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.