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Kentucky Census Worker Committed Suicide, Investigators Say

BRUCE SCHREINER and ROGER ALFORD   11/24/09 09:30 PM ET   AP

Census Worker Hanged

FRANKFORT, Ky. — On the surface it all seemed like a gruesome hate crime in a rural part of Kentucky with a history of disdain for the government: a census worker found bound with duct tape and hanging from a tree, the word "fed" scrawled across his chest.

But investigators noticed the foot-tall letters scrawled in black felt-tip pen looked like they could have been written by the victim himself, and they soon found out that he believed he had cancer, had two insurance policies worth $600,000, and had an adult son in need of money.

Investigators said Tuesday what they had been hinting at for weeks, that Bill Sparkman's hanging was a ruse to mask his suicide for a big insurance payout.

The key clue was the lack of defense wounds – the only visible marks on his body were a furrow around his neck and insect bites.

"Underneath the tape there was no trauma, and that's what I always want to look for," said Dr. Cristin Rolf, deputy state medical examiner. "If there is ever a homicide, a healthy person would put up a good fight and you would see injury and trauma to the neck and to the arms."

On Sept. 12, the Kentucky resident drove his Chevy pickup – packed with a rope, a roll of duct tape and some red rags – deep into the Kentucky woods, where outsiders are mostly treated with distrust and apprehension. He stripped down to his socks and walked to a nearby cemetery.

He taped his ankles and wrists, but his wrists were bound so loosely that he had considerable mobility, leaving investigators to believe he could have done the taping himself, authorities said. He scrawled the word "fed" upside down on his chest, taped his Census Bureau ID to his head, stuck a red cloth into his mouth and placed another piece of tape over it.

Sparkman then strung a rope from a tree, placed a noose around his neck, and leaned forward, using his own body weight to cut off oxygen to his brain, investigators said.

He likely became lightheaded from lack of oxygen, then lost consciousness. "It would not be an excruciating death," said Mike Wilder, executive director of the state medical examiner's office.

Sparkman was found touching the ground, almost at his knees, and the man who discovered him was convinced Sparkman had been killed.

"To survive, all Mr. Sparkman had to do at any time was stand up," said Kentucky State Police Capt. Lisa Rudzinski.

No drugs or alcohol were found in his system. No one else was involved in Sparkman's suicide, Rudzinski said, ending their investigation.

In addition, Rolf said the autopsy found no signs of a recurrence of Sparkman's cancer, so his cancer fears were unfounded.

Sparkman's mother bristled at the investigators' conclusion, releasing a two-word statement to The Associated Press. Henrie Sparkman of Inverness, Fla., wrote in an e-mail: "I disagree!"

When authorities initially announced the death, the FBI said it was investigating whether Sparkman was a victim of anti-government sentiment.

Appalachia has long had an image of being wary of and sometimes hostile toward strangers. Incidents such as the September 1967 shooting of Canadian filmmaker Hugh O'Connor, who was gunned down by an enraged landowner while making a documentary on poverty in nearby Letcher County, have done nothing to dispel such notions.

In hardscrabble Clay County, tucked into the Appalachian hills, the conclusion that Sparkman was not killed by anti-government zealots was seen as a vindication for the area.

"That's a horrible thing that's happened to that fellow," said community activist Doug Abner. "But like most Clay countians, I feel like we get a bad rap. It's just a stereotypical thing."

About a week before his death, Sparkman talked about his plan to someone who didn't take him seriously, authorities said. They would not identify the person.

Sparkman, a former Boy Scout leader and substitute teacher who lived in the southeastern Kentucky town of Manchester, was supplementing his income as a part-time census field worker.

Sparkman had taken out two accidental life insurance policies since late 2008 totaling $600,000 that would not pay out for suicide, authorities said. Rudzinski said the insurance payout was one motive for suicide, but Sparkman had also told "a credible witness" that he believed his lymphoma, which he had previously been treated for, had recurred.

Sparkman's son, Josh, previously told the AP that his father had named him as his life insurance beneficiary. Josh Sparkman said earlier this month he found paperwork for the private life insurance policy among his father's personal files but wasn't sure of the amount.

Investigators wouldn't say who was listed as the beneficiary in the life insurance policies. Sparkman had made his son Josh the heir to his estate, which included a home worth about $80,000, according to Laurel County property records.

Josh Sparkman is unemployed. He said previously that friends have chipped in to help gather money for him to make one monthly mortgage check, but he said he remains behind on other payments. He did not return telephone messages Tuesday.

The Census Bureau suspended door-to-door interviews in the rural area after Sparkman's body was found, but a spokesman said normal operations would resume in Clay County next month.

"The death of our co-worker, William Sparkman, was a tragedy and remains a loss for the Census Bureau family. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends," census spokesman Stephen Buckner said.

Sparkman's mother has said her son was an Eagle scout who moved to the area to be a local director for the Boy Scouts of America. He later became a substitute teacher.

Friends and co-workers have said that even while undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, Sparkman would show up for work smiling with a toboggan cap to cover his balding head.

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Associated Press writer Hope Yen in Washington contributed to this report.

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Filed by Rachel Weiner  |