Census Worker Lynched in Kentucky

A census worker was found hanged in Kentucky in a bizarre and grisly case.

When Bill Sparkman told retired trooper Gilbert Acciardo that he was going door-to-door collecting census data in rural Kentucky, the former cop drew on years of experience for a warning: “Be careful.”  The 51-year-old Sparkman was found this month hanged from a tree near a Kentucky cemetery with the word “fed” scrawled on his chest, a law enforcement official said Wednesday, and the FBI is investigating whether he was a victim of anti-government sentiment.

“Even though he was with the Census Bureau, sometimes people can view someone with any government agency as ‘the government.’ I just was afraid that he might meet the wrong character along the way up there,” said Acciardo, who directs an after-school program at an elementary school where Sparkman was a frequent substitute teacher.

The Census Bureau has suspended door-to-door interviews in rural Clay County, where the body was found, until the investigation is complete, an official said.

The law enforcement official, who was not authorized to discuss the case and requested anonymity, did not say what type of instrument was used to write the word on the chest of Sparkman, who was supplementing his income doing Census field work. He was found Sept. 12 in a remote patch of Daniel Boone National Forest and an autopsy report is pending.


FBI spokesman David Beyer said the bureau is assisting state police and declined to discuss any details of the crime scene. Agents are trying to determine if foul play was involved and whether it had anything to do with Sparkman’s job as Census worker, Beyer said. Attacking a federal worker during or because of his federal job is a federal crime.  Lucindia Scurry-Johnson, assistant director of the Census Bureau’s southern office in Charlotte, N.C., said law enforcement officers have told the agency the matter is “an apparent homicide” but nothing else.

Given the stereotypes about rural Kentucky, this will fuel all manner of speculation.  One presumes it was indeed a homicide and motivated by anti-government sentiment. But, really, we don’t know.

bill-sparkman-graduationUPDATE: No more news on the investigation but Andrew Sullivan found an old news clip indicating that Sparkman was a cancer survivor who just finished his education degree last year.

When Bill Sparkman earned his teaching degree in February, it wasn’t the usual walk down the aisle to pick up the onion skin. Instead, Sparkman stood in front of his fellow classmates and told his story. What with going back to school at the age of 47, surviving cancer mid-degree and driving through a blizzard to get to the commencement ceremony, Sparkman’s story had the makings of a movie.

In 1993, Sparkman moved to Laurel County as part of an assignment for his job with the Boy Scouts of America. Shortly after arriving, he became a volunteer at Johnson Elementary.  “When I moved here, my son was about to enter elementary school,” he said. “He was having some difficulties.”  Sparkman enjoyed the volunteering and quickly became interested in education. He was eventually offered a position as an instructional assistant, which he accepted.

“For the nine years I did it, I loved it,” he said. “But there were some instructional assistants going back to get their degree to teach.” Sparkman wanted to do the same but, being a single parent to son Josh, he didn’t think it would be possible.  “If I went to school at night, it would take me forever,” he said. “I also knew that I would have to student teach. I wouldn’t have any income for two or three months.”

In 2004, Sparkman discovered Utah-based Western Governor’s University, an online college that would enable him to study from home. In January 2005, Sparkman took on a part-time position with the U.S. Census Bureau.

Andrew concludes “suicide is unlikely” and I concur. He continues, “at some point, unhinged hostility to the federal government, whipped up by the Becks, can become violence.” Which is, of course, true even absent the Becks. And it’s a real possibility that we have an anti-government zealot here. Or a moonshiner or pot grower that Sparkman happened to stumble upon. Or any number of other things.

The OMB statement:

bill sparkman hat“It’s a tragedy. Our hearts and our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of this worker,” Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said Thursday morning. He has spoken frequently about the denigration of federal employees. “I’m going to be closely following this law enforcement action. If this is an attack on a federal employee, I can assure you that no resources will be spared to find the perpetrators,” Berry said. “We cannot tolerate essentially domestic terrorism, if that is what this is. But until we understand the law enforcement investigation, we don’t know.”

Threats are more common than actual attacks on federal employees, Berry said. He noted that people regularly threaten federal judges and their families, IRS agents and federal law enforcement officers.

“It’s also a reality for many categories of federal workers so we take any threat of violence seriously,” he said.

UPDATE: TPM’s Zachary Roth points to and ABC News report that confirms I’m not the only one speculating in the direction of drugs:

Investigators are saying little about the crime, but some 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.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head 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. Triumph says:

    This whole incident is a testament to use representative sampling to conduct the census–as opposed to the 18th century method of going door-to-door.

    Sampling is much more viable for getting actual numbers and better data.

    Republicans, however, have resisted this for years. Part of it is probably because of the anti-empiricism endemic to the party. But it is also due to the fact that usually poor and minorities are harder to count–upper and middle class people are easier to find. Thus, the numbers skew towards a constituency more inclined to support Republicans.

  2. odograph says:

    One presumes it was indeed a homicide and motivated by anti-government sentiment. But, really, we don’t know.

    That was a stretch, James.

    Unless the perp thought his name was “Fred,” we know.

  3. James Joyner says:

    For all we know, the guy stumbled on some coot’s moonshining operation. Again, we just don’t know.

  4. odograph says:

    James, the best you can rationally do is acknowledge “Fed” as an indication, but not the final word.

    Your faulty argument is that we have no indication.

  5. odograph says:

    It is not “presumption,” it is evidence.

  6. Mithras says:

    I agree with Joyner that anti-government sentiment most likely explains this, but it’s hardly the only likely explanation. (He wasn’t robbed; his truck with his laptop inside was found nearby.) “Fed” is suggestive but ambiguous. If the word were “ACORN” or “Obama” then it would be conclusive. If it were “narc”, there would be no doubt it was methshiners. “Fed” could indicate either.

  7. JKB says:

    More likely someone’s grass patch or meth lab.

    This incident could be driven by the census which is intrusive and aggressive. They require intimate details of peoples lives and threaten government action for non-compliance. Over the years, I’ve had several people comment to me about a census form they received which went far beyond counting people that they were threatened over when they tried to just ignore it. This irritates regular people but would be a real threat to an illegal operation with the guy standing on their doorstep.

    Obviously, it doesn’t help the that the Census hired criminal liberal organizations to conduct the interviews and the general perception that the current administration is filled with busybodies who hope to control people’s lives

  8. kvc says:

    I can hear Pelosi now, “This is why only blue states should be counted and allowed to have representation in Washington. The rest of the red states will be under Marshall law and only be able to do what the government in Washington tells them to do.” We never here how many meter readers get killed in the urban jungle warfare going on.

  9. James,

    I’m thinking that your moonshining theory may end up being close to the mark.

  10. PD Shaw says:

    Fed is a “lead” on the case with high probabilities of misdirection involved. One does not normally ascribe veracity to statements left by murderers at crime scenes.

  11. Herb says:

    From the story: “Agents are trying to determine if foul play”

    Maybe I read too many police procedurals, but seems to me an easy way to determine this (or at least get a sniff on the right trail) is to determine whether he was dead before or after he was hanged.

    If it was the hanging itself that killed him, I’m putting my money on suicide.

  12. Mithras says:

    Interesting theory. Why did a suicide write the word “fed” on his own chest? Just curious. Fed up? He’d just eaten?

  13. PD Shaw says:

    Clay County, Kentucky has been the center of federal investigations and indictments on political corruption charges, including using Oxycontin to buy votes. It appears that the circuit judge, the county board, the county clerk, the superintendent of schools were all running a corrupt political machine and they were indicted on March 3, 2009.


  14. PD Shaw says:

    Here is the federal indictment:


  15. odograph says:

    What a bunch of crazies. James spun you with the word “presume,” which means to judge in absence of evidence, but this has rapidly descened to a game of ignoring evidence.

    A guy hung with a sign on his chest is a suicide. What comedy.

  16. Davebo says:

    Via Sully this profile of the alleged victim.

    Doesn’t sound like the suicidal type to me but who knows.

  17. steve says:

    Most likely a drug war casualty. Having been raised not far from there, the feds have never been popular. Police in general are not that popular.


  18. the q says:

    Well it just has to be said…Michelle Bachmann did it.

  19. the q says:

    Or obviously it was the liberals who killed this guy to make it look like a right wing loon did it, because, after all, according to one of the resident idiots (Andrew)on this board, Homeland security’s warning earlier this year about their fear of right wing hate group violence was “a preemptive strike by the Left to politicize any shooting and blame everybody on the Right.”

    Andrew’s quote was from another thread, but his reasoning here is most telling regarding the literal insanity which grips the right wing taliban in this country and most likely manifested itself in the killing of this worker, egged on by the hate speech of Malkin, Bachmann et al.

  20. Herb says:

    Why did a suicide write the word “fed” on his own chest? Just curious. Fed up? He’d just eaten?

    Ha! That’s a good one.

    I think the “fed” angle should probably be downplayed since it is, after all, coming from an anonymous “law enforcement official.” This happened earlier this month. They’re still trying to figure out if foul play was involved. The body was decomposed when they found it. Add to that, he was hanged.

    Hanging is not a very good way to murder someone. But it is a common method of suicide. The carvings on his chest, if they are carvings (remember, the body was decomposed), maybe they’re early tries. In his despair, he sets the knife down, picks up the rope. It’s conceivable.

    Seems more likely than some backwoods rednecks went Deliverance on him. You’d think they’d feed him to their hogs, not leave him swinging from a tree.

  21. Mithras says:

    But it is a common method of suicide.

    It is, you’re right. It also has a certain history in this country as a way of sending a message.

    As for the rest, I’m going to wait and see. It’s interesting that you mention the idea that the “fed” was carved rather than written – I had the same thought from the official no-comment on the writing instrument used.

  22. PD Shaw says:

    If the word “jihad” had been scrawled on his chest, we would have the same issues.

    There are two equal possibilities here: (1) The message is evidence of the motivation; or (2) the message is misdirection.

  23. just me says:

    Impossible to say for sure at this point, but having grown up in Kentucky it was pretty much a given that you had to be very careful when traveling and wandering on the various backroads. People were often shot at (don’t particularly remember any lynchings) for ending up in the wrong field or the wrong drive.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up being more of an issue of somebody protecting their drugs.

  24. lunacy says:

    Being anti-federal gov’t is quite likely a characteristic of a pot growers/moonshiner mentality that is fairly common in the Appalachian woods.

    Trust me. I used to grow pot in the Appalachian woods. With a passel of friends who liked to discuss intricate booby trap methods and went to extremes to cover tracks, hide trails, stash water. Steve Earle’s Copper Head road came out shortly after I quit. Well, quit the horticultural boyfriend, really. But the mentality as related in the song is very real.

    Glenn Beck has nothing to do with it. A history of “revenuers” come to intrude on your life has everything to do with it. I would be the folks in rural Kentucky never heard of Glenn Beck. Nor would they care nor trust him either.

    Lunacy (with one leg shorter than the other)

  25. Gustopher says:

    Perhaps “FED” is simply the killers initials?

  26. odograph says:

    Wait a sec, in his last update James thinks it might be a crazy conservative or a meth addict?

    LOL, look for the overlap.

  27. An Interested Party says:

    If the word “jihad” had been scrawled on his chest…

    …one wonders if so many who are holding off judgment on what this is would do the same in that situation…

  28. An Interested Party says:

    How exactly does the fact that “fed” was scrawled on his chest factor in to the “simplest explanation”?

  29. Herb says:

    How exactly does the fact that “fed” was scrawled on his chest factor in to the “simplest explanation”?

    Short answer: It doesn’t.

    New developments in the story have rendered my suicide theory moot. And it’s entirely possible that further developments will do the same to the “census worker lynched for knocking on the wrong wingnut’s door” theory as well.