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, Monday, September 28, 2009

Lowell Adams was seated in the FBI office in London, awaiting the start of a polygraph test. Ten days had passed since his initial police interview. He had decided to come clean.

During the pre-test interview, Lowell told the polygrapher that he wanted to correct his earlier statement. Then he dropped a bomb: Sparkman had spoken with him several times about killing himself. In fact, on the Saturday before he was found dead, Sparkman told Lowell that he was going to do it that Wednesday. In August, Lowell explained, Sparkman had told him that his cancer had returned, the experimental drugs were not working, and he didn’t expect to make it beyond October. Sparkman said he wanted to commit suicide to spare himself the agony of dying from cancer.

Lowell had a lot more to say. Sparkman had told him he’d already selected a place in the woods in Clay County to do the deed. He had it all planned out. He intended to hang himself by throwing a rope around a tree, attaching cinder blocks to his feet, and hurling himself down a hill. He was going to tie his hands behind his back to give the appearance that someone had murdered him. To further confuse investigators, he was going to dispose of his gun and laptop, and wipe down his truck to eliminate fingerprints.

Lowell continued: Sparkman told him he’d already practiced asphyxiating himself by putting a bag over his head. Sparkman wasn’t sure he could pull everything off on his own, so he asked Lowell to help. Lowell refused. On that Saturday, Sparkman asked Lowell to get drunk with him later in the day, one last hurrah. Sparkman picked up a case of Budweiser, but Lowell turned him down, saying he had to work the next day. He was concerned that people might think either that he was “in on it” or that they were engaged in homosexual activity, which, he emphasized, was not the case.

Lowell was done. The polygraph test was postponed; it could render inaccurate results after such an extended pre-interview. The polygrapher wrote out Lowell’s statement on white computer paper. At the bottom of the three-page note, Lowell signed his name and added a one-line mea culpa: “I have read this sorry I didn’t tell this before.”

Wilson learned about Lowell’s statement the next morning in a meeting at the FBI office. From the outside, it may have been hard to reconcile the cancer-beating, college-graduating Sparkman with the despondent, apparently cancer-stricken Sparkman whom Lowell had described. But Lowell’s account fit many of case’s particulars. What’s more, Lowell didn’t describe every last detail. That would have aroused suspicion. Had Lowell gotten it exactly right, Wilson would have placed him at the scene.

Lowell took the polygraph test eight days later. He passed.

The evidence pointing to suicide was mounting, but Wilson still couldn’t reach a definitive conclusion. There was still too much physical evidence that couldn’t be explained: the letters on his chest, the small length of rope, the missing knife or other cutting instrument. And there was another mystery: If it was suicide, how did he pull it off?

When the glow of his graduation and his cancer triumph faded, Sparkman was still balancing three low-paying jobs: substitute teacher, after-school staffer, and census taker. His main priority became finding a full-time teaching job. Sparkman kept a close eye on the openings posted on the Laurel County Schools Web site. Months passed, and he was still struggling to find work. When a math-teacher position opened up at a high school near his house, Sparkman told his colleagues how badly he wanted it. When he learned that the job had gone to someone else, he didn’t hide his disappointment.

The investigators didn’t fully grasp Lowell’s relationship with Sparkman, and scheduled him for a polygraph. They could not have known that Lowell knew more than he was letting on. A lot more.

Things weren’t going particularly well at home, either. According to court documents, in August 2008, Josh was arrested for receiving a stolen gun from a friend. A judge sentenced him to six months’ house arrest and had him outfitted with an electronic ankle bracelet. Sparkman decided he had finally had enough. A few months after Josh’s house arrest ended, Sparkman told him it was time he moved out.

After Josh moved in with Gracie Thomas in the summer of 2009, she often heard him berating his dad over the phone. For years, Gracie had watched Josh walk all over his father. Sparkman still hadn’t cut him off; he regularly added money to Josh’s prepaid Walmart credit card. If Sparkman hadn’t given up on Josh by now, he was never going to. “Bill lived and breathed for Sparky,” says Gracie’s mom, Candice Smith, referring to Josh by his nickname.

10:30 a.m., Thursday, October 8, 2009

At a meeting at the state-police headquarters, in Frankfort, Emily Craig addressed Wilson and the other investigators. A renowned forensic anthropologist, Craig had been asked to review the case. She started by suggesting that the time of death, given the contents of Sparkman’s stomach and the condition of his body, could have been as early as Wednesday night. She said a fractured bone in his neck was healing, a sign that the injury had occurred in the past and had nothing to do with his death. This supported Lowell’s claim that Sparkman had practiced suffocating himself.

Craig’s third finding was by far the most significant. While studying the lettering on Sparkman’s chest, Craig, who is also a professional illustrator, was struck by a mark at the top of the letter E. It looked to her to be what illustrators refer to as a “bead,” a drop of ink that appears at the end of any marker stroke on a nonporous surface. At the bottom of the letter, she noticed that the black ink was evenly dispersed, which signals the start of a stroke. The other letters had the same features. This, Craig determined, indicated that the letters on Sparkman’s chest had been drawn upside down. It seemed Sparkman had scrawled F E D on himself.

Lowell’s account was bolstered by two other discoveries revealed at the meeting: Rolf, the forensic pathologist, backed off from her original statement that Sparkman’s colon appeared to have been cleansed; instead, she said, it was simply empty. And the toxicology report showed no sign of any drug that would render Sparkman unconscious.

A few days after the meeting, Wilson brought Sparkman’s glasses to the Walmart in London and found out that they were made to correct 20/400 vision. Now it made sense: Sparkman wouldn’t have been able to pull it all off without his glasses. He had taped them on for a simple reason: to allow him to see.

Wilson sensed that the investigation was nearing its end. On October 22, Josh Sparkman and Robbie Collins were called in to take polygraph tests. They both passed. (Collins could not be reached for this story. Neither Josh nor Lowell returned requests for comment.) No link was found between the fibers on Josh’s pants and the red rags at the scene. In Collins’s case, cellphone records confirmed that he was nowhere near Hoskins Cemetery the week Sparkman vanished. The DNA results would come in not long after. The red rags contained only Sparkman’s DNA, and the small piece of rope found on the ground contained a partial DNA profile that also was consistent with Sparkman’s.

On October 26, the lead investigators held one final meeting. At this point, the group acknowledged, all leads had been exhausted. The evidence pointed to only one scenario: Sparkman had killed himself, but staged the scene to create the appearance that he was murdered. The tape around his wrists and ankles, the rag in his mouth, the census ID taped to his head, the letters on his chest—it was all a ruse. Sparkman wanted the police to believe he was murdered because he worked for the government. But why?

Lowell had claimed that Sparkman told him he wanted to kill himself rather than die from cancer. But Sparkman’s two cancer doctors contradicted that theory. In interviews with the FBI, they said Sparkman was told in April 2008 that his cancer was in remission. In fact, on his last visit, on August 13 of that year, his chemotherapy port was taken out. The doctors gave Sparkman no reason to believe his cancer had returned.

Without a suicide note, determining with certainty why someone took his or her own life is impossible. At least one person close to Sparkman thinks he might have been struggling with his sexuality. Wilson concluded that financial problems pushed him over the edge. Sparkman had had a hard time keeping up with his house payments, and his home was in foreclosure. His finances were in such disarray, he had started taking out credit cards to pay off other cards, compounding his debt. At the time of his death, Sparkman owed more than $50,000, according to the FBI.

Then there were the life-insurance policies, payable to Josh and Lowell. Each was valued at $300,000, and each went into effect in 2009. Both policies were for accidental death only; they wouldn’t pay out for a suicide.

The investigators believed Sparkman’s inability to find a full-time teaching job had left him increasingly despondent. Josh couldn’t hold down a job, and was in and out of trouble with the law. The future seemed grim for Bill and his boy. Wilson believed that Sparkman saw his dramatic final act as the only way to spare his son a lifetime of financial hardship.

The investigators called a press conference for November 24. At 2 p.m. that day, in a conference room at the state-police lab in Frankfort, Captain Lisa Rudzinski ticked off the evidence pointing to suicide. Wilson, standing ramrod-straight, looked on. Rudzinski took her time while discussing the most combustible element of the case, the three letters scrawled on Sparkman’s chest. With a black marker, she drew each letter on a dry-erase board, from the bottom up, emphasizing the bead at the top of each one. Describing Sparkman’s final moments, Rudzinski didn’t mince words. She pointed out that his body was in contact with the ground almost to his knees. To have survived, Rudzinski said, “all Mr. Sparkman had to do at any time was stand up.”

The case proved to be far less sinister than the early theories amplified by the press. There were no antigovernment zealots. No murderous drug traffickers. No bloodthirsty backwoodsmen.

After the investigation was closed, Sparkman’s house was seized, and Josh seemed to drop out of sight. Because Sparkman’s death was ruled a suicide, the insurance money was never paid out.

One person who was not at all surprised by the outcome of the case was Charles House, the president of the Clay County Genealogical and Historical Society. An author and biographer, House has spent more than a decade researching Clay County’s past and people. “This place has had lots and lots of murders throughout its history, going back to the blood feuds in the 1800s and even up until the 1970s,” House says. “But I don’t think there’s ever been a single case of an outsider coming in here and getting whacked.” He told the reporters who called him—and call they did, from places as far away as France—that the media were sensationalizing the case by recycling old stereotypes about the region. “We’re not so backward that we get angry about this stuff anymore, because it’s been going on since the 1960s,” says House. “We’re just more amused than angry.”

On September 8, four days before he was found dead, Bill Sparkman called Sara Upchurch, his lead field representative at the Census Bureau. Sparkman told her he planned to spend the next two days doing census runs in Clay County and nearby Knox County. He didn’t specify exactly where he was going, and Upchurch had no reason to ask. Sparkman was his usual chipper self. He told Upchurch there were several festivals and family reunions going on in town over the weekend. Then they exchanged good-byes and hung up.

At about noon the next day, Linda Wilder stepped out of her house to walk her dog and saw Sparkman’s red truck heading down the street. Wilder lived at the bottom of Sparkman’s block. In 16 years, they had spoken infrequently; the bulk of their contact came via casual waves. This time was no different. Sparkman waved to Wilder. Wilder waved back.

It was the last time Bill Sparkman was seen alive.

Later that day, according to the police, he drove to Clay County and turned down Arnetts Fork Road. He had already ditched his census laptop and pistol, and he had already written F E D on his chest. In his vehicle was a long white rope, five red rags, possibly a small blade, and strips of gray duct tape, just enough for the job. Sparkman crossed the creek and parked his truck in the clearing. He pulled out the rope and carried it to a tree at the opposite edge of the clearing, his socks making the faintest of impressions on the dirt and leaves.

Now, according to the police, his Boy Scout training kicked in. He tossed the rope over a branch about 15 feet up, wrapped it around the trunk of a nearby tree, and then tied it off at the base of a third tree. He tied the other end into a noose, and cut off the loose end with a knife or a sharp rock that he chucked into the dense woods. Then, he likely walked back to the truck and wiped down the steering wheel and dashboard with one of the rags. He stripped off his polo shirt, pants, and underwear and placed them neatly in the truck bed. Naked except for his socks, he tiptoed back to the tree. Holding a rag in each hand, he carefully wrapped his ankles together with the tape, making sure his fingers never touched the adhesive. He then took off his glasses, placed a strip of tape over his head, and secured them onto his face. He stuffed a rag into his mouth, then ran a strip of tape around his head. Grabbing another rag, he bound his wrists together with the final piece of tape by rolling one around the other.

Everything was in place. But Sparkman realized the rope was too long. He hopped over to the second tree, loosened the tape around his wrists, untied the knot, and then retied it with less slack. Satisfied with the new length, he hopped back to the noose and slid his head inside. He steadied himself. And then, according to the police, Bill Sparkman took one final breath and let his feet go out from under him.

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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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