SPECIAL REPORT: Death in Clay County
I. Scene of the Crime: Valley of the Shadow
posted at 3:25 pm on October 4, 2009 by The Other McCain
Just a few hundred yards west of Big Double Creek Road, on the right side of Arnetts Fork Road, there is a concrete bridge where a small unpaved road crosses a shallow stream. A locked gate at the bridge closes the road to traffic, although any vehicle with 4-wheel drive and good clearance can ford the stream to the right of the bridge.
Located deep inside Daniel Boone National Forest, a 25-minute drive east of Manchester, Ky., this bridge and dirt road are so tiny they don’t show up on Google maps, even at the highest resolution. Yet events here on Hoskins Cemetery Road became nationwide news Wednesday, Sept. 23, when the Associated Press published an article by Devlin Barrett and Jeffrey McMurray:
The FBI is investigating whether anti-government sentiment led to the hanging death of a U.S. Census worker near a Kentucky cemetery. A law enforcement official told The Associated Press the word “fed” was scrawled on the dead man’s chest.
The body of Bill Sparkman, a 51-year-old part-time Census field worker and teacher, was found Sept. 12 in a remote patch of the Daniel Boone National Forest in rural southeast Kentucky. The Census has suspended door-to-door interviews in rural Clay County, where the body was found, pending the outcome of the investigation. . . .
The article was datelined from Washington, D.C., which likely meant that the unnamed “law enforcement official” who was the AP’s source worked at the U.S. Department of Justice. The article said this official “was not authorized to discuss the case and requested anonymity,” and went on to cite David Breyer, a spokesman in the FBI’s Louisville, Ky., office as saying that “the bureau is helping state police with the case.”
Right. Anybody who knows anything about law enforcement knows that when the FBI gets involved in a criminal investigation, their “helping” generally takes the form of big-footing all over the case and bossing everybody else around.
This Sept. 23 story came to my attention the same way most news does nowadays, via the Web site Memeorandum, which aggregates items from scores of political blogs. The Associated Press report that “anti-government sentiment” was a possible motive in the Clay County death of Bill Sparkman inspired liberal bloggers to imagine connections to events and people far away.
“Cantor and the GOP Turn Blind Eye To Violent Undercurrent,” declared the headline on a post that night by David Empsall of MyDD.com, connecting Sparkman’s death to the House Republican Whip, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, who had dismissed as absurd the claim by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that protests against proposed health-care legislation might lead to violence.
“Cantor is clearly oblivious to both recent history and to current events,” Empsall declared, quoting the Associated Press story before concluding: “Some say that there’s no reasoning with the fringe and that we should just ignore them. I agree that there’s no reasoning with them, but if they’re going to murder government workers in Kentucky like they did in Oklahoma 14 years ago or Memphis and Los Angeles 41 years ago, then there’s no ignoring them, either.”
In a single blog post, Empsall had connected Sparkman’s death not only to the health-care debate in Washington, but also to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. By contrast, when I first learned of the Clay County case – some three hours before Empsall posted his connect-the-dots commentary – I was profoundly skeptical of any such connection.
“My immediate curiosity is whether this had something to do with a moonshine or drug operation, rather than ‘anti-government sentiment,’ ” I wrote at my personal blog. “Drug dealers and ’shiners are notoriously hostile toward anyone snooping around, and Sparkman may well have stumbled onto some sort of criminal situation. . . . Let’s wait to see what law enforcement discovers before jumping to any kind of politicized Let’s-Blame-Glenn-Beck speculation.”
‘TERRORISM’ AND THE BLOG WARS
The next day, Sept. 24, Memeorandum had more updates on the story, showing that the connect-the-dots theories were also being treated skeptically by the Kentucky State Police and the Louisville FBI spokesman.
Now the Sparkman case began turning into a familiar sort of blog war, with liberals insisting that the apparent murder was clearly the result of right-wing extremism, while conservatives – including Michelle Malkin – insisted it was too soon to jump to conclusions. It so happened that I was just then finishing up a grueling two-week blog war, and was looking for some reason to move on and get back to covering actual news.
Saturday evening, I was writing at my desk while keeping one eye on the TV in my home office to cheer on my favorite football team – Roll, Tide, Roll! – when I noticed that Memeorandum was once again all over the Sparkman case. The Associated Press had published another story – which CBS News ran on its Web site with the evocative headline “Terror in Kentucky: Census Worker’s Murder” – based on an interview with Jerry Weaver of Fairfield, Ohio. Weaver had brought his wife and daughter to the Hoskins cemetery Sept. 12 to decorate the graves of relatives buried there and was horrified to discover Sparkman’s nude body:
“The only thing he had on was a pair of socks,” Weaver said. “And they had duct-taped his hands, his wrists. He had duct tape over his eyes, and they gagged him with a red rag or something.
“He was murdered,” Weaver said. “There’s no doubt.”
This latest news – reported by Roger Alford from the AP’s Frankfort, Ky., bureau – elicited a memorable reaction from Andrew Sullivan. “It’s possible, I suppose, that anger at the feds in general could make a drug dealer murder a census worker,” Sullivan wrote. “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. We’ll see.”
Sullivan made this “terrorism” charge, complete with a cheap shot at Fox News and talk radio, in the complete absence of supporting evidence. Steven Benen of Washington Monthly was far more specific, naming Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.), Glenn Beck and Atlanta talk radio host Neal Boortz as complicit in Sparkman’s death. This trio, Benen said, had “invested considerable energy in trying to convince confused, right-wing activists that the Census and those who work for the Census Bureau are not to be trusted, and may even be dangerous. Here’s hoping that their reckless and irresponsible rhetoric did not have deadly consequences.”
Benen’s expressed hope was “transparently false,” Professor William Jacobson observed. Clearly, Sullivan, Benen and others on the Left were eager to make Sparkman a symbolic victim of right-wing violence. This would justify months of liberal arguments that opposition to President Obama’s ambitious policy agenda – and specifically, the Tea Party protest movement, with which the popular Beck was closely identified – represented a menace that should be suppressed.
GONZO GOES ALONE
No suspect had been identified, let alone arrested, and law enforcement officials had already pushed back against the AP’s initial claim of an “anti-government” motive. Eastern Kentucky’s notorious reputation as a region of moonshiners, marijuana growers and methamphetamine makers offered many more plausible suspects in Sparkman’s death. And yet here were Sullivan and the rest trying to turn this man into a martyr for national health insurance, while depicting Clay Countians as gullible hicks goaded into murderous violence by “populist” demagogues on cable TV and AM radio.
There are times, as I’ve often said, when any self-respecting journalist must ask himself one question: “What Would Hunter S. Thompson Do?” And in this case, it seemed to me, the answer was blindingly obvious:
Big Creek, Ky., is a 500-mile drive from here. I could easily drive it in eight hours. I had plans to attend an event Sunday in Virginia, and had expected to go to D.C. this coming week to follow up on the latest IG-Gate developments.
However, if my readers would prefer me to teach Andrew Sullivan a lesson in journalism, feel free to hit the tip jar. . . .
That was shortly before 8 p.m. Saturday, and at 6 a.m. Monday morning, Sept. 28, I kissed my wife good-bye, got behind the wheel of my black 2004 KIA Optima, and took off for Kentucky. By 3:55 p.m. Tuesday, the KIA was 575 miles from the starting point of the trip, parked on the side of Arnetts Fork Road next to the locked gate across Hoskins Cemetery Road.
No more lonely place in the world could be imagined. The area is densely wooded. A couple of curves separate the entrance to the cemetery road from the intersection of Arnetts Fork Road and Big Double Creek Road to the east. Arnetts Fork curves up around a hill just west of the cemetery road. Whoever chose this location to get rid of Sparkman had picked a spot where they were highly unlikely to encounter any witnesses.
A lonely place – and a lonely feeling, too. Monday afternoon, when I’d visited the offices of the Manchester Enterprise upon my arrival in Clay County, I had asked the local newspaper’s advertising sales director, Rodney Miller, if he could recommend someone to drive up to the cemetery with me. Miller recommended one of his sales reps, Jessica, who lived in the vicinity, an area known to locals as Redbird.
The previous week, Jessica had accompanied the paper’s news director, Morgan Bowling, to the site where Sparkman’s body had been found, in order to get a photo of the scene. But when Miller asked Jessica if she’d be willing to go back again with the out-of-town writer, her answer was emphatic: “No way. Uh-uh. Too scary up there.” Jessica had taken a pistol with her when she’d gone up to the cemetery with the news director, and one trip was enough for her, armed or otherwise.
FEAR AND LOATHING ON ARNETTS FORK ROAD
So here I was alone, at the entrance to Hoskins Cemetery Road. I wrote down the time in my notebook, got out of the car and took a few photos of the bridge and gate with my small Kodak digital camera. It was actually a lovely scene. The large hardwood trees lining the banks of the stream were still summer green in late September. The afternoon was cool and breezy, the sky was overcast with heavy clouds, and the only sounds were the wind in the trees and the quiet burbling of the little brook flowing east, parallel to Arnetts Fork Road.
Just then, I heard the sound of a car approaching from the direction of Big Double Creek Road. Standing by the roadside, I flagged down the blue sedan and approached the driver’s side window. The driver looked to be in her early 30s, and there was a child’s car seat in the back, but no child.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” I said to the lady, trying to smile as friendly as I could. “I’m a reporter, covering the murder y’all had up here.”
She nodded in recognition – obviously, the locals knew all about the case – and I continued.
“I’m up here to see the place where they found that fellow’s body and get a few pictures and, frankly, it’s kind of scary, y’know?”
She nodded again and said, “Yeah, I know.”
“So what I was wondering,” I said, “was whether you wouldn’t mind just waiting here for a few minutes, while I walk up to the cemetery – just wait here, to make sure I get back.”
She shook her head. “Well, I don’t think so, but I’ll tell you what. My husband’s up at the house” – she gestured westward up the hill – “and I can send him back down here, if you want.”
“Could you?” I asked. “About how long would it take him to get here?”
“About five minutes.”
Thus it was agreed, and I felt much better about my situation. No doubt her husband was a stout, hearty soul who would accompany me to the graveyard and assure my safety. Unless, that is, the lady’s husband was some hillbilly meth-cooker, a dangerously violent ex-con with deep hostility toward nosy outsiders and, for all I knew, the same guy who’d killed Sparkman.
Crazy fears like that crop up in a man’s mind when he’s short on sleep, hyped on coffee, far from home, and standing at the scene of a notorious crime in the Appalachian backwoods. But I’d wait for the lady’s husband to come back. He was probably a mild-mannered, clean-cut Baptist church deacon, and I was just being paranoid.
On the other hand, these woods were reportedly crawling with marijuana growers who plant their crops in isolated forest clearings, and late September is harvest time for these outlaw agriculturalists. Maybe there was some weeder, dressed in camouflage, rifle at the ready, guarding his crop planted nearby. Maybe, even at that very moment, I was a target in the crosshairs of a scope on a high-powered rifle held by a mountaineer marksman. One squeeze on the trigger and – boom! – that would be it for me.
Honestly, you think about things like that at such a moment, in such a place.
“Be careful,” my wife had told me before I left on this trip, which I’d undertaken against her advice. I reminded her I’d survived my 10-day excursion to Africa in February 2008. “If they didn’t kill me in Kampala, I think I’ll be all right in Clay County, Kentucky.”
BACK TO THE WILD SIDE OF LIFE
Standing by that gate on Hoskins Cemetery Road, however, my cheerful bravado was long gone. Then I was startled to hear the deep roar of a powerful diesel engine down on Big Double Creek Road.
Think quick. Hearing the groaning of brakes, I realized a vehicle was turning up Arnetts Fork, heading my way. In my mind, I pictured a big jacked-up 4-wheel-drive truck, with three bloodthirsty redneck dope dealers in the front seat, coming to inflict some east Kentucky justice on a meddling outsider. So I moved over behind a tree, away from my black KIA – definitely a city-slicker kind of car – and hoped that my olive green slacks and sweater would function something like camouflage.
For a fraction of a second, the cause of my imminent brutal death was clear in my adrenaline-rushed mind: The woman whom I’d stopped on the road earlier was married to a Blue Ridge drug lord. As soon as she told him I was down by the cemetery road, her husband – the kingpin of the Clay County meth-cookers cartel – had phoned his hillbilly henchmen, who’d grabbed their guns and hopped into their truck to come hunt me down and do me in, just like they’d no doubt done to Sparkman and anyone else who threatened their criminal operations.
These feverish fears evaporated, however, when I saw the familiar yellow shape of a school bus swing around the curve a hundred yards away. Still, I stayed behind the tree and watched as Clay County Schools bus No. 263 rumbled past, heading up the road to deliver children to their homes.
Checking my watch, I made a note of the time: 4:01 p.m. The five minutes the lady had said would bring her husband to accompany me to the cemetery were now nearly expired, and it occurred to me that it might be better not to wait for him. The clouds overhead were ominously thick and might begin pouring rain at any moment. There were other people I needed to interview, and the afternoon was slipping away while I waited. Either I should go to the cemetery now or get in my car and drive back to town.
My readers had pitched in to pay for this trip. If I punked out now, I’d be letting them down – and letting myself down. When you drive 575 miles to get the story, you’d damned well better get the story. So I had to go. Time to start praying.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” That “fear no evil” part is a lot easier said than done, and as I walked up that leaf-strewn dirt road, I was quite definitely aware of the shadow of death.
Whoever had killed Bill Sparkman had been here. Was Sparkman already dead when his killers brought his body here? If he was still alive, had he come here voluntarily? Had he been alone? Had he been lured here and ambushed? Or had he already been kidnapped, bound, gagged and blindfolded?
About 25 yards north of the gate, a power line crosses Hoskins Cemetery Road, and I looked both ways, east and west, to see if there might be a marijuana field within sight. Nothing to be seen. So I kept walking, and began to sing an old country song to steady my nerves.
I never knew God made honky-tonk angels.
I should have known you would never make a wife.
You have lost the only one who ever loved you,
And went back to the wild side of life.
HOMELAND OF HOSKINS NATION
With the Lord watching over me and Hank Thompson’s lyrics to steady my caffeine-jangled nerves, I walked another 40 yards until I saw the cemetery in a clearing on the east side of the road. There were maybe 75 graves on the sloping hillside, all decorated with colorful artificial flower arrangements, and some with all-weather placards on wire-frame easels. One of these had a picture of an angel with the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
The families in these hills had been spectacularly fecund over the decades. They married young and had lots of children. From the first Hoskins to settle here in Clay County there had descended a sort of Hoskins Nation, the numerous children and grandchildren marrying with the offspring of neighboring families and producing ties of kinship that stretched out across the hills for miles around. One of the gravestones told a typical story: A 14-year-old girl named Kathleen had married Harvey Hoskins on Sept. 21, 1946, the day before Harvey’s 19th birthday. They had 43 years of wedded bliss until Harvey died in 1989, and the widowed Kathleen lived on another 14 years until her death in 2003, a few weeks before what would have been her 71st birthday. “Gone but not forgotten,” said the headstone, and the arrangement of red, white, yellow and purple plastic flowers atop the headstone gave mute testimony that indeed Harvey and Kathleen Hoskins were still remembered by their living posterity.
Over the decades, some members of the Hoskins Nation had moved far away from the ancestral homeland, seeking their fortunes elsewhere. Among these was Jerry Weaver of Ohio. The Weaver family – Jerry, his wife and daughter – had expected a pleasant Saturday afternoon outing when they came here Sept. 12 to visit the graves of their kin. As I stood amid the flower-bedecked tombstones on the hillside, I imagined their horror when they’d seen Sparkman’s nude body suspended by a rope around the neck, fastened to a tree.
Bill Sparkman wasn’t exactly “hanged.” When he was found, his body was in contact with the ground, not dangling from the tree. The local coroner and the state medical examiner determined that he died of asphyxiation, not necessarily caused by the rope. Law enforcement officials refused to rule out the possibility of suicide or accident as a cause of death. That angered Sparkman’s adopted son Josh, who pointed out in an interview with McMurray of the Associated Press that his dad had recently survived lymphoma:
“I look at it as disrespectful to be still throwing suicide and accident around. . . He didn’t do this to himself. That’s dishonorable. My dad was a good man. No person on this planet is going to fight cancer like he did, then turn around and kill himself a year or so later.”
Hard to argue with that. Jerry Weaver said it was murder and Josh Sparkman thinks it was murder, and if the police weren’t saying it was murder, that was mainly because the police weren’t saying much of anything to anyone – at least, not on the record. There was still the question of which anonymous official in Washington had given the AP that little bit about “anti-government sentiment” as a possible motive for Sparkman’s death.
MYSTERY IN ‘LOWER GLENNBECKISTAN’
As I walked back to my car – and trust me, I was walking mighty fast – I’d only been in Kentucky for 24 hours. Yet I’d already talked to dozens of locals about the Sparkman case and none of them believed that his death was the result of any kind of right-wing conspiracy, unless you consider it “right-wing” for a drug dealer to protect his stash.
“Send the body to Glenn Beck,” one liberal pundit declared Sept. 24, but I’d seen nothing in eastern Kentucky – an area I’d jokingly begun to call Lower Glennbeckistan – that would lead any reasonable person to think Bill Sparkman’s death was the deed of fanatical Fox News junkies or Tea Party protesters.
Crossing the stream and reaching the gate down by Arnetts Fork Road, I paused to look around for just a minute. This was the scene of the crime, and having come all this way to see it, I wanted to have a clear image in my mind. I put my camera and notebook back in the car, fired up a Parliament Light and thought about the situation as I stood by the gate and listened to the stream trickling past under the bridge.
If Bill Sparkman hadn’t just driven up here to Hoskins Cemetery to enjoy the scenery, but rather had been lured up here or brought here by his killer, then whoever killed him was almost certainly a local resident, someone familiar with the area. No way somebody from out of town, a stranger to the area, would have driven past many other possible places to dump a body in order to reach this isolated location.
Rodney Miller at the Enterprise had pointed out the significance of the location in our conversation Monday afternoon, just after I arrived in Clay County. This cemetery was far away from town, and even farther from Sparkman’s home in Laurel County. Sparkman’s truck had been parked up here when his body was found. How did the truck get here? Did Sparkman drive up here, or had he been kidnapped by someone?
If the “anti-government” angle looked bogus (Miller dismissed it with a two-syllable compound word for bovine excrement) there was still a compelling mystery surrounding the death of Bill Sparkman, a heinous crime in an idyllic mountain forest. And Sparkman was himself a fascinating personality – a Florida native and former newspaper reporter, Scout leader, substitute school teacher, single father and cancer survivor. Which is to say, strictly from a professional newsman’s perspective, it’s a heckuva story.
Contrary to the way journalists are sometimes portrayed on TV and in movies, a reporter is not a detective, sleuthing around to rendezvous with shadowy “sources” in secret locations. If the mystery of Bill Sparkman’s death is ever solved, it will be solved by the FBI, the Kentucky State Police and other law enforcement officials, not by an out-of-town reporter and certainly not by Andrew Sullivan or any other blogger basing their theories on “pure speculation,” which is how KSP spokesman Don Trosper described some media accounts of the crime.
What had Bill Sparkman been doing up here in the middle of the woods? Who brought him here? Why did they kill him?
Well, I wasn’t going to find the answers standing on the side of Arnetts Fork Road, miles away from decent cell-phone coverage. I stubbed out my cigarette, got in the car, started the engine, hooked a U-turn and headed back toward Manchester, driving fast.
“Fear no evil”? Don’t tell me about that, if you haven’t been through the valley. Whoever killed Bill Sparkman is still at large.
* * * * * *
This is the first in a series of articles about the death of Bill Sparkman, based on a trip to Kentucky that was funded by contributions from readers of The Other McCain. For previous coverage of the trip and recent updates, click here.