Although often referred to as “routine,” cops will tell you that traffic stops can be fraught with danger.
Traffic on the road aside, the person the officer pulled over for speeding, a broken taillight, or an expired license plate could be a criminal with no qualms about killing an officer.
Such was the case for Washington State Patrol Trooper Charles Frank Noble Jr., who was killed on February 5, 1972 after stopping a car.
His death at the hands of a prison inmate while on furlough would prompt changes to the state’s furlough program and give a young Yakima attorney a life’s work.
Noble was born on December 10, 1929 in Sacramento to Charles Frank Noble Sr. and Effie May Hayes. His family moved along the west coast during his childhood. In 1948 he graduated from high school in Vancouver.
In 1950, Noble enlisted in the US Navy and served during the Korean War. It was around this time that he married his first wife, Betty Gill. After serving in the Navy, Noble took classes at Clark College and worked as an apprentice electrician and for a railroad.
Noble joined the Washington State Patrol on November 4, 1957 and started out as a driver’s license examiner in Vancouver. He graduated from the State Patrol Academy as part of the 27th Trooper Cadet Class and received his commission on April 21, 1958.
Originally assigned to Renton, Noble transferred to the Sunnyside branch of the State Patrol in 1969, around the time he married his second wife, Marie.
Noble completed his watch on the evening of February 5, 1972 at a traffic stop on US Highway 12 in Zillah. Noble had just arrested the car’s driver, Michael D. Bergevin, on suspicion of drunk driving after he failed a field sobriety test, and returned to contact co-driver Robert Lee Clark.
Clark, 25, of Toppenish, was on leave from Washington State Penitentiary where he was serving a sentence for auto theft and was scheduled for parole in October 1972. The state had a program that allowed inmates to be granted leave shortly before their release to ease the transition back into society.
Unbeknownst to Noble, Bergevin and Clark had previously robbed the OK Market in Toppenish. As Noble went back to the car to get Clark, Clark opened fire and hit Noble three times, including an execution-style shot to the back of the head as the soldier was lying face down on the ground
Another officer later found Noble on the side of the road with Clark’s vacation card in his front pocket, a bullet hole through.
More than 1,000 people attended Noble’s funeral at the United Methodist Church in Sunnyside, and soldiers lined up to offer him a last farewell. He is buried in Zillah City Cemetery.
At the time, he was the 18th State Patrol Trooper to die in the line of duty.
Noble’s death sparked outrage against the furlough program, with Marie Noble, the soldier’s widow, criticizing Gov. Dan Evans’ continued support for the program.
“Are you saying that Trooper Noble’s death is irrelevant to this program?” Marie Noble wrote in an open letter to the governor.
State Patrol Chief OC Furseth also called for a review of the program, as did the Washington State Senate, which passed a resolution authorizing a study of the program.
Evans, who met with Noble’s widow and attended the soldier’s funeral, eventually ordered restrictions on the furlough program.
Bergevin was granted immunity in exchange for testifying against Clark. Adam Moore, a young Yakima County assistant district attorney, took Bergevin’s testimony.
“It changed me,” Moore said in a 2016 interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic. “This whole thing of being involved in an investigation like this, unless you’re made of cement, it’s going to touch you emotionally.”
Originally charged with first-degree murder, Clark pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and armed robbery and received a life sentence. Clark told the court he intended to kill the officer.
“In light of your record to date, the circumstances of this case, and the testimony heard this morning, I regret not seeking the death penalty in your case,” Yakima County Superior Court Judge Carl L. Roy told Clark.
Clark, who is in his 70s, is currently in an out-of-state prison under an interstate agreement and is expected to be released on March 12, 2024.
The deal angered Moore, who felt that then-prosecutor Lincoln E. Shropshire should have pursued the higher charge.
“I could have tried and won this case blindfolded and handcuffed with my mouth gagged,” Moore said in the 2016 interview. “If ever there was first-degree murder, this was it.”
Moore was also moved by the impact the murder had on Noble’s family, which included six children. While the community reached out to the Noble family, Moore was still concerned about her loss.
“I was so moved by this injustice that I have never turned down a police officer‘s request to represent him in a shooting,” said Moore, who left the prosecutor’s office and became one of Yakima’s most prominent defense attorneys.
Noble is memorialized with other fallen soldiers on the State Patrol’s Wall of Heroes at State Patrol Headquarters in Olympia. He is also listed at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, DC and the Washington State Law Enforcement Memorial in Olympia.
It Happened Here is a weekly history column written by Yakima Herald Republic reporter Donald W. Meyers. Reach him at [email protected] Sources for this week’s column are the Washington State Patrol, Washington State Department of Corrections, National Law Enforcement Memorial, Behind the Badge Foundation, Findagrave.com, and the archives of the Yakima Herald-Republic.