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Area where census worker died has troubled history

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BIG CREEK, Ky. — A census worker found hanged from a tree with the word "fed" scrawled on his chest met his end in a corner of Appalachia with an abundance of meth labs and marijuana fields – and a reputation for mistrusting government that dates back to the days of moonshiners and "revenuers."

But the investigation has yet to determine whether the death of the 51-year-old part-time schoolteacher represents real anti-government sentiment. At this point, police cannot say whether Bill Sparkman's death was a homicide, an accident or even a suicide.

"We are not downplaying the significance of his position with the U.S. Census bureau," said Capt. Lisa Rudzinski, commander of the Kentucky State Police post in London. "We can assure the public we are looking at every possible aspect of Mr. Sparkman's death."

But locals are already bracing for suggestions that the killing was the result of anti-government sentiment in the mountains. It does not help that the death occurred in impoverished Clay County, one of the poorest in the country with an unemployment rate of 14.5 percent and an overall poverty rate more than three times the national average.

Sparkman, a Boy Scout leader and substitute teacher who was supplementing his income as a part-time census field worker, was found Sept. 12 in a remote patch of the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Police said Thursday that the preliminary cause of death was asphyxiation. Authorities said Sparkman, who a friend said had been treated for cancer, was found with a rope around his neck that was tied to a tree, but that he was "in contact with the ground."

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

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 he is not aware of any deep-seated hatred of the government.

"Government is not seen as the enemy, except for people who might fear getting caught for what they're doing," he said.

Army retiree George Robinson did door-to-door census work in Clay County in 2000. No one ever threatened him, but some people questioned why the government needed to know some of the information, especially income, requested on the census form.

"You meet some strange people," he said. "Nothing is a surprise in Clay County."

Appalachia – particularly eastern Kentucky – 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.

O'Connor was killed as President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty highlighted the region's destitution. Many locals, such as confessed shooter Hobart Ison, had long since grown tired of outsiders exploiting the region's natural resources.

University of Pittsburgh sociologist Kathleen Blee, co-author of a book about Clay County, says that when she heard of Sparkman's death, she initially wondered whether he had stumbled across a marijuana plot.

Pot growers seeking to avoid federal forfeiture statutes often plant their crops on national forest land and have even been known to booby-trap plots with explosives and rattlesnakes.

"Like any poor county, people are engaged in a variety of revenue sources," she said. "Not all of them legal."

Davis acknowledged Clay's "pretty wild history of a black market economy, a drug economy." He noted that Sparkman's death occurred at a time when marijuana producers are typically harvesting their crop.

"And so you have to be careful when you send some unsuspecting guy who's just trying to earn a buck to feed his family," he said. "Things can go bad really quickly."

Although the Census Bureau could not immediately offer statistics on violence against its workers, such incidents are not unheard of.

In 2000, a Milwaukee-area man was charged with battery for allegedly trying to shove a 74-year-old census worker down a flight of stairs. And in 2002, a Sacramento businessman was sentenced to a year in prison for violently dragging a 68-year-old widow off his property as she tried to explain the count's importance.

After Sparkman's body was found, the Census Bureau suspended door-to-door interviews in rural Clay County until the investigation is complete.

The bureau has yet to begin canvassing for the 2010 head count, but thousands of field workers like Sparkman are doing smaller surveys on various demographic topics on behalf of federal agencies.

Mary Hibbard, a teacher at an adult learning center in Manchester, said Sparkman visited her house this summer. He asked basic information, like the size of her house, how many rooms it had and how much she paid monthly on her electric bill.

She seized the opportunity to ask him about his faith.

"You come to my house, we're going to talk religion," she said.

Eastern Kentucky is a region of many churches, and Hibbard thinks most people in the area would be shocked if it turns out Sparkman was murdered.

"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. When it happens here, it seems like it's emphasized."

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Breed reported from Raleigh, N.C. Associated Press writers Joe Biesk in Frankfort, Roger Alford in London, Ky., and Bruce Schreiner in Louisville also contributed to this report.