Suicide of Bill Sparkman

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Bill Sparkman
Profile shot of a bespectacled man in his early fifties, wearing a mortarboard with a yellow tassel
Sparkman graduating from Western Governors University
BornAugust 12, 1958
Died (aged 51)[2]
Known forUnited States Census worker discovered dead under initially mysterious circumstances.

William Edwin "Bill" Sparkman, Jr.[3] (August 12, 1958 – September 12, 2009)[2][4][5] was an American schoolteacher and Field Representative for the United States Census Bureau found dead in September 2009 under suspicious circumstances. After more than two months of investigation, police concluded that his death was a suicide, staged by him to look like a homicide, so that his family could collect life insurance.


Sparkman was raised in Mulberry, Florida, the oldest of three sons of a high school principal and a furniture company executive.[1] Sparkman was an altar boy as a child. In high school, he wrote for the local weekly newspaper, The Mulberry Press, and was the football team manager.[6] An Eagle Scout, he worked for the Boy Scouts of America as an adult, overseeing the programs in Polk and Hillsborough counties.[1] This work later took him to Atlanta, Georgia,[1] then London, Kentucky in 1993.[7]

Once in Kentucky he raised his adopted son alone, joined a local Methodist Church, and for nine years worked at an elementary school as a volunteer and instructional assistant. In 2005 Sparkman began part-time work with the United States Census Bureau and studied education with Western Governors University, an online college. In 2007, after medical treatment of an ingrown toe nail, Sparkman's doctor identified a cyst which led to his diagnosis of Stage-3 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer. He continued teaching while receiving chemotherapy treatments from November 2007 to March 2008, during which time he completed his academic coursework and was invited to speak at the commencement ceremony at Western Governors University in Salt Lake City, Utah.[7] After graduation he pursued a position as a middle school math teacher.[6][7]

Discovery of the body[edit]

Sparkman's body was discovered on September 12, 2009[8] by attendees of a family reunion paying a visit to Hoskins Cemetery[9] in rural Clay County, Kentucky within Daniel Boone National Forest.[10] He had been reported missing from work three days earlier while working on the American Community Survey for the U.S. Census,[5] covering a local five county area.[11] Sparkman was reportedly found with a rope around his neck, tied to a tree while in contact with the ground, wearing only socks, with the word "fed" written on his chest [8] in felt-tip marker.[12] It was reported in the media that the word had been written upside-down[2] or from an upside-down point of view[13] and therefore, the police eventually concluded, by Sparkman himself. His census ID was taped to the side of his neck.[14] He was gagged, with duct tape around his hands and feet[8] and over his mouth[5] and eyes.[15] Kentucky State Police criticized many media reports of the death, such as asserting that he was hanging from a tree when he was actually tied to a tree with a rope around his neck.[16]

Cause of death[edit]

Authorities eventually determined that Sparkman's death was a suicide, staged to look like a homicide.[17] Initially, police said that Sparkman's death was not natural, but hadn't ruled whether it was a homicide, a suicide, or an accident.[18] After an investigation lasting more than two weeks by the Kentucky State Police,[16] Sparkman's 19-year-old son, Josh Sparkman, expressed frustration and called it "disrespectful" that suicide or accident were still being considered.[12] In the ensuing days, Sparkman's son further said he was certain the death was a homicide, noting his father's truck had been "ransacked" with items stolen, such as Sparkman's census laptop and a family wedding ring, items not discovered by investigators.[19]

Preliminary findings of the local coroner indicated Sparkman died from asphyxiation,[5] and the Census Bureau's regional office in Charlotte, North Carolina said law enforcement called it "an apparent homicide".[20] On October 6, Sparkman's body was released to his family, but the State Medical Examiner's Office stated it was not resolving the case. It had only established the cause of death, not the manner of death, and it was still learning "bits and pieces of information".[19] The Kentucky State Police agreed the case was "perplexing".[21] The Los Angeles Times reported that "the case so far is notable for the lack of details divulged by law enforcement officials".[10] In late October, officials reported the case was close to resolution and they were careful in "not rushing a decision".[15] John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, stated his resolve to "come down on these perpetrators as hell hath no fury."[21]

On November 23, investigators declared the death a suicide. According to reports, Sparkman, who had previously battled non-Hodgkins lymphoma, was suspected to have believed his cancer had returned, and just prior to his death had taken out life insurance policies totalling $600,000[22] which would have been paid to his financially struggling son in the event of death and which would not pay out for suicide or death from cancer.[23]

Census impact[edit]

Regional Director Wayne Hatcher of the Census Bureau's Charlotte, N.C. regional office, which has jurisdiction over a five-state area that includes Kentucky,[24] held a small memorial service at the cemetery in Clay County on October 11. He said other employees had reacted to the death by requesting to work in teams during census gathering.[25] While law enforcement conducted its investigation of the death, the United States Census Bureau suspended its work in Clay County.[5]

Media reaction[edit]

Because of Sparkman's status as a Federal Census Bureau worker and the word "fed" written on his body, the incident drew national attention. On MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, Maddow speculated that a dislike among area residents of the U.S. federal government may have contributed to Sparkman's death.[26] Some scholars disagreed, saying there isn't "an outpouring of anti-government sentiment in the region" and that "distrust of government" in the area is comparable to the rest of the country.[20] However, an Associated Press report stated the area "has a reputation for mistrusting government, dating back to the days of moonshiners and 'revenuers'",[27] and that it is a top marijuana producer[10] where federal agents have held drug and corruption raids numerous times. Among those convicted for drug and corruption charges locally were a former mayor, former city councilmen, an assistant police chief, a county clerk, a magistrate, an election commissioner, the county's school superintendent, and circuit court judge were indicted for voter fraud in March 2009.[5] The Christian Science Monitor also reported on possible connections to nearby drug activities and anti-government motives.[21] Clay County is one of the poorest counties in the United States and residents feared the incident would add to its negative stereotype, despite progress in education and efforts against crime.[27]

Some suggested Sparkman's death may have been related to controversies over the upcoming 2010 federal census. Earlier in 2009 several leading conservatives and Republican political figures spoke out against ACORN's involvement in census surveys[28] and boycotted it over concerns that the census could be used against citizens.[29] Some libertarians faulted the census for contributing to the expanding government and Latino activists boycotted it to push for immigration reform.[28] The Los Angeles Times reported that in the absence of public findings by investigators, some writers in the liberal blogosphere concluded that the death was the result of anti-government rhetoric during the presidency of Barack Obama.[10]

The Kentucky State Police, which conducted the investigation, noted that there had been wide misinformation and speculation from the media coverage of the incident.[16] Robert Stivers, the Republican state senator from Clay County, said Sparkman's death had been "sensationalized" because of his status as a federal census worker.[27] In late October, the KSP commander in charge of the case said baseless media speculation "has been a detriment to the investigation" by requiring investigators to examine those claims.[15]

On December 11, an episode of the TV show Law & Order entitled "FED" featured a murder victim based on Sparkman, found shirtless with the word "FED" written on his chest. However, this victim was a conservative campaign employee who was plotting against an ACORN-like organization.[30]

Family reaction[edit]

Sparkman's son, Josh, was adamant that his father did not commit suicide.[31] He said a man who fights cancer as long as Sparkman had does not commit suicide, after showing the fight to live every day.[31]


  1. ^ a b c d Chambliss, John (September 26, 2009). "Census Worker Who Died Was a Mulberry Native". The Ledger. Lakeland, Florida. Retrieved September 30, 2009.
  2. ^ a b c Police: Ky. census worker staged death as homicide
  3. ^ "William Sparkman, 62". The Ledger. Lakeland, Florida. March 5, 1992. Retrieved September 30, 2009.
  4. ^ Saltzman, Sammy Rose (September 25, 2009). "Hanged Census Worker Bill Sparkman Was a "Naive" School Teacher". CBS News. Retrieved September 28, 2009.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Levin, Alan (September 28, 2009). "Census surveys halted in rural Ky. county". USA Today. Retrieved September 29, 2009.
  6. ^ a b Alford, Roger (September 26, 2009). "Friends: Hanging victim devoted his life to kids". The Associated Press. Retrieved September 28, 2009.
  7. ^ a b c Kaprowy, Tara (April 3, 2008). "Cancer survivor earns degree". The Sentinel Echo. London, KY. Archived from the original on February 2, 2013. Retrieved September 29, 2009.
  8. ^ a b c McMurray, Jeffrey (October 29, 2009). "Coroner: Census worker died at tree in Ky. forest". Associated Press. Retrieved November 3, 2009.
  9. ^ "KSP says body was that of London man". USA Today. September 15, 2009. Retrieved September 30, 2009.
  10. ^ a b c d Fausset, Richard (September 25, 2009). "Government ties explored as motive in death of Kentucky Census worker". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 29, 2009.
  11. ^ "Small memorial for fallen Census worker". WKYT. October 12, 2009. Archived from the original (Flash Video) on 2011-09-28. Retrieved October 12, 2009.
  12. ^ a b McMurray, Jeffrey (September 29, 2009). "AP Exclusive: Son sure Ky. census taker was slain". Associated Press. Retrieved September 29, 2009.
  13. ^ US census worker death 'suicide'
  14. ^ Maddow, Rachel (September 25, 2009). "Census Worker Found Dead". MSNBC. Retrieved September 28, 2009.
  15. ^ a b c Riley, Jason (October 27, 2009). "Death investigation of Census worker expected to be resolved within weeks". The Courier-Journal. Archived from the original on January 19, 2013. Retrieved November 3, 2009.
  16. ^ a b c Dill, Joseph (September 29, 2009). "KSP: Sparkman was not found hanging, other reports 'pure speculation'". The Sentinel Echo. London, KY. Archived from the original on February 2, 2013. Retrieved September 29, 2009.
  17. ^ "Police: Kentucky census worker committed suicide, staged scene -". CNN. November 25, 2009. Retrieved May 1, 2010.
  18. ^ Alford, Roger; Jeffrey McMurray (September 26, 2009). "Family cemetery visit led to hanged census worker". Associated Press. Retrieved September 28, 2009.
  19. ^ a b McMurray, Jeffrey (October 7, 2009). "Officials release body of hanged Ky. census worker". Associated Press. Retrieved October 7, 2009.
  20. ^ a b Barrett, Devlin; Jeffrey McMurray (September 24, 2009). "AP Source: Census worker hanged with 'fed' on body". Associated Press. Retrieved September 29, 2009.
  21. ^ a b c Jonsson, Patrik (October 1, 2009). "Why police are keeping quiet on Census worker Sparkman death". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved October 12, 2009.
  22. ^ Police: Ky. census worker staged death as homicide
  23. ^ Bruce Schreiner; Roger Alford (November 25, 2009). "Police: Ky. census worker staged death as homicide". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 25, 2009.[dead link]
  24. ^ "The Charlotte Region". U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved October 12, 2009.
  25. ^ McMurray, Jeffrey (October 12, 2009). "Official: Census takers want teams after Ky. death". Associated Press. Retrieved October 12, 2009.
  26. ^ "'The Rachel Maddow Show' for Friday, September 25, 2009". September 28, 2008. Retrieved September 29, 2009.
  27. ^ a b c Biesk, Joe (September 27, 2009). "Clay County residents worry about area's image". The Courier-Journal. Retrieved September 29, 2009.
  28. ^ a b Benjamin, Richard M. (September 25, 2009). "Sparkman: Casualty of Methland, USA? Or Victim of Anti-Government Bile?". The Huffington Post. Retrieved September 29, 2009.
  29. ^ Linkins, Jason (June 25, 2009). "Bachmann Compares Census To WWII Internment Camps". The Huffington Post. Retrieved September 30, 2009.
  30. ^ "Law & Order - "Fed"". TV Review. December 14, 2009. Retrieved December 29, 2009.
  31. ^ a b John Jeremiah Sullivan. "American Grotesque", GQ, January 2010.

Further reading[edit]

  • Schapiro, Rich (March 2013). "The Hanging". The Atlantic. 311 (2): 68–81.