Mystery surrounds census taker’s death

Found hanging from tree in Ky.

By Jeffrey McMurray
Associated Press / September 26, 2009

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BIG CREEK, Ky. - Authorities said a US Census worker died by asphyxiation but were releasing few other details about the case nearly two weeks after Bill Sparkman’s body - with the word “fed’’ scrawled on the chest - was found hanging from a tree near a family cemetery in a forest.

The word appeared to have been written with a felt-tip pen, Clay County Coroner Jim Trosper said yesterday. He did not elaborate.

Jerry Weaver of Fairfield, Ohio, who was among a group of relatives who discovered the body Sept. 12, said Sparkman was naked and his hands and feet were bound with duct tape.

The substitute teacher, 51, was found in a remote tract of Daniel Boone National Forest in Clay County, where Sparkman was working part time for the government.

Law enforcement officials weren’t saying yesterday whether he was working at the time of his death or whether they believed it had anything to do with his job. Authorities have not said if it was an accidental death, homicide, or suicide.

Mary Hibbard, a teacher in Manchester, recalled Sparkman visiting her over the summer to ask typical census questions, such as the size of her house and the average monthly utility bills. After she answered, she turned the questioning on him - quizzing him about his faith and learning that he had a strong belief in God.

She said she was shocked when she saw his picture on the news. “I think the negative publicity of it is a stigma on our county,’’ she said. “It makes people think less of us, even though this is an isolated incident.’’

Authorities said yesterday for the first time that the preliminary cause of death was asphyxiation. According to a Kentucky State Police statement, the body was hanging from a tree with a noose around the neck, yet it was in contact with the ground.

The word “fed’’ had been scrawled on Sparkman’s chest, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the case.

The Hoskins family cemetery includes dozens of tombstones, many bearing the Hoskins name. It is on a steep hill, less than 200 yards from a narrow road in the forest.

At the entrance to the path leading there were two white rubber gloves, and there was other litter on the ground, including soda cans and a children’s toy.

Some law enforcement officials said drug operations are prevalent in the area - including methamphetamine labs and marijuana fields - although they had no reason to believe there was a link to Sparkman’s death.

On one day last week, county authorities rounded up 40 drug suspects, most of them traffickers, Johnson said.

Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in nearby Whitesburg, said the federal government has done “precious little’’ in Clay County other than building a federal prison in Manchester in the 1990s. But Davis said he is not aware of any deep-seated hostility toward the government.

University of Pittsburgh sociologist Kathleen Blee, co-author of a book about Clay County, said that when she heard of Sparkman’s death, she wondered whether he had stumbled across a marijuana plot. Marijuana growers seeking to avoid federal forfeiture statutes often plant their crops in national forests.