Government Distrust and a Dead Census Taker

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Ed Reinke / AP

Hoskins Cemetery in Manchester, Ky., near where census worker Bill Sparkman was found dead

The death of a U.S. Census Bureau worker in Clay County, Ky., who was found hanging from a tree, reportedly with the word Fed scrawled on his chest, rippled through the national consciousness more than other crimes from rural, tucked-away corners might have. The discovery of the body of Bill Sparkman, 51, a substitute teacher and a field worker for the bureau, comes at a time when talk media, tea parties and white-hot town-hall meetings have fanned antigovernment sentiment. Speculation has run rampant that the Sparkman case may be related to the vitriol. Kentucky, like many other Southern states, voted overwhelmingly for Senator John McCain during the 2008 presidential election.

Sparkman's body was found on Sept. 12 near a small family cemetery in a remote patch of the Daniel Boone National Forest in Clay County, about 18 miles south of the county seat of Manchester. According to published reports, Sparkman died of asphyxiation. Kentucky state police, who are in charge of the investigation, with FBI assistance, have not determined whether the death was a homicide, suicide or accident, but an assistant director at the Census Bureau's southern office says the police have told them it is an apparent homicide.

If so, was it part of the recent rage at what right-wing commentators decry as the big-spending, socialistic government of the first African-American President? Al Cross, a former reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal who covered the area for 30 years, believes that the conditions underlying the murder go back much farther and are much deeper — and more local — than the recent spate of ire.

Now the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community at the University of Kentucky, Cross told TIME that "the idea that hatred for Barack Obama played any role in this is rank speculation and completely unwarranted at this juncture." Explains Cross: "Resistance to federal authority in the area dates back more than a century, to the era of major moonshine stills." And for nearly the past three decades, he says, "federal and state authorities have targeted pot growers in Clay and adjoining counties." It is currently marijuana-harvesting season, probably a particularly bad time to randomly knock on doors in Clay County.

Cross points out that the economically distressed area's drug activity — from marijuana grown in the national forest to methamphetamines and prescription drugs found elsewhere — is often intermingled with political corruption and that "in the last several years, the Justice Department has won indictments and convictions of officials and other local residents for vote fraud, other corruption and other crimes." The area is within the jurisdiction of the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force, which eventually created another task force to take on political corruption.

Clay County, says Martin Hatfield, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Kentucky, is "certainly an area that's been given a lot of attention from the federal authorities over the past several years. Who knows what kinds of emotions that has stirred up?" In such areas, Cross says, there's a certain tolerance of underground economies — and additional sensitivity to any perceived government snooping. Hatfield notes that local residents may turn a blind eye to drugs and corruption because of fear of retribution. "Fear becomes the norm — people don't know any other way, and it becomes part of the culture. It takes time to change. I think there's been progress, and it's tragic to see something like this happen."

Sparkman, who had worked with the Census Bureau in five counties since 2003, was a well-liked man who'd gone back to school to get his teaching certification, according to published reports. Despite his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosis, he continued working for the Census and substitute teaching at an elementary school in adjacent Laurel County while waiting for a full-time position to open up.

Retired Kentucky state trooper Gilbert Acciardo, who worked with Sparkman at the elementary school, told the Associated Press that he'd cautioned Sparkman about the Census work. "I told him on more than one occasion, based on my years in the state police ... when you go into those counties, be careful, because people are going to perceive you different than they do elsewhere." But Roy Silver, a sociology professor at Southeast Community College in Harlan County, told the wire service that he doesn't think "distrust of government is any more or less here than anywhere else in the country."

Hatfield says he's waiting to see where the FBI investigation leads before drawing any conclusions, but he notes that circumstantial evidence suggests Sparkman may have been killed because of his tangential association with the Federal Government. "It doesn't matter if you're a lowly postal worker or a law-enforcement official or a prosecutor or judge," he said. "History shows us people exact revenge wherever they can get it when they're angry."

Cross worries that all the attention will only further stigmatize the area as being stereotypically anti-Obama, on top of the reputation it already bears for illegal-drug cultivation, political corruption, government distrust and a general frontier mentality. He recalls the haranguing ABC-TV's Diane Sawyer took from Bill O'Reilly during an interview before the February broadcast of "A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains," her documentary about life in central Appalachia, which includes Clay County. "He basically asked her why anyone should care about that area and said it's a lost cause."