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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 / October 1, 2009


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.

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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.

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."