Police: Census worker made death look like homicide to get money

bestep@herald-leader.comNovember 25, 2009 

FRANKFORT — A part-time U.S. Census worker found dead near a secluded Clay County cemetery killed himself but tried to make the death look like a murder, authorities have concluded.

Bill Sparkman, 51, of London, apparently was trying to preserve payments under life insurance policies he had taken out, one as recently as May, which paid benefits if he died as a result of murder or accident, but not suicide or natural causes, police said.

Sparkman had survived a bout with cancer a few years ago, but he told a friend he believed the cancer had returned and that he would die, police said.

However, there was no indication Sparkman's cancer had recurred, said Cristin Rolf, deputy state medical examiner.

In a two-month investigation, police marshaled a number of reasons to conclude Sparkman ended his own life. Among other things, only Sparkman's DNA was found on evidence at the scene, and he had told a friend details of his plan that matched what happened, police said at a news conference Tuesday.

Police interviewed potential homicide suspects but ruled them out and found no evidence pointing to any conclusion except that Sparkman killed himself.

"We do believe that we have everything we need to rule out homicide and accidental" death, said state police Capt. Lisa Rudzinski, who helped direct the investigation.

The benefits under Sparkman's two insurance policies totaled $600,000. Police declined to say who would have gotten the money, though Sparkman's son Josh, 20, has said he was a beneficiary.

Bill Sparkman was last seen on Sept. 9, a Wednesday. The prior Saturday, he had told a friend, whom police did not name, of his plan to hang himself near a cemetery in Clay County.

The friend said he didn't think Sparkman was serious and so didn't tell anyone about the conversation before Sparkman died, said state police Detective Donald Wilson, the lead investigator.

Sparkman's body was found Sept. 12 in a clearing near a family cemetery. People visiting the hillside cemetery saw the body.

Sparkman was wearing only socks, and there was a rope around his neck tied to a tree. The word "fed" was written on his chest with black marker in letters 12 to 14 inches high, and his census identification card was taped to his head.

Sparkman died at that spot as a result of asphyxiation. Police say he staged the details to try to make it appear he was murdered because he was a federal employee.

He succeeded in some quarters.

In addition to causing a firestorm of media coverage, the bizarre details led to widespread speculation on the Internet, including that someone angry at the federal government attacked Sparkman as he gathered census information door to door.

There has been a long-running federal public-corruption investigation in Clay County, and Sparkman mentioned that to his friend, said FBI spokesman David Beyer.

Many people felt the speculation and coverage of the death played on Appalachian stereotypes and gave Clay County an undeserved black eye.

"Everybody was saying, 'It's bad, but why are they saying this without letting the investigation go forward?' " said state Sen. Robert Stivers, a Republican who lives in the county.

Many in the media owe the county an apology, Stivers said.

The census suspended some work in Clay County after Sparkman's death. The agency has been notified of the findings in Sparkman's death and plans to resume normal operations, Beyer said.

If there had been no writing on his chest and his identification hadn't been taped to him, police could have concluded more quickly that Sparkman's death was a suicide, Rudzinski told the Herald-Leader.

Instead, it took considerably more investigation to rule out homicide. Investigators even analyzed the writing on Sparkman's chest to see how the letters were applied and determine whether he wrote on himself or someone else wrote on him.

Forensic tests showed that the letters were applied from the bottom to the top — not the way an assailant facing Sparkman would write them. Police concluded that Sparkman wrote on himself, Rudzinski said.

Authorities cited a number of reasons supporting the conclusion that Sparkman killed himself.

For instance, there was no evidence that Sparkman had struggled with anyone. There were no defensive wounds on his body and no trauma such as a blow to the head, authorities said.

Tests ruled out any theory that he was drugged and unconscious when he was tied to the tree, making the lack of signs of a struggle more significant.

Sparkman's glasses were taped to his head with duct tape. The question that raises is why a killer would care whether Sparkman, who had poor vision, could see what was going on.

Police say Sparkman taped the glasses to his head to make sure he could see as he prepared to kill himself, Rudzinski said.

Also, Sparkman was not dangling from the tree the way people commonly perceive hanging.

His legs were bent at the knees and his knees were less than six inches off the ground, authorities said.

The rope was thrown over a limb and tied off to another tree. Sparkman leaned forward, which would have put the weight of his body on his neck and caused him to lose consciousness, authorities said.

At some point, however, Sparkman could have stood up, taken the pressure off his neck and not died, said Mike Wilder, head of the state medical examiner's office.

Sparkman's hands were bound by duct tape, but loosely, allowing him to move them shoulder-width apart, Rolf said.

The significance of that is that Sparkman, acting alone, could have created all the conditions found at the scene, Rudzinski said.

"We do not believe he was placed in that position" by someone else, Rudzinski said.

The final piece of evidence police wanted in order to reach a conclusion in the case were the results of DNA testing. The results, received last week, showed there was no DNA other than Sparkman's on the rope, the rag in his mouth or a similar rag found near his body.

Authorities say they don't think there was any single event that triggered Sparkman to take his own life, but rather a combination of problems. He had significant debt and didn't have a full-time job, Rudzinski said.

Sparkman, a native of Florida, had moved to Laurel County to work with the Boy Scouts of America. In addition to working part-time for the census, he was a substitute teacher.

He had gotten a degree to teach math but had not been hired full-time.

In addition to the insurance considerations, Sparkman might have been trying to spare his family from thinking he killed himself, Rudzinski said, though he left no note so there is no way to know exactly what he was thinking.

"Every suicide is that person's way of saying good-bye, ending their life," Rudzinski said.

Josh Sparkman, whom Sparkman, a single father, adopted and raised, declined to comment Tuesday. He earlier had said he didn't think his father killed himself.

Bill Sparkman's mother, Henrie Sparkman of Inverness, Fla., told the Associated Press Tuesday that she disagreed with the conclusion of suicide.

Investigators said they were confident in their findings. State police, the FBI, the medical examiner's office and the Clay County coroner agreed with the suicide conclusion.

"We did a thorough and complete investigation of all aspects surrounding Mr. Sparkman's death," Rudzinski said.

Authorities said they sympathized with the Sparkman family.

"Our hearts go out to him," Rudzinski said of Josh Sparkman. "He still lost his father at the end of the day."

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