Mysterious death leaves son seeking truth in Clay Co.
LONDON, Ky. — He was called home by his father's death and now sits in an empty house, weary and alone.
Josh Sparkman is tired of the media asking him about his father, Bill Sparkman, who was found naked, tied to a tree in Eastern Kentucky last month, bound and gagged with the word “fed” scrawled on his chest. He is frustrated with police. And he feels that his family hasn't been there for him.
“This story has been used for people's amusement,” Sparkman said softly, looking down as he smoked several cigarettes to the nub during a wide-ranging interview outside his father's single-story white home in London, Ky. “That's not right. … It's like a real-life drama series and it's not. It's real life.”
Sparkman, 20, described how he learned of his father's death while living in Tennessee, how he has dodged a barrage of media requests and what he thinks his father was doing on the day he disappeared.
His father, Bill Sparkman, was “very scared” of some of the back-road places his job took him and was uneasy with the “weird looks” he sometimes received, Josh Sparkman said. But he wasn't a man easily dissuaded from his task of information gathering as a part-time U.S. Census Bureau employee.
“If people didn't answer the door the first time, he would come back,” Sparkman said. “He would talk to neighbors, ask what kind of vehicle the person drove. He took pride in his work. … And he always got his case.”
That persistence might have gotten his father killed, Sparkman believes.
But some residents and officials in neighboring Clay County, where Sparkman's body was found near a remote cemetery, balk at the speculation that he was killed because of an anti-government sentiment or by area drug dealers he might have stumbled upon.
They're critical of the media — who they say have been recycling eastern Kentucky stereotypes and sensationalized the case.
“There is no reason for this to go international,” said Charles House, the President of the Clay County Genealogical and Historical Society, who has received media calls about the case from as far away as France.
“There is a stereotypical sort of Appalachian, hillbilly kind of story at work here that attracts a certain amount of attention. … This thing has gotten outrageous.”
House and others admit that Clay County has had a rough-and-tumble past. Several officials, including a judge and former mayor, made national headlines earlier this year for allegations that they tried to rig local elections. But they say that the kind of bizarre and gruesome fate Sparkman met does not fit the character of the area.
“I don't remember a single case … where a stranger has come into this county and met with violence, much less murder,” said House, who was a newspaper reporter in the area for many years. “It just doesn't fit.”
A quiet beginning
It didn't start as a media sensation.
The Kentucky State Police issued a short press release Sept. 13 that a person had been found dead the day before near the Hoskins Cemetery in a remote area of the Daniel Boone National Forest in southern Clay County.
A second release Sept. 14 identified the 51-year-old Sparkman, adding that details were “limited at this time.”
But more than a week later, an enforcement official, who was not authorized to discuss the case and who requested anonymity, told the Associated Press that Sparkman had the word “fed” scrawled on his chest.
Then an Ohio man who discovered the body with his family described finding Sparkman naked and gagged with his hands and feet bound with duct tape, his eyes also covered with tape. The State Police said a rope, which was tied to a tree, was found around Sparkman's neck, though he was touching the ground.
The resulting media frenzy, with national news outlets arriving from across the country, would have greatly disturbed his father, Josh Sparkman said.
“He was a very private person,” he said, adding that he has been approached by numerous media organizations, including the Washington Post and Good Morning America, which offered to fly him to New York. “My dad would absolutely hate it if I did that.”
Shirley Allen, a neighbor of Sparkman's, said Laurel County had been a quiet place where people kept to themselves. Until this. She said that a CNN truck had backed over over her mailbox recently, trying to get the story.
Clay County residents, too, say the media rarely finds its way to the area until something bad happens, perpetuating an image the area is trying to move away from.
“Most reporters give us a black eye no matter what we do,” said Clay County resident Jimmy Brown.
The county has changed for the better in recent years — a renovated town square, more businesses and a new administration that ran on a platform of reform, residents say. All that has been lost in the speculation surrounding the strange circumstances of Bill Sparkman's death, they say.
“This is not a normal thing to happen in Clay County,” said James Garrison, Clay County's Judge-Executive from 1994 to 2006. “You have to offend our people pretty bad for someone to want to kill you.”
And if a drug trafficker was involved, they would most likely dispose of the body where it couldn't be found, said House.
The last thing someone growing marijuana in a field would want to do is bring federal and local authorities — and helicopters — to the area, he said, something that would be certain to happen when “fed” is written on the body.
“It defies logic,” House added.
As for the anti-government angle, he said some 40 percent of the county depends on federal aid.
“There is no real animosity here for the federal government,” he said.
Danny Finley, a Clay County deputy coroner, agreed. “It doesn't take 50 people with anti-government sentiment to kill a man. It takes one crazy fool,” he said. “We are no different than other counties. We just get more publicity.”
Doug Abner, a local minister, said members of his congregation appreciate the government “even though we don't appreciate everything they do.”
Abner pointed out that there had been just one murder in Clay County over the last three and a half years.
“I'm not convinced this guy was killed in Clay County,” he said.
Abner and House, among other county residents, believe that Sparkman's body may have been brought into Clay County, in part, as a way to use the county's reputation — from vote-rigging and other government corruption to widespread drug trafficking — to throw off investigators.
The drug trade theory
But Clarence Gibson, a former sheriff and long-time police officer in Clay County, isn't so sure. He said there are those in the drug trade in Clay County who are angry at the federal government for its enforcement efforts.
That translates into a general dislike of federal workers, such as Sparkman, he said. “He had enemies here,” he said of Sparkman, whom he did not know. His job was his enemy.”
Other residents noted that the area where Sparkman was found is not a place outsiders would be able to find easily, making it more likely that Sparkman saw something he should not have seen. And some pointed out that it is a dangerous time of year for someone to go knocking on doors because marijuana producers are typically harvesting their crops.
“He could have misrepresented himself, said he worked for the federal government” and they misunderstood and the situation quickly went bad, said Tim Biggs, a Clay County resident.
For now, the local citizens are simply left to speculate, said Beverly Centers, who works at a diner about a mile from downtown Manchester. “There's no telling what happened and nobody's telling,” she said.
Police have been unusually secretive about Sparkman's case, refusing to publically say if they believe his death was a homicide, a suicide or an accident. The state medical examiner has issued a preliminary determination that Sparkman died of asphyxiation.
Josh Sparkman said that the little contact that he has had with police has been about the release of his father's body for burial. Because of the condition of his father's body, it was to be cremated, even though his father's wishes were that his body be given to science, he said.
Police told a local newspaper last week that some of the information reported about Sparkman's death has been false, but they refused to say what was incorrect, except to point out that initial reports that Sparkman was found “hanging,” were wrong.
And Kentucky State Police Capt. Lisa Rudzinski, commander of the London post, told The Sentinel Echo of London a report that his computer, which contained his census information, was found in his truck was wrong, too. “We found his truck, but there was no computer in it,” she told the newspaper last week.
Trooper Don Trosper, the public-affairs officer for the post, would not discuss any details of the case, citing the ongoing investigation.
Josh Sparkman said he remains angry that police have not publically discounted the possibility that his father — who had received chemotherapy for non-Hodgkins lymphoma — committed suicide or accidently killed himself.
“That's 100 percent impossible,” Josh Sparkman said, adding that his father was a happy man who loved teaching and being around kids, even as he fought cancer. “No man is going to battle cancer like he did and then kill himself a year later.”
A young son's grief
Josh Sparkman said his father loved their single-story home in London, especially the privacy that surrounding woods provided.
He was a substitute teacher at Johnson Elementary where Josh had attended school, supplementing his income with census work.
Bill Sparkman recently had earned a degree in education that would allow him to teach middle school math full-time, his son said.
“He fell in love with being in the classroom,” Sparkman said. “He liked to see young minds learning. That was joyous for him.”
Sparkman said his father adopted him as a single parent when he was about 2, preferring to not begin a new relationship after his divorce but still wanting to raise a child. “I wouldn't be the person I am today if it wasn't for him,” Josh Sparkman said.
The aftermath of his father's death has left the younger Sparkman shaken and without income, since he gave up his job in Tennessee to come home. He admits he ignores the bills that are piling up as he tries to comprehend what has happened.
“It's just destroyed me,” Sparkman said.
I find it interesting that the people in town seem more concerned about their image than the fact that someone was brutally murdered. For what it's worth, I agree with the guy who said it only takes one psycho to do something like this -- honestly, nutty shit happens everywhere.
Also, I didn't know Bill Sparkman had just battled cancer. And that he'd just gotten his teaching degree. God, this story really makes my heart hurt.