing. "People have asked me again and again, 'Will I do Laci Peterson?' I'm not going to say I'm not going to do Laci Peterson, but I don't think I will ...." There's a long pause on the other end of the phone, as if she's contemplating whether the story is worth her acumen, whether it's worth becoming an "Aphrodite Jones story," with all that implies. "Then again," she says, her voice suddenly transformed into a breathy tease, "I might."

Lucky us.

About The Author

Matt Palmquist


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