By Carol Morello and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 26, 2009
MANCHESTER, Ky. -- Bill Sparkman juggled three part-time jobs and chemotherapy, and he was conscientious about keeping his schedule straight. So when he didn't show up for work at a day-care program Sept. 10, two days after he went out canvassing residents for the Census Bureau, a co-worker reported him missing.
Sparkman's body was found two days later beside a remote road near a small family cemetery in the Daniel Boone National Forest. His death initially garnered little attention, even in eastern Kentucky.
Then authorities revealed this week that a noose was found around his neck, and that he was hanging from a tree, his feet touching the ground. The word "Fed" was scrawled across the 51-year-old census taker's chest, according to the Clay County coroner.
Late Friday, a law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss an open investigation, said Sparkman was found bound and gagged, with his Census Bureau identification card taped to his head.
The AP quoted two sources briefed on the matter as saying Sparkman's Census ID was found taped to his head and shoulder area. The news service quoted a witness as saying Sparkman was naked and bound with duct tape.
The state medical examiner has ruled he was asphyxiated but has not determined whether the death was a homicide.
Although it has not been determined that Sparkman's death was related to his government job, the head of the Census Bureau, which is preparing to hire 750,000 temporary workers for the 2010 count, flew to Kentucky for a briefing.
Census takers who die on the job typically succumb to strokes, heart attacks and car accidents. But violence against field workers, while rare, is an ongoing concern.
The 2000 Census was marked by a spate of violence. In Indiana, a pack of dogs mauled a census taker to death. A California census taker was grabbed and forced into her car after a homeowner ordered her to leave and she lingered, trying to explain the importance of the Census. A Denver census taker was hijacked and stabbed, and in Chicago, a census taker was thrown down a flight of stairs.
This year, a county manager in New Mexico warned that many people take their property rights seriously, and some might shoot at census takers who trespass.
Here, Sparkman's gruesome death has ignited a debate over whether it was a byproduct of harsh anti-government rhetoric on talk shows, blogs and protests. Residents of impoverished Clay County say most people harbor no resentment for agents of the federal government, and they're baffled by Sparkman's apparent killing.
Sheriff Kevin Johnson, a native, said most residents feel a measure of gratitude to the federal government.
"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.