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Census Worker's Death Was Suicide, Not Right-Wing Political Violence

3:09 PM, Nov 24, 2009 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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Another episode of right-wing violence that wasn't, kind of like the entire month of August's town halls:

A U.S. Census worker found dead in a secluded Clay County cemetery killed himself but tried to make the death look like a homicide, authorities have concluded.

Bill Sparkman, 51, of London, might have tried to cover the manner of his death to preserve payments under life-insurance polices that he had taken out. The policies wouldn't pay off if Sparkman committed suicide, state police Capt. Lisa Rudzinski said.

"We believe it was an intentional act on his part to take his own life," said Rudzinski, who helped lead the investigation.

At the time of the census worker's death, liberal commentators and bloggers scrambled all over themselves to blame Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck and other right-leaning figures for inciting violence with their "anti-government" sentiment.

Sparkman's nude body was found Sept. 12 by people visiting the cemetery. There was a rope around his neck tied to a tree, and he had what appeared to be the word "fed" written on his chest in black marker.

His census identification card was taped to his head.

The bizarre details of the death caused a firestorm of media coverage and widespread speculation on the Internet, including that someone angry at the federal government attacked Sparkman as he went door to door, gathering census information.

Michelle Malkin highlights the subtle smear art that made the rounds on the left.

Clarence Page on NPR's "Talk of the Nation", Nov. 5, 2009: "You know, maybe perhaps the research that I do - I worry about the Bill Sparkmans, the census worker that was hanged and - found hanged in Kentucky with the word fed on his body. Or, you know - or Stephen Johns, the guy that was killed at the Holocaust Museum in D.C. a few months ago that - I hope those type of incidents, not only interracial marriages increase, but I hope those type of violence, violent incidents decrease."

Andrew Sullivan, Sept. 26, 2009: "No Suicide: That's the one thing we know for certain now in the case of the Kentucky lynching...But the most worrying possibility - that this is Southern populist terrorism, whipped up by the GOP and its Fox and talk radio cohorts - remains real."

NPR's Neal Conan of "Talk of the Nation"used the Sparkman story as a jumping-off point for a segment entitled "A History of Mistrust" about the census on Sept. 29.

The opening to MSNBC's Ed Schultz show Sept. 28, 2009:

It didn't sound real good. My wife and I were traveling on the East Coast this weekend, in the car for three hours. We haven`t done that for a while.

Let me tell you, right-wing rhetoric in this country has reached a boiling point. Oh, the government`s the enemy. Every kind of government, local, regional, state...

Republicans have always tried to make the government the bogeyman. No matter what the subject, it`s the government's fault. But this is out of control. The fever pitch we`re experiencing in this country right now, I think has got a lot of people nervous.

A census worker, somebody doing a part-time job for the government, for America -- we`ve had the census in this country for 210 years. This man`s name was Bill Sparkman. He was found dead in Kentucky.

Most of his clothes had been stripped off and his census identification tag, it was Duct Taped to his body, and the word "Fed` had been written across his chest. Investigators don`t know who killed Mr. Sparkman and what the motive was. They still aren`t certain it was a homicide.

A lot of things playing into this right now. But we do know that census workers are afraid to go to work right now.

Brian Levin, on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, Sept. 25, 2009:

"But, at this point, this was such a symbolic and personal anger, that I'm -- I'm led to lean towards someone who has severe anti-government feelings, perhaps someone who is seeking revenge. Maybe they were audited or had some problem with some kind of government official.

COOPER: OK. To display the victim in this way seems, I mean, telling, one way or another. I mean, there's clearly something to that."


Rachel Maddow, Sept. 25, 2009:

"Now, on the record, law enforcement authorities remain cryptic. This reporting however paints a most troubling picture. None of the details of Bill Sparkman`s death that we have learned since we first found out about this point away from the possibility that he was killed for his affiliation with the United States government...All of these new details do create the expectation, I think, that we will hear something more specific from law enforcement. As you know, Ron, we`ve been hearing recently that they haven`t even determined whether this is homicide, suicide, or an accident. To found a body that was bound hand and foot, gagged and with a federal employee identification tag taped to the body and then it defaced with the word "Fed," we`re starting to get to a point where it`s hard to imagine that this could be anything other than a homicide.

That said, we're still waiting for law enforcement conformation on that, aren't we?"

"Good Morning America" with Diane Sawyer, Sept. 24, 2009, did a segment entitled, "GOVERNMENT HATE CRIME? CENSUS WORKER KILLED ON ROUTE?"

Mark Potok, Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center on MSNBC's "The Ed Show, Sept. 24, 2009:
"I think the bottom line is it's a very rural area, and these are the kinds of areas where sometimes, you know, real white hot anti-government sentiment thrives. I think it's probably worth saying that I know that back in `95, immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing, I remember "USA Today" did a poll and found that 39 percent of Americans at that time felt that the federal government was an imminent threat to their liberties as Americans. Quite incredible.

I think that we are at a similar point in history right now, you know, where we've seen this anti-government sentiment very much whipped up by militia certainly but also the whole scene that we've seen develop around town halls and so forth."

On Sept. 23, 2009, Rachel Maddow just about begged an AP reporter to confirm her suspicions: "We`re all wondering if is -- should be taken as some indication that this was a crime related to anti-government sentiment.

Are you able to report anything? Are you hearing anything about even circumstantial evidence in that regard? Is there any way to know even whether federal and law enforcement getting involved is an indication that they think that might be true?"

Allison Kilkenny, Huffpo: "This is the kind of violent event that emerges from a culture of paranoia and unsubstantiated attacks. Personalities like Glenn Beck have irresponsibly accused the government of running FEMA concentration camps, and constantly stoke the fear of 'the Feds' taking over."

Brad Friedman littered his post with caveats before ultimately going to same route (and using that lovely piece of art): "With all of that in mind, however, it's admittedly damned difficult not to look back at the kind of wildly-irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric being slung casually across the airwaves to millions of viewers and listeners every day by folks like Bachmann, Beck, O'Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh, and all the rest, without pondering questions such as: 'What the hell are these people thinking?' and 'Do they not realize that people are actually out there paying attention to what they have to say?'"

Village Voice:
"Village Voice Media's True Crime Report blog cited the recent 'rage against Washington . . . especially in the rural South,' and said the death had ;all the makings of some anti-government goober taking his half-wit beliefs way too far.'

People for the American Way put this video together of right commentators talking about the census, while drawing this connection in the about box:

There are many unanswered questions about the tragic hanging death of Bill Sparkman, a US Census Bureau employee, in rural Kentucky. But one thing is clear. Right-Wing leaders like Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and media outlets like Fox News have whipped up hysteria and paranoia over the 2010 Census.

Speculation is often a part of the news cycle, and the circumstances surrounding Sparkman's death were strange indeed. But if I weren't far too fair to jump to conclusions, here, I'd say a lot of commentators acted stupidly in reaching for the storyline that fit their preferred violent, redneck right-winger narrative.

In the end, police determined Sparkman wrote the word "Fed" on his own chest, his hands and feet were bound loosely enough for him to have maneuvered himself, and they found no defensive wounds or anyone else's DNA on him.

Thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends who will now be able to mourn his death without the glare of the national media. (All transcript results pulled from brief perusal of Lexis-Nexis search.)