Thursday, September 24, 2009

'Fed' written on chest of hanged census worker in Ky. county where feds have been active for years

UPDATE, Oct. 1: Patrik Jonsson of The Christian Science Monitor writes about why police may be keeping mum about the probe, to the extent of not ruling out the unlikely possibility of suicide.

A U.S. census worker was found hanging with "fed" scrawled on his chest in Clay County, Kentucky, on Sept. 12, a fact that went unreported until last night, when Devlin Barrett and Jeffrey McMurray of The Associated Press put it on the wire. The victim was Bill Sparkman, left, a substitute teacher from adjoining Laurel County, who was doing interviews for the Census Bureau in preparation for the 2010 census. Authorities say they have not determined the cause of death but call it an "apparent homicide." AP reports, "The FBI is investigating whether he was a victim of anti-government sentiment. ... Attacking a federal worker during or because of his federal job is a federal crime." (Corbin Times-Tribune photo)

Sparkman worked with the Census since 2003 in five counties. AP quotes retired Kentucky state trooper Gilbert Acciardo's warning to Sparkman: "I told him on more than one occasion, based on my years in the state police, 'Mr. Sparkman, when you go into those counties, be careful because people are going to perceive you different than they do elsewhere.'" But Roy Silver, a sociology professor at Southeast Community College in Harlan County, told AP, "I don't think distrust of government is any more or less here than anywhere else in the country."

But when it comes to the federal government, Clay County is a special case. It is a hotbed of marijuana cultivation, mainly in the Daniel Boone National Forest, which covers much of the county, and Sparkman's body was found on forest property. For nearly 30 years, federal and state authorities have targeted pot growers in Clay and adjoining counties, and in the last several years, the Justice Department has won indictments and convictions of officials and other local residents for vote fraud, other corruption and other crimes. And resistance to federal authority in the area dates back more than a century, to the era of major moonshine stills. Ironically, the county's largest employer is a federal prison. (Encarta map) Cary Stemle talked to folks who know these things and filed a story for Time.

The AP reporters quote a Manchester Huddle House waitress who feels the government needs to "stick their nose out of people's business." They write, "Manchester, the main hub of the southeastern Kentucky county, is an exit off the highway, with a Wal-mart, a few hotels, chain restaurants and a couple of gas stations. The drive away from town and toward the area where Sparkman's body was found goes through sparsely populated forest with no streetlights, on winding roads that run up and down steep hills." (Read more)

That was surely written by McMurray, who is based in Lexington; Barrett apparently doesn't have sufficient background on the county. On MSNBC last night, liberal talk-show host Rachel Maddow "asked him if he "had seen any evidence that the crime had political motivations," Rachel Weiner reports on The Huffington Post. He replied, "I don't think federal law enforcement would still be involved a week and a half after the body was found if there wasn't still that very serious concern."

In the blogosphere, there is also ill-informed speculation, like this from Chris McGreal, Washington correspondent of The Guardian: "Although law enforcement officials say that southern Kentucky is not considered a particular hotbed of anti-government sentiment, there is little doubt that growing right-wing and libertarian anger at Barack Obama and his administration is increasingly belligerent." McGreal notes that "Local police also consider it possible that Sparkman was killed because he came across illegal activity," but the officer quoted mentions methamphetamine, which is primarily a concern of state police, not federal agents.

UPDATE, 9/28: In the best of the national stories we've seen so far, Morgan Bowling, editor of the Manchester Enterprise, tells Carol Morello and Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post: "People are puzzled by what happened to Bill Sparkman. A lot of people have said, 'Who knows what he might have walked into?'" The Post cites Dee Davis, president of the Whitesburg-based Center for Rural Strategies, in its description of Clay County: "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. Now, the largest employers are the school board, a hospital and a Wal-Mart." (Read more)

UPDATE, 10/1: In the McCreary County Record, Peter Ferrara objects to some of the stereotypical coverage by national and international media, and writes, "It’s just one more black eye on a region that already suffers from a lot of negative stereotypes. I have lived in the Daniel Boone National Forest for a pretty long time. The people here may be a proud and isolated bunch, but they are decent and honest and we deserve better." (Read more) Agence France-Presse is now on the story; you can read its account here.


abbee lee said...

No way, how terrible is that? I hope the FBI can get more details. That word FED scrawled on his chest is gruesome. What kind of person would do that?

Rhayader said...

No way, distrust for government and widespread corruption in an area of a federal drug crackdown? It’s almost like there’s a bunch of criminals living there.

//End sarcasm

You reap what you sow. Not Sparkman himself, of course. What happened to him was tragic. But war begets war.

Now take take Clay County, KY and expand it to the entire world. It’s a big problem.

elrojo said...

Back in the '60s and 70's when i was a kentucky political reporter and later congressional staffer i occasionally was in clay county. very sparsely agricultural, no industry to speak off -- not even mining. no wonder marijuana growing is a major source of revenue. county voted very heavily republican in those days -- a heritage of civil war years when mountain people said they weren't going to fight for flatlanders' right to keep slaves.

Anonymous said...

Being an Eastern Kentuckian, this gruesome outcome sounds like he came across something or someone he should not have. More than likely he found a patch or a meth facility in which he intended to report or make authorities aware of. I don't believe it has anything to do with Obama as President, or anti-government sentiment. Basically wrong place at the wrong time!