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."