Census worker's death by asphyxiation might not be homicide, police say

Asphyxiation caused the death of a federal census worker whose body was found at a rural Clay County cemetery with a rope around his neck, preliminary autopsy results show, but state police have not determined the death was a homicide.

William E. Sparkman, 51, of Laurel County, reportedly had the word "fed" scrawled on his chest.

That raised questions about whether he was killed because of hard feelings against the government and catapulted the mysterious death into a national story.

However, on Thursday, police had not confirmed Sparkman was even doing census work in Clay County at the time he died, said Capt. Lisa Rudzinski, commander of the state police post handling the investigation.

One media report — which quoted a census official saying a computer Sparkman used for census work was found in his truck near the cemetery — wasn't true, Rudzinski said.

Police found Sparkman's red pickup truck, but the computer wasn't in it, she said.

Police have not ruled whether Sparkman's death resulted from homicide, accident or suicide, Rudzinski said.

"There are too many unanswered questions for us to lean one way or the other," Rudzinski said. "We have not ruled this is a hate crime against a federal employee. We're still trying to determine if foul play was involved."

The only thing police have concluded is that Sparkman didn't die as a result of natural causes.

Reports that Sparkman was hanging from a tree at the cemetery create an image that doesn't fit the evidence where Sparkman was found, Rudzinski said.

Sparkman had a rope around his neck that was attached to a tree, but he was not hanging in the sense that many people envision, she said.

Sparkman's body was in contact with the ground, state police said in a news release.

News that Sparkman had the word "fed" on his chest came to the Associated Press from a law enforcement official who requested anonymity.

The official did not tell the AP what was used to scrawl the word on Sparkman.

David Beyer, a spokesman for the FBI in Kentucky, said the agency was assisting state police and trying to figure out if Sparkman's death had anything to do with his being a federal employee.

State police contacted the FBI about the case because Sparkman was a federal employee, not because of a belief that his death resulted from his employment, Rudzinski said.

Sparkman died early Sept. 11. Some people visiting Hoskins Family Cemetery the next day saw his body and called 911, Rudzinski said.

The cemetery is in the Daniel Boone National Forest in southern Clay County.

Sparkman's part-time work for the U.S. Census Bureau involved going door-to-door to gather statistics, friends said.

Sparkman was also a substitute teacher in Laurel County and helped at an after-school daycare program at Johnson Elementary School, said Gilbert Acciardo Jr., director of the school's family resource center.

Acciardo said Sparkman was originally from Florida but came to Laurel County to work for the Boy Scouts of America. Sparkman was an Eagle Scout, Acciardo said.

Sparkman had good rapport with young people, Acciardo said.

"He was an enthusiastic, energetic individual who wanted to help people," Acciardo said.

Sparkman was a conscientious, dedicated teacher and a kind person, said Kelly Greene, who coordinates substitute teacher assignments at Laurel County schools.

Greene said Sparkman went to school online to finish a teaching degree even as he worked in the school system and battled cancer.

"He was doing it all. He was an awesome person," she said.

A profile of Sparkman produced by Western Governors University and published in the Corbin Times-Tribune said Sparkman finished his bachelor's degree in math education from the school in December 2007.

He wasn't supposed to fly for health reasons, so he drove for days to get to Salt Lake City for the commencement, the story said.

He was a single parent with one son who is now an adult.

Greene said she and others worried about Sparkman going door-to-door in rural, relatively isolated areas. But when she asked him if he was worried, "He said, 'Ah, it's a job,'" she said.

Acciardo, a retired state trooper, said he had cautioned Sparkman to be careful. That was out of a general concern about him going to people's homes in rural areas, not a concern he would face danger because he was a federal employee, Acciardo said.

"People may not understand you're just getting statistics," Acciardo said he told Sparkman.

Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, told the AP that Clay County is economically poor and has a "pretty wild history of a black market economy, a drug economy."

"I don't think there is any deep-seated hatred of government there," he said. "Government is not seen as the enemy, except for people who might fear getting caught for what they're doing."

Davis said it was a dangerous time of year for someone to go knocking on doors because marijuana producers are typically harvesting their crop. "It would be reckless."

The area also has seen a growth in methamphetamine production at crude labs in people's homes.

The Census Bureau has suspended door-to-door work in rural areas of Clay County.