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Slain Census Taker Was Sanguine About Job's Dangers
"We've been a poverty-stricken area pretty much all our lives," he said. "The government's taking care of 70 percent of people here, through Social Security, SSI, food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid."
Many residents groan at another black eye for a region too often known for its family feuds, moonshiners, marijuana farming, prescription drug trafficking and an economy that's been bad for so long that the recession doesn't feel like much of a change.
Clay County lies in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains. About 30 percent of its 24,000 residents live below the poverty line, more than three times the national average. Its median household income is $20,000, compared with $50,000 nationwide.
It is in many ways a typical eastern Kentucky county, left struggling when coal companies went out of business and tobacco farming became less lucrative, said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in nearby Whitesburg. Now, the largest employers are the school board, a hospital and a Wal-Mart.
Illegal sales of the drug Oxycontin and home methamphetamine labs are a growing problem. The sheriff estimates that 80 percent of arrests by his seven on-the-road deputies involve drug trafficking and abuse. Just last week, his deputies rounded up 59 people accused of being low-level pill pushers, he said.
The proliferation of drugs may explain why many residents do not take readily to strangers, said Morgan Bowling, editor of the Manchester Enterprise, a weekly newspaper.
"People are puzzled by what happened to Bill Sparkman," she said. "A lot of people have said, 'Who knows what he might have walked into?' "
Sparkman moved to the area 12 years ago from Florida, where he had been active in the Boy Scouts, said Gilbert Acciardo, a former state trooper who heads the after-school day-care program where Sparkman worked and who reported him missing. Sparkman took a position coordinating local Boy Scout troops, and he settled with his son, now an adult, in a small, one-story white frame house on a secluded court outside the town of London in neighboring Laurel County.
Both Acciardo and Kelly Greene, who coordinates substitute teachers for schools in London, cautioned him to be careful when he ventured into isolated, rural areas.
"I wasn't sure how people would perceive his home visits," Acciardo said. "I told him to make sure they knew he was there just to gather statistics."
Greene said she once told Sparkman that being a census field worker was a dangerous job, and asked him whether he was scared.
"No, someone has to do it," he told her. "It doesn't bother me."
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.