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Murder and Motives in Clay County

Should an entire Kentucky community take the blame?

By 9.29.09

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MANCHESTER, Kentucky -- Rodney Miller has lived nearly all his 56 years in Clay County, the only exception being when, as a young man, he moved to Indianapolis. He lived in the big city for two years without ever knowing his neighbors' names.

"The best people in the world live here," says Miller, sitting in the office of the Manchester Enterprise, where he directs advertising sales. "Down here, everybody knows everybody else."

Bill Sparkman was not from Clay County. A 51-year-old Florida native, Sparkman lived in neighboring Laurel County. Yet when Sparkman's body was found hanging Sept. 12 in a cemetery a dozen miles east of Manchester, the media seems to have placed blame for the apparent murder on Clay County.

The community has suffered plenty of bad publicity in recent years, with a long-running federal corruption investigation that has resulted in vote-rigging charges against eight local officials. The county also has a reputation for growing marijuana and producing illegal methamphetamine. And on top of these local P.R. problems, the murder also gave national media a chance to recycle stereotypes of rural Kentuckians, much to the annoyance of Clay County residents like Miller.

"Ignorant, backwards hillbillies," he says, recalling a recent cable-news report about Sparkman's death in which the reporter evidently sought out his network's idea of the perfect interview subject for any news story from Kentucky: A toothless, ill-shaven man in overalls.

Yet the Sparkman murder provided liberal bloggers a chance to create an entirely new stereotype of Kentuckians as violent right-wingers. Sparkman was employed part-time by the Census Bureau. When his nude body was found hanged from a tree, his federal identification card was taped to his shoulder and the word "FED" had been scrawled on his chest.

An Associated Press report said the FBI was "investigating whether anti-government sentiment" played a role in Sparkman's death. Law enforcement officials criticized that story, but the liberal blogosphere seized on it as proving that conservatives had fomented a killing rage among the yokels.

"Send the body to Glenn Beck," Internet pundit Rick Ungar proclaimed Thursday, also indicting Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann (a Republican who had warned that census data could be abused) among right-wingers presumed complicit in Sparkman's murder.

Saturday, the Atlantic Monthly's Andrew Sullivan fretted over "the most worrying possibility," namely that Sparkman's death was "Southern populist terrorism whipped up by the GOP and its Fox and talk radio cohorts."

Rodney Miller dismisses such speculation with blunt language -- bovine excrement, so to speak -- and explains that "fed" as an epithet has a specific localized meaning in Clay County. "Half our public officials are in jail and the other half have been indicted," he says, somewhat exaggerating the result of the federal corruption probe. "So, yeah, there are a lot of a people here who don't like 'feds.'"

Federal agents are also often involved in busting eastern Kentucky's marijuana growers, who are known to plant their crops in the Daniel Boone National Forest, which encompasses much of Clay County. And the success of law enforcement efforts against local drug traffickers -- last month a multi-agency undercover investigation called "Operation Borrowed Time" resulted in more than 50 drug arrests in the county -- may have heightened the animosity toward government officials snooping around, as Sparkman's Census job would have required.

The FBI and Kentucky State Police, who are leading the Sparkman investigation, refuse to discuss possible motives for his murder. Asked about the theories being discussed on the Internet, KSP spokesman Don Trosper said, "It's just speculation and rumors.…We concern ourselves with facts."

Local folks have their own speculation and rumors about the case, most of it centered on the possibility that Sparkman somehow fell afoul of local drug dealers, who may have mistaken his federal identification for proof that he was an undercover informant. One man who lives in London offered a variation on that theory: Perhaps Sparkman actually did report on suspected drug-related activity, and his murder was an act of revenge by associates of someone arrested as the result of a tip from Sparkman.

The ghastly cruelty of Sparkman's death would seem to indicate that the person or persons who killed him had extensive acquaintance with violence. Were I to join in the speculation game, my hunch is that whoever killed Sparkman has a lengthy criminal record. There are other rumors and theories about the case, both here in Kentucky and on the Internet, which I won't bother to repeat now. But several people have called attention to the fact that Sparkman's death occurred more than 30 miles from his London home, and that there were reportedly no signs that he put up a struggle.

So much for speculation. What is striking to a first-time visitor to this region is the vast distance between the media perception and the reality.

At the London exit off I-75, there is a Starbucks, that ubiquitous symbol of 21st-century American civilization. Drive east for 20 minutes, and the parkway exit at Manchester is surrounded by other all-American enterprises like Wal-Mart, McDonald's, Subway and Wendy's. Teenage boys hang around the shopping center near the Family Dollar store after school, riding their skateboards on the sidewalk.

Yesterday, I ate supper at the Pizza Hut in Manchester, where people were clearly more concerned about the Clay County High School football team -- "Once A Tiger, Always A Tiger," the waitress's T-shirt declared -- than with "anti-government sentiment."

When police finally make an arrest in Sparkman's death, the suspect will be considered innocent until proven guilty. Shouldn't the same be true for the rest of Clay County?

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.