BIG CREEK, Ky. — Authorities said a U.S. Census worker died by asphyxiation but were releasing few other details about the mysterious case nearly two weeks after Bill Sparkman’s body — with the word “fed” scrawled on the chest — was found hanging from a tree near a family cemetery secluded by Appalachian forest.
The word was written with what appeared to be felt-tip pen, Clay County Coroner Jim Trosper said Friday. He did not elaborate.
The substitute teacher, 51, was discovered Sept. 12 in a remote patch of Daniel Boone National Forest in Clay County where he was working part-time for the government. Still, law enforcement officials weren’t saying Thursday whether he was working at the time of his death or whether they believed it had anything to do with his job. Authorities have so far been unable to determine if it was an accidental death, homicide, or suicide.
Mary Hibbard, a teacher in Manchester, recalled Sparkman visiting her over the summer to ask typical Census questions, such as the size of her house and the average monthly utility bills. After she answered, she turned the questioning on him — quizzing him about his faith and learning he had a strong belief in God.
She said she was shocked when she saw his picture on the news.
“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.”
Authorities for the first time Thursday said the preliminary cause of death was asphyxiation, but even the details behind that were murky. According to a Kentucky State Police statement, the body was hanging from a tree with a noose around the neck, yet it 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.
There was no visual evidence of any crime — or even any police investigation — at the Hoskins family cemetery, which includes dozens of tombstones, many bearing the Hoskins name. It sits on a steep hill less than 200 yards from the narrow road that cuts through the forest.
At the entrance to the path leading there were two white rubber gloves, and there was other litter on the ground, including discarded soda cans and a children’s toy.
Lucy Wagers, who owns a grocery store in the area, said her husband delivers mail around the cemetery, and she often goes with him. Never had she seen any strange activity there, nor noticed any police traffic, even after the body was found.
“Who would have done it like that around here?” she said. “I’ve been here 32 years and never had nobody bother me.”
Although anti-government sentiment was one possibility, some in law enforcement also cited the prevalence of drug activity in the area — including meth labs and marijuana fields — although they had no reason to believe there was a link to Sparkman’s death.
“Now they’re taking their meth lab operations into the rural, secluded areas,” Clay County Sheriff Kevin Johnson said. “We’ve had complaints in the area, but not that particular location.”
On one day last week, law enforcement in the county rounded up 40 drug suspects, most of them traffickers, Johnson said.
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.
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.”
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.”