Census Worker Hanging Suicide, Not Right Wing Murder

Remember the bizarre case of Bill Sparkman, the census worker found hanging from a tree in Kentucky with the letters FED scrawled on his chest?  Remember the media frenzy about crazy Southerners and their hatred of the federal government?  At the time, I cautioned against jumping to conclusions, saying there could be any number of explanations.  I also agreed with Andrew Sullivan that suicide was unlikely given what we then knew about Sparkman.

Well, it turns out, the unlikely explanation was the right one.

Bill Sparkman PhotoA Kentucky census worker found naked, bound with duct tape and hanging from a tree with “fed” scrawled on his chest killed himself but staged his death to make it look like a homicide, authorities said Tuesday.

Bill Sparkman, 51, was found strangled Sept. 12 with a rope around his neck near a cemetery in a heavily wooded area of the Daniel Boone National Forest in southeastern Kentucky. Authorities said his wrists were loosely bound, his glasses were taped to his head and he was gagged.

Kentucky State Police Capt. Lisa Rudzinski said an analysis found that “fed” was written “from the bottom up.” He was touching the ground, and to survive “all Mr. Sparkman had to do at any time was stand up,” she said. Authorities said Sparkman was not under the influence of any drugs or alcohol at the time of his death. His clothes were found in the bed of his nearby pickup. “Our investigation, based on evidence and witness testimony, has concluded that Mr. Sparkman died during an intentional, self-inflicted act that was staged to appear as a homicide,” Rudzinski said.


Authorities said Sparkman alone manipulated the suicide scene, which was so elaborate that a man who discovered the body was convinced Sparkman was murdered.

Rudzinski said Sparkman “told a credible witness that he planned to commit suicide and provided details on how and when.” Authorities wouldn’t say who Sparkman told of his plan, but said Sparkman talked about it a week before his suicide and the person did not take him seriously. He told the person he believed his lymphoma, which he had previously been treated for, had recurred, police said.

Sparkman also had recently taken out two accidental life insurance policies totaling $600,000 that would not pay out for suicide, authorities said. One policy was taken out in late 2008; the other in May. If Sparkman had been killed on the job, his family also would have been be eligible for up to $10,000 in death gratuity payments from the government.

Michelle Malkin wonders, “When will the Left retract the Kentucky census worker case smear against conservatives?”  Stacy McCain piles on:

Bill Sparkman committed suicide. So much for “Southern populist terrorism” — and the credibility of Andrew Sullivan. So much for “Send the body to Glenn Beck” — and the credibility of Rick Ungar.

But at least some on the Left are quickly getting the word out.  Zachary Roth at TPM writes, “Sparkman deliberately played on rural Kentucky’s reputation as a hotbed of anti-government sentiment to create the impression that he had been murdered because of his job.”  TLOOG’s Mark Thompson adds,

After all the speculation that the death of a census worker was fueled by anti-government extremismand how the Tea Party movement (whatever its faults) was a vanguard for a violent anti-government uprising, it now appears that the killing was a suicide made to look like a homicide so the man’s family could collect a substantial life insurance payout.  This is a saddening portrait of a deeply troubled man in deeply troubled times. It is not, however, evidence that anti-government activists are uniquely violent.

When information is scant, we tend to fill in the gaps based on our prejudices about how the world works.  On the whole, it’s a completely reasonable thing to do.  Indeed, the nature of wisdom is the ability to extrapolate from what we’ve learned.   But sometimes jumping to conclusions bites you in the ass.

Story links: memeorandum

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Herb says:

    I knew it was suicide! From the scant information no less.

    Naked dead man hanging from a tree and the police couldn’t figure out if it was even a murder? *

    Forget about what’s written on his chest. Let’s see those defensive wounds.

    (*I suspect they figured it out quite quickly, but kept it under wraps as they completed the investigation.)

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Herb predicted it correctly from the previous thread.

    I opined at the time that it was just as likely that the sign left at the scene was misdirection.

  3. odograph says:

    Well, I was very wrong on that one. I thought “fed” made suicide the corner case, not enough to hang a caution on. In fact the caution quite irritated me.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    The left jumped on this one quite quickly even as many counseled to wait for facts. Surely it was right wing haters at work. Anti gubment types looking to send a message. No, just a troubled man.

    Let’s hope those who threw out accusations learn something from this.

  5. I did not suspect suicide.

    This reminds me of the case of the McCain campaign worker who pretended to be kidnapped by a black Obama supporter. I knew immediately that was b.s. but this guy did a much better job of faking it. Plus she didn’t have the level of commitment necessary to actually kill herself.

    So major props to Herb for getting it right. I bow in his general direction. (More of a slight inclination than a full on Japanese Emperor bow.)

  6. odograph says:

    Reviewing the thread, I see that I didn’t actually leap the “left” way. I was just disturbed by what I thought was the counter-leap “right.” The counter-leap was actually correct.

    Ah well, when you can’t be right on the internets you can at least admit you are wrong. That is such a rare ability that you can feel better again.

  7. Eric says:

    Michelle Malkin wonders, “When will the Left retract the Kentucky census worker case smear against conservatives?”

    I’m not so sure I agree with the characterization here that the Left jumped all over this prematurely. Surely people speculate, but I don’t ever recall reading any hard and fast assertions that this guy was in fact the victim of right-wing violence, only that the MO seemed to fit initially.

    Still, this is rich. When the left is premature characterizing this as right-wing violence, during a period in which we have concrete examples of right-wing violence and right-wing threats have increased, the right is positively outraged that anyone could reasonably think such a thing. When the Malkanites attack Scott Beauchamp for making it all up when all the facts aren’t in–and it turns out he’s been right all along–why, you can hear the chirping crickets and see the sagebrush blow by.

    When, pray tell, will Michelle retract her absolutely scurrilous attacks during L’Affair Beauchamp. Oh, I see. Good for thee, but not for me.

  8. Herb says:

    “I was just disturbed by what I thought was the counter-leap “right.” The counter-leap was actually correct.”

    Hmmm, I disagree. Putting this case in any kind of political light (either lefty or righty) was almost guaranteed to draw you to the wrong conclusion.

    In my original comment, I mentioned my love of police procedurals. The “fed” stuff smelled (at least to this voracious reader) like a red herring from the get-go.

    The mistake I think most people made (compounded later by the mistake of injecting their own politics into it) was focusing on the misdirection.

    After all, it was the fed stuff that gave us not only suspects (anti-government rednecks and/or meth-heads) but also a motive (the victim was a federal employee). Absent any of that, we’d just have a “dead guy hanging in a tree” and nine times out of ten, the “dead guy hanging in a tree” put himself there.

    It reminded me of that scene from Minority Report.

    Colin Farrell: When I worked homicide, this is what we called an orgy of evidence. Do you know how many orgies I had in homicide?
    Other cop: How many?
    Colin Farrell: None. This was all arranged.