Where does truth end and stereotyping begin?

I’ve received numerous calls and emails today regarding an Associated Press report on the death of a census worker. The complaints deal with what some consider the reports “unfair characterization” of Eastern Kentucky. Many say the national media is once again using a “broad brush” to paint the Appalachian region. I will withhold my opinion for now. But here are the facts:

I’ve received numerous calls and emails today regarding an Associated Press report on the death of a census worker.   The complaints deal with what some consider the reports “unfair characterization” of Eastern Kentucky.  Many say the national media is once again using a “broad brush” to paint the Appalachian region. 

I will withhold my opinion for now.  But here are the facts: 

Bill Sparkman’s body was found hanging from a tree in remote section of Clay County.  A rope was tied around his neck and the word “fed” was scrawled on his chest.  Two weeks later police still do not know if the death was accidental, murder or suicide.  Police are also still unclear if Sparkman was working at the time of his death or if it has anything to do with his government job.

More facts: Eastern Kentucky ranks as one of the nation’s top marijuana producers.  Does Clay County have a higher rate of meth labs than other parts of the state or nation?  A check with Kentucky State Police today indicated the county’s crime rate is no higher than any other area in the state. 

Is there an anti-government sentiment in Clay County?  I’m sure some people do not trust the government but is that feeling any more pervasive in Eastern Kentucky than it is in other parts of the country?  I’m not sure anyone can answer that question with any degree of certainty. 

Are any of these issues related to Bill Sparkman’s death?  That’s a question police are still trying to answer.

In the meantime, I’ll let you read the article and judge for yourself.  I’d like to hear your thoughts and comments.

You’ll find the article immediately following Jeff Allen’s story on reaction from Clay County.

Let's not forget the most important thing in all of this.  A man is dead and his family is grieving. 

BIG CREEK, Ky. (AP) - A census worker found hanged from a tree
with the word "fed" scrawled on his chest met his end in a corner
of Appalachia with an abundance of meth labs and marijuana fields -
and a reputation for mistrusting government that dates back to the
days of moonshiners and "revenuers."
But the investigation has yet to determine whether the death of
the 51-year-old part-time schoolteacher represents real
anti-government sentiment. At this point, police cannot say whether
Bill Sparkman's death was a homicide, an accident or even a
"We are not downplaying the significance of his position with
the U.S. Census bureau," said Capt. Lisa Rudzinski, commander of
the Kentucky State Police post in London. "We can assure the
public we are looking at every possible aspect of Mr. Sparkman's
But locals are already bracing for suggestions that the killing
was the result of anti-government sentiment in the mountains. It
does not help that the death occurred in impoverished Clay County,
one of the poorest in the country with an unemployment rate of 14.5
percent and an overall poverty rate more than three times the
national average.
Sparkman, a Boy Scout leader and substitute teacher who was
supplementing his income as a part-time census field worker, was
found Sept. 12 in a remote patch of the Daniel Boone National
Police said Thursday that the preliminary cause of death was
asphyxiation. Authorities said Sparkman, who a friend said had been
treated for cancer, was found with a rope around his neck that was
tied to a tree, but that he was "in contact with the ground."
The word "fed" had been scrawled on his chest, according to a
law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity
because the official was not authorized to discuss the case.
Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in
nearby Whitesburg, said the federal government has done "precious
little" in Clay County other than building a federal prison in
Manchester in the 1990s. But he is not aware of any deep-seated
hatred of the government.
"Government is not seen as the enemy, except for people who
might fear getting caught for what they're doing," he said.
Army retiree George Robinson did door-to-door census work in
Clay County in 2000. No one ever threatened him, but some people
questioned why the government needed to know some of the
information, especially income, requested on the census form.
"You meet some strange people," he said. "Nothing is a
surprise in Clay County."
Appalachia - particularly eastern Kentucky - has long had an
image of being wary of and sometimes hostile toward strangers.
Incidents such as the September 1967 shooting of Canadian filmmaker
Hugh O'Connor - who was gunned down by an enraged landowner while
making a documentary on poverty in nearby Letcher County - have
done nothing to dispel such notions.
O'Connor was killed as President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty
highlighted the region's destitution. Many locals, such as
confessed shooter Hobart Ison, had long since grown tired of
outsiders exploiting the region's natural resources.
University of Pittsburgh sociologist Kathleen Blee, co-author of
a book about Clay County, says that when she heard of Sparkman's
death, she initially wondered whether he had stumbled across a
marijuana plot.
Pot growers seeking to avoid federal forfeiture statutes often
plant their crops on national forest land and have even been known
to booby-trap plots with explosives and rattlesnakes.
"Like any poor county, people are engaged in a variety of
revenue sources," she said. "Not all of them legal."
Davis acknowledged Clay's "pretty wild history of a black
market economy, a drug economy." He noted that Sparkman's death
occurred at a time when marijuana producers are typically
harvesting their crop.
"And so you have to be careful when you send some unsuspecting
guy who's just trying to earn a buck to feed his family," he said.
"Things can go bad really quickly."
Although the Census Bureau could not immediately offer
statistics on violence against its workers, such incidents are not
unheard of.
In 2000, a Milwaukee-area man was charged with battery for
allegedly trying to shove a 74-year-old census worker down a flight
of stairs. And in 2002, a Sacramento businessman was sentenced to a
year in prison for violently dragging a 68-year-old widow off his
property as she tried to explain the count's importance.
After Sparkman's body was found, the Census Bureau suspended
door-to-door interviews in rural Clay County until the
investigation is complete.
The bureau has yet to begin canvassing for the 2010 head count,
but thousands of field workers like Sparkman are doing smaller
surveys on various demographic topics on behalf of federal
Mary Hibbard, a teacher at an adult learning center in
Manchester, said Sparkman visited her house this summer. He asked
basic information, like the size of her house, how many rooms it
had and how much she paid monthly on her electric bill.
She seized the opportunity to ask him about his faith. "You come to my house, we're going to talk religion," she
Eastern Kentucky is a region of many churches, and Hibbard
thinks most people in the area would be shocked if it turns out
Sparkman was murdered.  "I think the negative publicity of it is a stigma on our
county," she said. "It makes people think less of us, even though
this is an isolated incident. When it happens here, it seems like
it's emphasized."
Breed reported from Raleigh, N.C. Associated Press writers Joe
Biesk in Frankfort, Roger Alford in London, Ky., and Bruce
Schreiner in Louisville also contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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Neil Middleton
WYMT Mountain News
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