The federal government has suspended door-to-door interviews in rural Kentucky where a U.S. census worker was found hanged from a tree, although census authorities said today they have "no information" that his death was related to his job.
The FBI is investigating whether Bill Sparkman, 51, was the victim of anti-government sentiment. His body was found near a cemetery in Clay County Sept. 12 with the letters "Fed" scrawled in his chest.
Investigators are saying little about the crime, but some people wonder if his death in the remote part of southeastern Kentucky known for its meth labs and hidden marijuana fields had less to do with his job than simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Specific details of the investigation are not being released at this time because it is an ongoing investigation," Kentucky State Patrol Trooper Don Trosper said.
U.S. Census Bureau spokesman Burt Reist issued a statement today saying,"The extent of information we have about the investigation is that the FBI is currently gathering evidence to determine whether this death was the result of foul play."
Reist added, "We have no information that this tragedy was related Mr. Sparkman's work with the Census Bureau."
The Census Bureau said Sparkman's death was the first suspicious death of a census worker since 1998, although a 71-year-old employe was killed by a dog in Nashville, Ind., in 2000.
Sparkman's body was found hanging in Daniel Boone National Forest. His truck was found nearby with his computer still inside.
The bureau also released a list of safety tips they teach to their census takers ranging from avoiding dogs to how to deal with people who rant at them.
The tips emphasize that worker should avoid any situation in which they do not feel safe.
"Remove yourself immediately from any situation you feel is unsafe. If you feel unsafe about entering a respondent's home or a building or facility, do not go in," it warns.
Sparkman's mother, Henrie Sparkman, told The Associated Press that she has her own theories on what happened to her son, but nothing she could immediately share.
"I have my own ideas, but I can't say them out loud. Not at this point," she said. "Right now, what I'm doing, I'm just waiting on the FBI to come to some conclusion."
Sparkman said authorities have told her very little about her son's death, only that the body was decomposed.
"I was told it would be better for him to be cremated," she said.
Sparkman, his mother said, had moved to Kentucky to take a leadership position with the Boy Scouts of America, himself an Eagle Scout.
A single father and non-Hodgkin lymphoma survivor, Sparkman was working two jobs, as a census worker and a substitute teacher, while he waited for a permanent teaching position to open up.
Carol Williams was Sparkman's course mentor in the teacher education program at Western Governors University where he took online classes to graduate in 2008.
"He was going to be a middle school mathamatics teacher," she said. "From what I recall, he was an instruction aide, what we call a paraprofessional. He did a lot of things that teachers do."
Slain Census Worker Described as 'Genuine'
Williams said he was so devoted to education and such a hard worker that she nominated him to speak at commencement, which he attended in Salt Lake City after driving cross country.
"He was easy. He was genuine," she said. "He's that teacher you want your child to have."
Though Williams said his death obviously saddened her, "I try to focus on the pride I felt in him."
In a 2008 profile in The Times Tribune, which covers southeastern Kentucky, Sparkman talked about juggling school, work, chemotherapy treatments and being a single father to a teenage son.
"I know a lot of people were out there praying for me, and I have no doubt that it was a mixture of God's will, the doctors, and my friends and family that got me through this," he told the newspaper.
The teachers and students at Johnson Elementary School were stunned by the news and are now grieving for their friend.
"He was always where he's supposed to be when he was supposed to be," Family Resource Director Gilbert Accairdo said. "We have the same questions that everybody does, you know? What happened to Mr. Sparkman?"
Accairdo said that he had spoken to Sparkman several times about being careful on his home visits.
"Whenever you do home visits, you don't know how people are going to perceive you," he said, "and if you work for the government, you don't know how people are going to perceive you."
But why Sparkman was even in that remote part of the national park is something police are still investigating.
"They have no idea either on what was going on with this situation, why he would have been in that area," state trooper Trosper said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.