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.
Danny Wilcox-Frazier

The road to Hoskins Cemetery snakes deep into the Daniel Boone National Forest, a 700,000-acre swath of rugged wilderness in southeastern Kentucky.

The cemetery isn’t easy to find; it lies hidden about 100 yards off Arnetts Fork Road, a narrow, winding stretch of pavement that ends abruptly at a grassy clearing, about a mile farther on. Hunkered down along its final half mile are about 15 weathered ranch houses and ramshackle trailers. Most of the families living along the road have been doing so for generations, eking out a hardscrabble existence driving tow trucks or repairing cars or digging up and selling wild ginseng and other herbal roots. Jagged ridges wall off this tiny community, making it a lot like many other places in Clay County—remote, clannish, and foreboding, even to Kentuckians from the next county over.

To reach Arnetts Fork, you must drive two miles into the forest on Big Double Creek Road. In late spring and summer, the thick brush lining the road and a canopy of leaves overhead form a sort of cocoon. Cellphone service is spotty. Outsiders say that if you stumble across any people in these woods, chances are they’re up to no good. It’s the kind of place you don’t go without a gun.

At 6:15 p.m. on Saturday, September 12, 2009, a 41-year-old Ohio man named Jerry Weaver turned his silver Chevy Equinox onto Arnetts Fork Road. With him were his wife, Connie, and their 19-year-old daughter, Brittany. The Weavers were heading to the cemetery to visit the graves of some of Connie’s relatives. Riding in two cars ahead of them were her parents, plus her sister and brother-in-law and their two kids. They had all converged on Kentucky for a family reunion.

When the convoy reached the gravel road leading to the cemetery, each car stopped on the roadside. A metal gate blocked the entrance, but the men saw that the creek running next to the road was dry, and decided they could cross it and rejoin the road beyond the gate. Everyone but Weaver piled into his father-in-law’s black Toyota pickup, filling the cab and truck bed. Weaver told them to go ahead, then pulled out his gun, a Taurus .357 Magnum. He had seen things in these woods before that he didn’t like. Holding the revolver at his side, Weaver started following the truck on foot.

It was a glorious day—mid-70s and clear, with a light wind. Weaver walked with his eyes trained on the Toyota. As the vehicle curled slightly to the right, just out of sight, he heard Connie scream. Weaver rushed forward and at first saw only a red pickup truck at the near edge of a clearing. But as he walked around the empty vehicle, a figure at a far corner of the clearing came into view, about 40 yards away. It was motionless: a naked man hanging from a tree.

Weaver froze. Within seconds, his father-in-law, Clinton Hibbard, stepped beside him, holding his own gun, a .38-caliber revolver. He had parked far away from the body. No reason for the rest of his family to stare at that. The forest was eerily quiet; both men felt as though they were being watched. They were still too far from the body to make out its condition. Hibbard asked Weaver what he thought they should do. “Get out of here and call 911,” Weaver replied instantly.

About an hour later, Weaver and his father-in-law met up with a state trooper at a forest-ranger station five miles away and led him to the scene. For the first time, Weaver walked up close to the suspended corpse.

He was horrified.

The man’s wrists and ankles were bound with gray duct tape. A red rag was stuffed into his mouth, secured with tape wrapped around his head. A U.S. Census Bureau identification card dangled from the tape, near his right ear. And scrawled across the man’s chest, in ink from a black felt-tip pen, were three giant letters: F E D.

The man was slumped forward, his feet touching the ground, a noose of white nylon rope around his neck. The rope had been tossed over the branch directly above him, wrapped around a nearby tree, and tied off on a third tree. He was wearing only socks.

The state trooper ran the license plate on the red Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck. The name matched the one on the ID card: William Sparkman Jr. He was 51 years old and lived 40 miles away in London, the seat of nearby Laurel County.

The trooper took a close look at the man’s two census tags. The first featured a head shot. On the second was the Census Bureau’s “Oath of Non-Disclosure,” under the legend Sworn for Life to Protect Confidentiality.

The gruesome scene haunted Weaver for weeks. He was certain the middle-aged census worker had been murdered and hung up for display. “Like some kind of calling card,” he later said. For days after, Weaver’s teenage daughter remained so traumatized, she slept on the floor of her parents’ bedroom.

Kentucky State Police Detective Donald Wilson was at home, settling into his weekend, when the call came. “Deceased person found hanging in Hoskins Cemetery.” No cause for alarm, Wilson thought; suicides weren’t all that uncommon in the area.

Tall and well built, with a boyish face and light-brown hair cropped close, Wilson, age 28 at the time, had been a state trooper for six years. Just two days earlier, he’d been promoted to detective. This would be his first case.

Wilson hopped into his unmarked police cruiser and headed for the scene. He arrived at the cemetery at 8:30 p.m. “Holy shit,” he mouthed as he got his first good look at the body. Besides the nakedness, the tape, the ID card, and the word on the corpse’s chest, Wilson noticed that Sparkman’s face was a bloody mess. A trickle of blood had leaked out of his right ear. Wilson wondered whether he had been bludgeoned.

Something else caught Wilson’s attention. The tape binding Sparkman’s ankles was tightly wrapped, but the tape around his wrists was loose and full of kinks. Stranger still, a separate strip of tape ran over the top of Sparkman’s head, securing his eyeglasses to his face.

Waving flashlights, Wilson and the trooper who’d arrived with Weaver scoured the scene. About 10 feet from the body, they found three red rags matching the one in Sparkman’s mouth. They also discovered a short length of rope, apparently cut from the one used to hang him. The pair searched for a cutting instrument, but didn’t find one. Whoever was responsible for Sparkman’s death must have ditched it in the surrounding woods or taken it away.

Wilson pulled out a pad and pen. He noted that there was excess rope where the knot was secured to the second tree, suggesting it had been tied, then untied, tightened, and retied. The area around the body appeared to be undisturbed, and no tire tracks from vehicles other than Sparkman’s were visible in the clearing. Inside the bed of Sparkman’s truck was a pile of clothes, neatly folded: a pair of navy dress pants, a three-button polo shirt, gray Fruit of the Loom boxer briefs. No shoes. No wallet. That the truck was left untouched struck Wilson as curious. Criminals in the area were known to burn vehicles to eliminate evidence.

At 9:30 p.m., two veteran officers, Sergeant Tom Atkin and Detective Mike Bowling, arrived on the scene. All four investigators combed through the dirt, grass, and leaves near Sparkman’s body. Atkin discovered a syringe and an empty vial about 25 feet away, leading the men to wonder whether Sparkman had been drugged. But the paraphernalia might just as easily have been left behind by an addict.

Wilson had on his hands what is known as an “equivocal death,” a case in which the manner of death is unknown. Any seasoned homicide detective will tell you that an equivocal-death investigation cannot be closed until all scenarios but one are ruled out. Wilson mentally mapped out the possibilities: autoerotic asphyxiation (accident); an elaborate suicide; forcible hanging (murder); or the hanging of the body postmortem (murder).

The history of Clay County is soaked in blood. Violence roiled this remote corner of Appalachia in the late 19th century, fueled by grisly feuds between rival families. The hostility between the wealthy and influential clans—the Bakers versus the Howards, the Philpots versus the Griffins, the Garrards versus the Whites—spanned decades and spawned national headlines. “It is a strange, bloody story, this of Clay County’s two recent feuds,” read a New York Times report published on November 26, 1899. “Its ferocity, barbarity, and cruelty are appalling.”

The county’s reputation for lawlessness continued into the 1900s. Assassinations were common, especially around election time. Newspapers described the place as a cloistered hive of bloodshed, a place that didn’t take kindly to the prying eyes of journalists or detectives. The violence ebbed in the 1940s, however, and a coal boom soon brought the region a degree of prosperity. It didn’t last. The coal mines were largely stripped bare by the mid-’80s. By then, marijuana had supplanted coal as the region’s most notable export. Eastern Kentucky had long been known as a haven for moonshiners, so producing pot was a natural next step. According to one estimate, by 1989, perhaps 40 percent of the county’s residents were growing marijuana. Most of the crop was being cultivated in the Daniel Boone National Forest, where farmers reportedly booby-trapped their pot patches using boards studded with rusty nails and fishing lines strung with sharp hooks.

When details of Sparkman’s death exploded in the media, Clay County was thrust back into the spotlight; the story led off The Rachel Maddow Show on September 23, received nationwide newspaper coverage, and drew breathless commentary from bloggers and talking heads. Suspicion that Sparkman had been slain because of his affiliation with the government fueled the coverage. Antigovernment sentiment was on the rise, and the Tea Party movement was fast gaining momentum. President Obama had been in office eight months, and Glenn Beck had recently told his followers, “The time for silent dissent has long passed.” Five months before the hanging, a Department of Homeland Security report titled “Rightwing Extremism” had warned of the growing potential of violence from domestic fringe groups.

In Manchester, the county seat and the sleepy five-stoplight hub of Clay County, locals debated the case in tobacco stores and pawn shops, in the smattering of fast-food restaurants, and at the Huddle House, a greasy spoon where a country-fried steak goes for $7.29. Some suspected that Sparkman had stumbled upon a pot patch or a methamphetamine mill and had been rubbed out by drug dealers. Others thought he might have just knocked on the wrong door in a place where people don’t welcome strangers, especially those with government badges—concluding, in the words of Edmund Shelby, the editor of The Manchester Enterprise, “that antigovernment types got ahold of him and did some nasties.”

Clay County is full of hollows, and nearly everybody seems to have a story about wandering into one and ending up staring down the barrel of a rifle. Some describe the way of life in the hollows as little changed over the past couple centuries.

Despite Clay County’s violent history, murders are rare there now; only six have been recorded since 2006. Poverty is a far more dire problem. Clay is perennially one of the poorest counties in Kentucky. The area’s biggest employers are the school system, the city hospital, and a nearby federal prison. There are no large factories, only a Walmart. Per capita income is $12,500, and 45 percent of the county’s residents receive Medicaid.

The 21,730 people living in Clay County are predominantly white (94 percent) and predominantly Republican (84 percent), but you don’t find much passion for politics. Tea Party groups have sprouted up in several other parts of Kentucky, but are absent in this one. Politicians are largely seen by the destitute as lacking the ability or the will to reverse their plight.

Nonetheless, outside the county seat, sentiments toward political authorities tend to have a rough edge. Head east from Manchester toward Hoskins Cemetery, on a darkened road that climbs up and down steep hills, and you come across people who are quick to dismiss politicians and authority figures as “crooks” and “liars.” Their resistance to authority dates back centuries, to when illegally distilling whiskey was big business and eluding federal agents was a crucial part of the enterprise. The vigilantism that reigned centuries ago has no doubt faded, but some people haven’t moved on.

If you walk up Arnetts Fork Road to the first house after the cemetery, you’ll find a wiry 59-year-old man named Elzie Wagers, who keeps a semiautomatic rifle under his mattress. “That’s the answer to a lot of problems,” Wagers says in a slow drawl, as he shows off his weapon. He doesn’t trust the local authorities or politicians. “When you got a bunch of crooks and you can’t get justice, there’s ways of getting justice.”

Communities like the one Wagers lives in, built along a dead-end road tucked into a wooded valley, are known as hollows—pronounced “hollers.” Clay County is full of hollows, and nearly everybody seems to have a story about wandering into one and ending up staring down the barrel of a rifle. Some describe the way of life in the hollows as little changed over the past couple centuries.

Jimmy Lyttle, formerly a Clay County magistrate and the owner of Jimbo’s Four-Lane Tobacco, put it this way: “Once you go east of I-75,” the interstate that lies 20 miles west of Manchester, “there’s two things they don’t like: change and strangers.”

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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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