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.”

Bill Sparkman in 1988, in uniform as the camp director at the Flaming Arrow Scout Reservation in central Florida. Sparkman spent much of his career with children, as a scout leader and later as an educator. (Gulf Ridge Council, BSA)

11 p.m., Saturday, September 12, 2009

The night was pitch-black. With the lights of their police cruisers illuminating the woods, Donald Wilson and the other investigators walked circles around the body, searching up to 300 feet away for additional evidence. Nothing. By the time Wilson helped the coroner cut down Sparkman’s corpse, it was nearly midnight. Wilson peered through the windows of Sparkman’s truck and saw evidence that it had been ransacked. Papers were scattered throughout the vehicle, the glove box and console were open, the passenger seatback was leaning forward. The investigators opted to wait until morning to search the interior; the night was too dark, and they didn’t have the proper equipment. While the men waited for a tow truck, Atkin found the keys to Sparkman’s vehicle on the ground underneath it.

Soon after the investigators returned to their base in London, Atkin called Nextel, hoping the telecommunications company could pinpoint the location of Sparkman’s phone. No luck. A Nextel rep said the phone was either turned off or out of service.

Armed with a search warrant, Wilson and three fellow officers arrived at Sparkman’s modest white ranch house at about 6:20 a.m. The house, surrounded by trees, sits beside a sloping road that runs past three other houses. Its driveway was empty, and there was no sign of forced entry.

Wilson opened the front door and stepped inside. Cobwebs clung to walls and corners, and a thick layer of dust covered parts of the floor and shelving. Clothes were strewn about the master bedroom. Though the house was untidy, there was no indication that a struggle had taken place. Wilson and the others moved through the house methodically. In the kitchen, they found a Jack Russell terrier and several bags of dog food. A newish-looking printer sat on the kitchen table, with cords attached, but there was no computer.

The time was nearing 8 a.m. when they left. Wilson, who’d been awake for 24 hours, returned to the crime scene alone, hoping daylight would reveal additional clues. His search, again, turned up empty.

At about the same time, roughly 100 miles north, a forensic pathologist was performing an autopsy on Sparkman at the state police’s central lab, in Frankfort. The pathologist, Cristin Rolf, determined the preliminary cause of death to be asphyxiation. The blood that had leaked out of Sparkman’s ear, Rolf concluded, was the result of insect infestation. She detected traces of red fibers stuck to the duct tape that had bound Sparkman’s wrists and ankles. The lack of bruising around the taped areas led Rolf to believe that Sparkman had not struggled against the bindings. That was significant. It meant that he was already dead or unconscious before he was bound; or he had died accidentally from autoerotic asphyxiation; or he had deliberately killed himself.

Rolf noticed one other oddity. Sparkman’s colon had apparently been cleansed with an enema—a possible indicator of homosexual activity. She subsequently ordered a rape kit.

At 8 o’clock the next morning, Monday, September 14, Wilson called the FBI’s regional office in London and set up a meeting. Since Sparkman seemed to have been targeted because of his government affiliation, Wilson knew the FBI would want a piece of the case. Speaking to Special Agent Tim Briggs, Wilson described the condition of Sparkman’s body and emphasized the letters scrawled on his chest. Briggs was pissed. He made clear that Wilson should not have waited two days before contacting him. The FBI immediately opened a joint investigation with the state troopers and requested assistance from its evidence-recovery unit in Louisville.

After the meeting, Wilson drove to the lab in Frankfort to drop off evidence, which included Sparkman’s clothes, the scraps of rag and rope from the ground, and the duct tape from Sparkman’s body. For capturing fingerprints, few surfaces are more reliable than tape. But the tests came back negative. Whoever was responsible for Sparkman’s death apparently had been careful enough to wear gloves.

Wilson received a phone call from Sergeant Atkin the following morning. Sparkman’s 20-year-old son, Josh, had shown up at the state police’s London post with several documents, and his demeanor had struck the officers as odd. He was unnervingly calm and spoke in a flat, emotionless voice. Among the documents he turned over was a “just in case” letter written by his father, which Josh had found buried in a filing cabinet. William Sparkman had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2007, but had been cancer-free for the past year. The letter spelled out what Josh needed to do with the family’s finances if the elder Sparkman passed away. While meeting with Atkin, Josh asked whether Sparkman’s gun had been found. He couldn’t recall the make, but he was certain it was a .22-caliber pistol. His father had been no gun aficionado, but said one never knew who or what he might run into in Clay County’s backwoods. Josh said Sparkman had kept the gun in his truck.

The pathologist noticed one other oddity. Sparkman’s colon had apparently been cleansed with an enema. She ordered a rape kit.

That afternoon, FBI agents scoured the truck. They found a laptop briefcase, but no laptop. Also missing were Sparkman’s gun, wallet, and phone. The agents found his credit-card holder, but the cards were gone. They scanned the truck interior with a light used to locate microscopic evidence. No blood or other bodily fluids were found. The dashboard and steering wheel held traces of red fibers, indicating that the surfaces had been wiped down to eliminate fingerprints. The fibers appeared to match the red rags found at the scene.

Federal agents descended on Sparkman’s house the next morning. Combing through it, they discovered a fixed-blade knife and a pair of black cargo pants in Josh’s old bedroom. When they inspected the pants, they detected what appeared to be the same red fibers seen in Sparkman’s truck. The agents also discovered a large syringe with an unknown substance on the plunger. None of these items alone constituted a smoking gun, but taken together, they began to tell a story. Wilson would soon find out that Josh was a misfit who’d had a rocky relationship with his father. A high-school dropout, he’d fallen in with the wrong crowd as a teen and, according to the FBI, had had trouble with drugs. His clothing reflected his rebelliousness; one of his shirts was emblazoned with the words Psycho Path. Those close to Sparkman knew that he had lost control of Josh, who was notorious for wrecking cars and screaming at his father.

Four days after Sparkman’s body was found, Wilson had his first person of interest.

Sparkman adopted Josh in 1991. Josh was 2 years old at the time and had been living with a foster family in Orlando, Florida. Sparkman didn’t fit the mold of the typical adoptive parent. He was 33 and single, a Boy Scout director stationed in Texas. People close to Sparkman were surprised when he told them he wanted to adopt. He just wanted a child, he said, and was confident his experience with the Boy Scouts primed him to be a dad. He didn’t expand on the reasons.

The Boy Scouts were central to Sparkman’s life. The oldest of three boys, he grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Mulberry, a tiny town in central Florida. His mother, Henrie, was a high-school principal, and his dad, Billy, worked as an executive at a large furniture chain. Sparkman excelled in school, but scouting was his passion. “Bill really eats this scout stuff up,” his father would say. Sparkman devoured books devoted to such topics as coin collecting and compass use. He loved the hands-on training as well, learning such skills as how to make fire with wet wood and how to make tea out of dandelions and pine needles. Sparkman rose rapidly through the scouting ranks and became an Eagle Scout at age 16, just three years after joining.

“He was very eager to achieve whatever was out there that was achievable,” says Chuck Cooper, his Boy Scout troop leader in the 1970s and ’80s. “He had a thirst for knowledge. He was sharp. He had an inquiring mind.”

Sparkman’s family was not surprised when, after brief stints at Vanderbilt University and the University of South Florida, he decided to become a professional scout. He went on to oversee scouting programs in several Florida counties.

Throughout this period, Sparkman showed little interest in dating. The Boy Scouts were his life. While he was in the process of adopting Josh, Sparkman was promoted to assistant director of the Order of the Arrow, the Boy Scouts’ national honor society. He moved near the Boy Scouts’ national headquarters, in Irving, Texas, and finalized his adoption of Josh soon after. The following year, 1993, Sparkman accepted a district-executive position in Lexington, Kentucky, and relocated to London, about 75 miles south.

Boasting quality schools and a bucolic charm, London must have seemed like an ideal place to raise a child. But life with Josh didn’t go as planned. After Sparkman was found dead, his mother and others closest to him immediately suspected Josh or his pals. She soon found out that Sparkman had made Josh a beneficiary of one of his two life-insurance policies. Sparkman had laid this out in his “just in case” letter. Josh, in other words, had a motive.

Kentucky State Police found Sparkman's census tags hanging from a strip of duct tape attached to his face. A length of rope, cut from the noose, was near his feet. (Courtesy of the Kentucky State Police)

12:55 p.m., Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wilson’s colleague, Detective Doug Boyd, hopped into his cruiser and set out for Cooke-ville, Tennessee, a bustling city where Josh was living, about 125 miles southwest of London. Josh had told investigators he worked at a fast-food chain called Church’s Chicken. In the week before his father was found, he told them, he had worked the closing shift every day but September 12, the day Sparkman’s body was discovered. Josh said that his car had broken down earlier in the week and he was dependent on friends to get around. He hadn’t left Cookeville that entire week.

Boyd was dispatched to Tennessee with a specific order: suss out Josh’s alibi.

His first stop was Church’s Chicken. There, Josh’s manager confirmed that the young man had worked that week, but not on September 12. She gave Boyd a time sheet, which listed Josh as working from 7:08 p.m. until 11:56 p.m. on September 10, and 4:31 p.m. until 10:56 p.m. on September 11.

Boyd drove to Josh’s house and spoke with his roommate and close friend, Gracie Thomas, age 21. Josh and Gracie had been inseparable since they had first met a decade earlier through a church group. She treated him like a younger brother. Gracie confirmed to Boyd that Josh’s green Chevy was undrivable. She said she’d seen him every day that week.

Around the time Boyd was interviewing Gracie, a skinny 20-year-old named Lowell Adams walked into the state-police station in London. A day earlier, investigators had stopped by his house and told his mother they wished to speak with him about Sparkman’s death. Lowell’s name was mentioned in the letter that Josh had found: Sparkman had listed him as the beneficiary of his second insurance policy. Sparkman wrote that Lowell sometimes accompanied him while he performed his census duties, “for security purposes.”

Lowell met with Sergeant Atkin, one of Atkin’s detectives, and an FBI agent in a cramped, cream-colored office. He told the investigators that he and Josh had been good friends until 10th grade, when they began to drift apart. William Sparkman became a friend of the family and occasionally tutored Lowell in math. For the past two years, Sparkman had paid him $7.50 an hour, in cash, for security and navigational help while carrying out his census work—a practice that the FBI agent knew was a violation of official census policy. Lowell went on to say that Sparkman would always bring along a government-issued laptop, a personal laptop, and his pistol, which he kept in a hard-plastic case in the truck. Lowell admitted that he was uncomfortable the first time he accompanied Sparkman—they had little in common—but their bond grew over time. Asked about Sparkman’s romantic life, Lowell said they never discussed it. Lowell, in fact, didn’t know of his ever dating, but he knew Sparkman had a strained relationship with Josh.

In the final minutes of the interview, Lowell said he’d last accompanied Sparkman on September 5, exactly a week before he was found dead. On September 8, Lowell missed a call from Sparkman, who didn’t leave a message; Lowell never spoke to him again.

The interview was revealing, but it brought the investigators no closer to understanding what had happened. They 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.

Sparkman had few friends before he moved to Kentucky, and once there, he didn’t go out of his way to make any new ones. At Josh’s Little League baseball games, he would sit by himself in a folding chair near left field, recording his son’s every at-bat in a notepad. He would greet the other parents but never speak with them for very long.

Shortly after Josh started school, Sparkman resigned from his Boy Scout post and later started volunteering at his son’s elementary school. He was determined to help Josh, who was struggling in the classroom, succeed. This devotion did not go unnoticed. “It seemed his whole heart was into Josh,” says Beverly Johnson, who had a son in the same class.

Sparkman was eventually offered a job at Johnson Elementary School as an instructional assistant, a position he held for nine years. The job paid a pittance, but it gave Sparkman the opportunity to work with kids, which he loved. He was always upbeat and eager to help students, who adored him. Sparkman was also a model colleague—prompt, proper, and willing to do anything for a fellow teacher.

One year, Beverly Johnson, who also worked as an instructional assistant, used up all her vacation days while her 8-year-old son, Zachary, was hospitalized with bleeding ulcers. Around Christmas, he developed strep throat, and doctors wanted to take his tonsils out. It pained Johnson not to be able to stay home and take care of him. The moment Sparkman heard about her predicament, he solved it. “I gave you 10 days”—vacation he’d accrued but hadn’t used—“so you don’t have to worry about that anymore,” he told her.

“I never asked him for days … He just insisted,” Johnson would say later. “That explains what kind of person he was. He was a real giving person, a compassionate person.”

Nonetheless, the school’s teachers would sometimes discuss among themselves how “unusual” he was. Socializing with adults didn’t seem to come naturally to him. Sparkman could appear distant and, at times, be quite blunt, the kind of person around whom others trod carefully, so as not to say the wrong thing. He was also intensely private. Even the teachers who worked closely with him didn’t know much about his personal life. Sparkman never spoke about dating, and his colleagues never knew him to have any romantic partner.

Outside of work, Sparkman was a homebody. He liked to surf the Web and play Sudoku. He had a serious coin collection, and various pieces of Star Trek memorabilia. He delighted in playing with his dog, Jack. He spent Friday evenings on the phone with his mother, the two of them watching the TV game show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

When Sparkman did go out to eat, he gravitated to budget-friendly places like Applebee’s and Cracker Barrel. Money was always tight in the Sparkman household. Josh was a huge financial drain. After he left school he got his GED, but he could never hold down a job, and was constantly begging his dad to replace his wrecked vehicles. Sparkman’s mother occasionally sent him cash to help him make ends meet. (He always paid her back, she says.)

In 2005, Sparkman started supplementing his income by working part-time for the Census Bureau. His territory included several rural counties in eastern Kentucky, including Clay. One of Sparkman’s closest colleagues at Johnson Elementary, a retired state trooper named Gilbert Acciardo, repeatedly warned him to be careful. Acciardo had patrolled Clay County. He knew it was a rough place.

“I just said to Bill, ‘Everybody’s not nice. The farther east that you go, the more people are a little more standoffish about people coming to their house,’ ” Acciardo recalled later. “He just assumed everybody was like him, happy-go-lucky. He saw all the good in people, and I realized, because of my background, that there were bad people too.

“He just joked and laughed about it,” Acciardo added. “You could tell that he wasn’t taking me seriously.”

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.

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.