RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. We're following up this morning on the death of a man named Bill Sparkman. He was a teacher. He was 51 years old. But what seemed to capture attention when he died in a national forest in Clay County, Kentucky was his part-time job as a U.S. census worker. He was found with a noose around his neck and the word fed scrawled on his chest. Sparkman's friends are asking questions about his mysterious death. Officials have given little information so far.
NPR's Brian Naylor has this report, and we should warn you now that you may find some of the details disturbing.
BRIAN NAYLOR: Bill Sparkman was, by all accounts, a busy man. A former Eagle Scout leader, Sparkman moved to eastern Kentucky from Florida, took a job as classroom aide to help his young son in school, and got a teaching degree from an online college. He substitute taught, and went door-to-door as a part-time census worker.
Gilbert Acciardo is the Family Resource director for the Johnson Elementary School in London, Kentucky, where Sparkman lived and worked. He says students looked forward to the days when Sparkman filled in.
Mr. GILBERT ACCIARDO (Family Resource director, Johnson Elementary School): They'd say who's coming over today? Who's going to be watching us today? And I'd say Mr. Sparkman, and they would be so excited. Probably out of all the people that did the afterschool care program, he was the most well thought of. I don't know why, they just had a good rapport with him and he with them.
NAYLOR: Sparkman received his teaching degree from Western Governors University, driving to Utah to attend and speak at his commencement. He was also battling cancer at the time.
Mr. BILL SPARKMAN: I have to say a very special thank you to the staff and students at Johnson Elementary School in London. I spent nine glorious years there, but the last several months have had its ups and downs, and they have cheered me on through all of it. I would not be feeling as good as I do without their support.
NAYLOR: Sparkman's body was found here at Hoskins Cemetery, a family plot on a hillside within the Daniel Boone National Forest. It's a tranquil spot, well hidden, its solitude disturbed only by the chirping of birds and the wrestling of leaves.
A pair of discarded latex gloves underneath a tall oak marks the spot where Sparkman's body was discovered. A rope had been tied around his neck, police say, and looped over a tree branch, but his feet were still on the ground. The man who found the body told the Associated Press it had been bound and gagged and was nearly naked. According to the Clay County coroner, on Sparkman's chest, written in a red marker was the word fed. His census I.D. was reportedly taped to his neck.
Investigators have been tightlipped. Don Trosper is a spokesman for the Kentucky State Police.
Mr. JOHN TROSPER (Spokesman, Kentucky State Police): It's a death investigation, which means we've not been able to rule out anything other than natural causes. And there's all kinds of rumors, speculations and innuendo, and we deal in facts.
NAYLOR: Among the speculation and innuendo is that Sparkman was killed because of his connection to the federal government. The Census Bureau in a statement says it has no information that this tragedy was related to Mr. Sparkman's work with the census. Still, it has suspended its fieldwork in Clay County, and the FBI has been assisting the investigation.
The hill country of southeastern Kentucky is rural and its residents poor. It's been known to harbor some meth labs and a few marijuana growers, according to Police Chief Jeff Culver of nearby Manchester. But Culver says most folks here are friendly, and by no means is it a hotbed of antigovernment sentiment.
Chief JEFF CULVER (Police Chief, Manchester, Kentucky): I've been here for 20 years, as a matter of fact, a little over 20 years, and we've never had any antigovernment demonstrations of any kind.
NAYLOR: In fact, Culver says, it's just the opposite.
Mr. CULVER: Due to the extremely high rate of unemployment, there's a lot of people here that depend upon the government for assistance.
NAYLOR: Gilbert Acciardo, himself a retired Kentucky state trooper, says he warned his colleague of the dangers of working in rural areas. He was most worried that Sparkman might drive off one of the steep, twisting roads.
When students at Johnson Elementary were told of their friend's death, some cried. Others wrote on a big card what they would have liked to have said to him. Acciardo says it's difficult for everyone because no one knows what to make of the mystery.
Mr. ACCIARDO: I don't think we've had time to cry yet, and I don't think we've had time to mourn yet because we want to know what happened to Mr. Sparkman, and we don't know. And until we do know, there won't be any closure for us.
NAYLOR: Brian Naylor, NPR News, London, Kentucky.
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