Over the last 24 hours, we’ve been tracking a gruesome story developing involving the death of a Kentucky Census Bureau worker. The potential political implications of what happened are already generating a lot of attention around the internet — so it’s worth taking a moment to lay out what we know.
On September 12th, the body of Bill Sparkman, a 51-year old part-time Census worker and teacher was found in a remote area of the Daniel Boone National Forest, in Clay County, in rural southeast Kentucky. Sparkman reportedly had died on the morning of the day before.
According to an AP report published yesterday, the FBI is working with state police to determine whether this was a homicide, as is believed, and if so, whether it was motivated by anti-government sentiment. An anonymous law enforcement official told the AP that the man was found hanging from a tree with the word “fed” written on his chest. (The source didn’t specify the instrument that had been used to write the word. MSNBC has said several times today that it was scrawled in marker, but has not sourced that information.) It’s a federal crime to attack a federal worker because of his job, or while he’s carrying it out.
The leak to the AP about the word “Fed” has sparked fevered speculation that Sparkman may have been murdered as an expression of anti-government — and even specifically anti-Census — sentiment, of the kind ginned up by conservatives of late. Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) said earlier this year that she would not fill fully out her census form, which is a crime.
But the motivation behind the killing — if indeed it was a killing — is not clear at this point.
A spokesman for the Kentucky police told TPMmuckraker last night that police were still looking into death, that an autopsy has been scheduled, and no cause of death has yet been listed.
And the commander of the state police post handling the case told the Lexington Herald-Leader today that the police hadn’t confirmed it was a homicide. “There are too many unanswered questions for us to lean one way or the other,” she said. “Every scenario is still on the table. We have not ruled this is a hate crime against a federal employee.”
And an ABC News report suggests there could be more in play than raw anti-government feeling:
[S]ome people wonder if his death in the remote part of southeastern Kentucky known for its meth labs and hidden marijuana fields had less to do with his job than simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
If that speculation were accurate, the “Fed” that may have been scrawled on Sparkman’s chest could be intended as a warning by criminals to law enforcement to stay away, rather than as a pure expression of opposition to government — though it may be hard to separate those two motivations entirely.
It’s not even entirely clear what Sparkman was doing in the remote area. A Census official told the AP that her office was told Sparkman’s truck was found nearby, with a computer he was using for work inside.
As for the dead man himself, Sparkman’s mother, Henrie Sparkman, who lives in Florida, told the AP that Bill Sparkman had moved to Kentucky to be a local director for the Boy Scouts of America. He also worked as a substitute teacher.
Census officials told the AP that Sparkman had worked for the Census since 2003, in five Kentucky counties, including Clay County.
Henrie Sparkman also said that investigators had told her the body was decomposed, and it would be better for her son to be cremated.
She added to the AP that she didn’t know what had been behind her son’s death. “I have my own ideas, but I can’t say them out loud. Not at this point,” she said.
No one answered TPMmuckraker’s call to a Florida number listed for her.
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, whose department oversees the census, said in a statement:
We are deeply saddened by the loss of our co-worker. Our thoughts and prayers are with William Sparkman’s son, other family and friends.
Locke called Sparkman “a shining example of the hardworking men and women employed by the Census Bureau.”
Late Update: An FBI spokesman, ratcheting back speculation that Sparkman’s death was an act of anti-government violence, tells us that he was found with his feet on the ground, not hanging from a tree as previously reported.
And a former Kentucky state trooper who knew Sparkman tells us he warned him about knocking on doors in remote and isolated parts of the state.