His Grisly Past Unveiled, Silicon Valley's Mr. Nice Guy Is Identified as An Escaped Killer

updated 06/25/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/1984 01:00AM

Mavis Noble sobbed as she recalled visiting her husband in the San Francisco County Jail two days after his arrest. "This isn't a place for you," he said to her. Replied Mavis, "This isn't a place for you either." Separated by a glass partition and speaking through a jailhouse phone, he urged her to "get a divorce and forget me." But Mavis cried, "How can I forget somebody who has been so good to me? I'm not going to divorce Mike Noble. And I wasn't married to Walter Parman."

The tragedy is that Mavis Noble, 51, was married to Parman and, up until two weeks ago, did not know it. "Mike Noble" was a fictitious identity concocted by her husband of almost six years to conceal a dreadful secret.

On the morning of June 4, two federal marshals forever closed the gap between the twin selves of Walter Parman when they walked into the office of the man known as Mike Noble at the Shugart Corp. in San Jose and arrested him. In September 1972 Parman had escaped from the Lorton Reformatory in Virginia, where he had served six years of a life sentence for the mutilation slaying of a 32-year-old State Department secretary. He had avoided recapture by assuming the false identity of Mike Noble. "I asked him if he ever thought this day would come," said Roger Olmanson, one of the marshals who seized the graying, 51-year-old Parman. "He said, 'I tried never to think about it.' He was just stunned."

More stunned were the friends of Michael Noble. By their lights, Noble was a regular guy with a loving wife and a generous heart. He was a $50,000-a-year executive in a Silicon Valley computer firm. He read TIME and Business Week, gave to United Way, voted Democratic and served as cheerleader for the 24 men and women who worked under him in the receiving department. "He was always there when you needed him," says Maria Wasoski, 38, who met Parman in 1973. "How do you describe a father, a brother, an uncle and a best friend?" Adds Maria's husband, Gary, 37, "He helped us move to every house we lived in. He came to our baby's christening. He wanted to lend us money when we needed it. I don't care about his past." And yet, some friends glimpsed a deep sadness in the man: "You'd catch him at certain moments," recalls Dona May Law, "and you'd see something was eating his heart out."

He might have fooled others, but Walter Parman was haunted by his past. Born in the Philippines, Parman was 5 when his family moved to Cincinnati. Orphaned at 12, he was shunted to a foster home. Beginning a lifelong pattern of flight, he soon ran away and was twice jailed for passing bad checks. He enlisted in the Air Force, but says he was drummed out about a year later when his fraud convictions became known.

Parman says he hastily married his pregnant girlfriend, Sherron Kluz, in Providence, R.I. in 1961 and moved to the Minneapolis area. Though he describes the marriage as "unhappy," he claims to have become depressed over the couple's 1964 breakup and his separation from his two baby daughters. "I left and was shaking so bad, I downed a bottle of whiskey and passed out in a motel room."

Two weeks later, on Jan. 9, 1965, the despondent Parman met secretary Shirley Ann Cary in a Washington, D.C. bar and graduated to murder. He says he came to his senses about 48 hours later in Youngstown, Ohio. "I was trying to piece together what had happened. I was reading the newspapers, saw that I was wanted for the crime, got scared and ran." Three weeks after the crime Parman was arrested in Los Angeles. Tried in Washington, D.C., he claimed innocence by reason of insanity. The jury didn't buy it.

A failure as a free man, Parman was a resounding success as a prisoner. He edited the prison newspaper and became something of an expert on crime. Intelligent and articulate, he would occasionally lecture on criminal justice outside the prison walls. Yet he says he never considered escape until a fateful conversation with the prison psychologist. "He told me," Parman says, "because of the publicity and the type of crime, I would never make parole. I refused to accept it. I elected to parole myself." Parman used rub-on letters to create a George Washington University letterhead. He then invited himself to lecture to a college class. He was accompanied to the bogus occasion by a prison escort, who trusted him to fetch a parking pass. Parman was home free.

He reached Silicon Valley in January 1973. At first calling himself John Perkins, he dyed his hair, trimmed his eyebrows and grew a pencil-thin mustache. Within three years he began looking for a new name. Poring over microfilm at the San Jose Public Library, he found a news item about a baby boy who'd been born in Yakima, Wash, on Sept. 23, 1939 and who'd died eight months later in San Jose. He bought a copy of the death certificate ("a matter of public record," he notes) and with that document obtained a copy of the infant's birth certificate. Walter Parman was now Mike Noble. He was hired in November 1977 as a component inspector by the Shugart Corp., a Xerox subsidiary that manufactures computer disc drives.

He never came close to being arrested during his years of freedom, although he was twice stopped by traffic police in California and Nevada. "I didn't think of myself as a criminal," he says. "And as a noncriminal I was free." It was this feeling that he no longer was Walter Parman—a man, Mike Noble will tell you, he reviles and believes should have been incarcerated—that led to his recapture. In February an unidentified tipster called the FBI to say he'd seen the fugitive, plain as day, at an electronics conference in Santa Clara.

Parman now faces another 10 years in prison, plus a possible term for the escape, before he can be considered for parole. "All I can do is throw myself on the mercy of the court," he says. But this time things are different: Parman is taking the better part of someone with him. Mavis Noble knew him as a "model husband" who made it possible for her to return to nursing school, who supported her through surgeries to alleviate her arthritis, who just two months ago moved from Santa Clara to the hot San Joaquin Valley city of Modesto, a 90-minute drive from his work place, hoping that the climate would soothe her pain. A simple and trusting woman, Mavis is financially strapped and understandably confused. "I really loved him. I still do," she says. When she visited her husband in jail, she asked, "Did you marry me to use me, or did you really love me?" Mike Noble replied that he married her because he loved her. He said that Parman had once wanted to run, but Mike Noble couldn't bring himself to do it.

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