The Hanging

The body of William Sparkman Jr., a 51-year-old census worker, was found in 2009 in an isolated cemetery in the Appalachian region of Kentucky. He hung naked from a tree, hands bound, the word FED scrawled in black marker across his chest. Sparkman's death briefly made headlines: to some, it seemed to implicate our polarized politics; to others, a region long known for its insularity. And then the case disappeared from the national view. Here is the story of what really happened to Bill Sparkman, a complex man whom few people truly knew.

Midday, Thursday, September 17, 2009

A phone rang at the Manchester Police Department. It was Willie Jean Moore, a 46-year-old resident of Arnetts Fork Road whose past arrests for theft had made her a well-known figure in law-enforcement circles. But this call had nothing to do with any of her cases. She told an officer that she had information about the death of the census worker.

When Moore showed up at the police station, Detective Wilson and an FBI agent were waiting. She walked into the small interrogation room looking haggard and talking fast. According to police reports, Moore said Hoskins Cemetery was a favorite hangout among local druggies. In recent weeks, Moore said, she had seen an SUV belonging to one of them, Robbie Collins, parked at the cemetery. She also said Collins was acting suspiciously in the days before Sparkman was found dead. At 9 p.m. on September 9, she said, she saw Collins riding an ATV down Arnetts Fork Road, before turning off the road and riding through the creek bed toward the cemetery.

At 7 p.m. the next day, Moore said, Collins and a friend stopped by her house. They appeared unhinged and told her they had to get out of town for a while. Collins gave Moore his cellphone number and asked her to call him every few days to let him know what the talk was around the community. Sparkman’s body was found two days later.

Moore’s story was intriguing, but Wilson didn’t think much of it. Throughout the interview, she kept getting lost in elaborate and often incomprehensible tangents. He had experience dealing with people like Moore. Sometimes, they want to help a little too much.

Then again, Robbie Collins was known to run with a rough crowd, and he had a long criminal history that included arrests for arson and illegal gun possession. The 29-year-old stood just 5 feet 8 inches, but he weighed 225 pounds. Around his right eye was a crude tribal tattoo. When Wilson discovered that Collins had indeed skipped town, his interest grew.

While on his way to interview one of Collins’s friends, Wilson was flagged down by a tow-truck driver. The driver told Wilson that a few days before Sparkman’s body was discovered, he’d gotten behind a slow-moving Toyota pickup truck and spotted what he believed to be a pair of hands, bound together, rising out of the truck bed, amid a group of three to five people. The driver said he’d even called 911 to report it. Wilson immediately called the emergency-dispatch line to check the complaint. A rep said the driver had filed the report that Tuesday evening. Wilson couldn’t be sure what the man saw, but he was confident it wasn’t Sparkman. One of Sparkman’s neighbors had reported seeing him that Wednesday.

The next day, a confidential source told an FBI agent that the word on the street was that Sparkman had been a “rat for the feds.” Investigators knew that if such a tantalizing piece of evidence leaked to the media, it would act like gasoline on a fire. The case had just ignited in the press after a law-enforcement official anonymously tipped off an Associated Press reporter. The dominant theory expressed in the media was that Sparkman had been killed by antigovernment extremists. But law-enforcement figures in Clay County remained skeptical. “Typical murders in this area, you get shot. They throw you over the hill,” Sheriff Kevin Johnson would say later. “There’s not this kind of ‘I’m going to send you a message’ type thing.”

When Manchester Police Chief Jeff Culver learned about Sparkman’s death, his first thought was that it was tied to the FBI’s presence in the area. In the previous decade, methamphetamine and prescription-drug use had skyrocketed, overdoses were common, and dealers were becoming more brazen. Fed up, a coalition of more than 60 churches had staged an antidrug march in May 2004 that drew some 3,500 people. Federal agents swooped in not long after and, over six years, arrested dozens of people, including drug dealers and some of the county’s most powerful political figures, on charges ranging from racketeering and extortion to vote-rigging and drug dealing. Culver speculated that Sparkman had been killed to send a message to the FBI: Get out.

Wilson was still no closer to learning what had happened to Sparkman, and the state police and FBI remained tight-lipped about the case. “We’re not responding to any of the speculation, the innuendo, or the rumors that are floating around,” state-police spokesman Don Trosper said at the time. “The Kentucky State Police concerns itself with facts.”

Wilson did his best to tune out the noise. His job was to follow the evidence. Unbeknownst to him, the investigation would soon take a sharp turn.

Sparkman had relished his census job. He loved exploring different places. The position brought him into contact with people like Mary Hibbard. A married mother of two from Manchester, Hibbard is a retired special-education teacher. She and her husband, Greg, are devout Baptists; Mary doesn’t go anywhere without her EvangeCube, an evangelism tool fashioned after a Rubik’s Cube that presents the story of Jesus Christ in pictures—to “introduce people to Christ who may not know him,” she says. When Sparkman drove up the Hibbards’ steep driveway in the spring of 2009, he was met by their two powerful boxers, Bocephus and Booboo. Sparkman honked the horn, and out came Mary. He remained in the seat of his pickup truck during the interview, recording her answers on his computer. After a few minutes, Mary started asking the questions. “Do you know Jesus?” she asked.

Religion is woven deeply into the social fabric in these parts. Clay County has no movie theaters and only a handful of bars, but more than 100 churches. For many people, life revolves around the church. It’s where weekends are spent, where lifelong friendships are forged, where husbands-to-be meet their brides. Mailboxes are emblazoned with Christian-themed signs: Be still and know that I am God. Sparkman told Hibbard he was a Christian. A former altar boy, he was a member of a Methodist church in London.

Ultimately, however, Sparkman believed education was his true calling. He longed to become a full-time teacher. Over the course of his nine years in the Laurel County School System, he had seen several other instructional assistants gain full-time positions after returning to school to get teaching degrees. With a son to care for and bills to pay, Sparkman didn’t think he’d ever get the opportunity to do the same. But then he learned about Western Governors University, an online college with offices in Salt Lake City, Utah, and in the summer of 2005, he enrolled.

The driver told Wilson that a few days before Sparkman’s body was discovered, he’d gotten behind a slow-moving Toyota pickup truck and spotted what he believed to be a pair of hands, bound together, rising out of the truck bed, amid a group of three to five people.

Two years later, Sparkman went to see his doctor for an ingrown toenail. The visit led to the discovery of a cyst on the side of his neck. He was immediately sent to the hospital. The diagnosis his doctors feared came 45 days later: Sparkman had Stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It was early November 2007. He was weeks away from graduating.

Sparkman was shaken by the diagnosis but not devastated by it. In a conversation with a colleague later that day, he revealed that he had cancer by explaining that he was planning to write a book—How My Big Toe Saved My Life.

Sparkman started chemotherapy that month. The sessions stretched across four months, stripping him of his hair and much of his strength. Through it all, Sparkman continued working at Josh’s old school, as a substitute teacher and an after-school staffer.

Sparkman vowed not to let the cancer derail his pursuit of a college degree, and in December 2007, he graduated with a bachelor’s of science in mathematics education. His resilience inspired the staff at Western Governors so deeply that they chose him to be a commencement speaker. But by the time the ceremony rolled around in February 2008, Sparkman’s blood-cell count was so low that his doctors told him he couldn’t safely fly. Determined to receive his diploma in person, Sparkman decided he’d drive the 1,735 miles to Salt Lake City.

At eight and a half minutes, Sparkman’s speech was the longest of the day. “I wanted to share a little about the road I took to get here today,” Sparkman began. He told of his Boy Scout days, his move to Kentucky, his experience working in the school system, and of course, his battle with cancer. The speech was folksy and funny and poignant. “I’d been knocked down, but I refused to be knocked out,” Sparkman said. “Those brick walls will appear from time to time in your career. Do not let them stop you. There are no failures, just teaching moments.”

That April, Sparkman found out his cancer was in remission. He had won. With his cancer retreating and his diploma in hand, he must have been brimming with confidence.

Presented by

Rich Schapiro is a staff writer at The New York Daily News and an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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