Why police are keeping quiet on Census worker Sparkman death

Just because Census worker Bill Sparkman was found hanging from a tree with the word 'fed' written on his chest doesn't mean he was murdered in an antigovernment act. Sparkman died in an insular county of moonshiners and pot-growers, and police are wary of taking a wrong step.

By , Staff writer

Three weeks after part-time Census worker Bill Sparkman's body was found hung from a Kentucky tree, the word "fed" scrawled across his chest with a red felt-tip pen, law-enforcement authorities have yet to announce any leads, suspects, or potential motives.

For a public already inundated with broken-up terror plots, antigovernment sentiment, and partisan pundits ready to use the case for their own ideological ends, the lack of any word from police has led to rampant speculation about why he died.

Mr. Sparkman's son, Josh, can't understand why police are reluctant to call it a homicide.

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But the peculiarities of the case appear to be making it difficult for police to find a quick answer to the riddle of Sparkman's death.

Most obviously, Kentucky police may still be unearthing clues. But it is also possible that they are taking a page straight out of a Henning Mankell police procedural: letting the mystery loosen lips in tight-knit and secretive Clay County, an old moonshiner's haunt and a prime pot-growing area currently in the midst of harvest season.

The stakes are high, especially since FBI special agent David Beyer says cases of Census workers being killed in the line of duty are "very, very infrequent." Office of Personnel Management director John Berry says, "We will come down on these perpetrators as hell hath no fury."

Despite the "fed" clue, many who study Kentucky's rural backroads are loath to make a direct connection between the death and current anti-government – and even anti-Obama – sentiments.

"There's a combination of possible factors: marijuana, moonshine, meth, public corruption investigations, plus all the heated rhetoric about big government," says Al Cross, a former reporter who now directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in Lexington, Ky.

"Obama could have been a contributing factor or a tipping point, but I would be surprised," he adds. "There are just too many other elements in local history that indicate otherwise. For one, this would be the first killing of an outsider in Clay County."

Investigators seem to think that something at the crime scene doesn't seem quite right.

For example: Though Mr. Sparkman was hung from the neck and asphyxiation was the official cause of death, his feet were touching the ground when he was found.

"We're not responding to any of the speculation, the innuendo, or the rumors that are floating around," says Don Trosper, spokesman for the Kentucky State Police, reflecting the views of Det. Donald Wilson, the lead investigator in the case. "The Kentucky State Police concerns itself with facts."

Yet Mr. Trosper agrees that the case is "perplexing" in that police haven't been able to rule out any of the three possibilities: suicide, accidental death or homicide.

For some observers, the lynching image, combined with a summer of Tea Parties founded on a state's rights tradition deeply rooted in the South makes it hard to rule out an antigovernment motive. With US officials reporting an uptick in homegrown radical activity, some of it violent, they say the link appears even more likely.

"This was such a symbolic and personal anger that I'm led to lean towards someone who has severe antigovernment feelings, perhaps someone seeking revenge," domestic terrorism expert Brian Levin told CNN's "AC360."

But it's clear that law enforcement hasn't yet endorsed the notion of Appalachian bogeymen threatening government workers. In fact, the appearance of antigovernment bias in the death could be a smokescreen to cover up what really happened, says Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox.

Moreover, the Times-Tribune in Corbin, Ky., quoted a local law-enforcement source who urged reporters to look into the circumstances of the death of actor David Carradine, who died of apparent auto-erotic asphyxiation.

Coworkers and a retired State Police officer who knew Sparkman say they find it difficult to believe that the mild-mannered Eagle Scout could have committed suicide or been involved in something that led to an accidental death.

Sparkman, a 50-something substitute teacher, moved to southeast Kentucky to be a local director for the Boy Scouts of America. He recently served as a substitute teacher in Laurel County and earned extra money as a Census field worker, according to the Associated Press

He had been a part-time Census worker since 2003 and had been working in the area on routine surveys the Census bureau conducts for various government agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

One concern is that the official silence could mean that the trail has grown cold. Secrets can be well-kept among the the close-knit clans in rural parts of Appalachia, where even an outwardly harmless man like Sparkman could have been perceived as a threat, or even a Drug Enforcement Admininstration informant.

But the silence could also be a strategy to control the investigation, says Mr. Cross of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

"I almost always sympathize with investigators in these circumstances," he says. "I'll go back to the [former Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld quote: 'There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns,' and any sort of information [given out] that points in one direction or another might compromise the investigation."

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