September 12, 2009. Clay County, Kentucky — a place known for its blood feuds and distrust of strangers.
Bill Sparkman is found dead, hanging from a tree.
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.
What do you think? Who killed him?
The sensational story was reported around the world. It was natural to think that backward elements in Appalachia, ever suspicious of government interference, had taken down census worker Bill Sparkman because he was one of “the feds.”
That turned out not to be the case.
Sparkman had never married, yet had been a devoted Boy Scout leader and had spent nine years as a teaching assistant in the public schools. The pathologist on the case determined that Sparkman’s colon had been cleansed with an enema. Could his death have been tied in some way to homosexual activity?
His ne’er-do-well, adopted son, Josh, was the beneficiary of a $300,000 life insurance policy although Josh and Sparkman had a “strained” relationship. Josh and his crowd were thought capable of murder. Even Sparkman’s mother suspected Josh might have done his father in to get at the money.
Sparkman’s other $300,000 policy listed Lowell Adams, his sometime assistant in census work, as beneficiary. Mr. Adams was interviewed by the police, but did not provide any important clues. At a second interview, this time with a polygraph, Mr. Adams changed his story. Why had he hidden information from the police?
He had a reason, but it was not that he had killed Bill Sparkman.
The case was cracked when forensic anthropologist Emily Craig was able to prove that the pen-strokes of the word FED had been drawn on Sparkman’s chest from bottom to top rather than top to bottom.
The plot is better and more heart-breaking than any detective show you’ve seen on TV and I won’t spoil the ending for you. You can read it for yourself in this account at TheAtlantic.com.
I will say this: The case provides one more reason for me to keep my New Year’s Resolution to avoid judging anyone’s motives. I will not think I know what’s in other people’s heads — not the people of Appalachia’s, not Bill Sparkman’s, not Josh Sparkman’s, not Lowell Adams’, and not yours.
Also, I will remember that any story reported under a deadline could be wildly wrong.