Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Culchavox to Kentucky: My bad

Apologies to the people of Kentucky are apparently in order. One of the strangest and ugliest deaths in recent memory, a passing that outwardly bore the hallmarks of another example of American intolerance, is apparently nothing more than an act of cynicism perpetrated by none other than the one who died.

Bill Sparkman, a 51-year-old U.S. Census field worker and substitute teacher, was found hanged Sept. 12 in the Daniel Boone National Forest in rural southeast Kentucky. According to witnesses and authorities, Sparkman’s body was discovered naked and gagged, his hands and feet bound by duct tape with the word “Fed” scrawled across his chest with a felt-tip pen.

The weight of available evidence suggested Sparkman’s death was a homicide, one with all the vicious imagery of a hate crime. To this blogger, who rushed to judgment like a lot of people, it had all the earmarks of a classic anti-government hate crime — one I thought was all the more deeply disturbing because of presumed associations between the federal government and the African American president who now runs the government.

Every picture doesn’t always tell a story. The Associated Press reported today that Sparkman's death was an elaborately choreographed suicide. “Investigators said … what they had been hinting at for weeks, that Bill Sparkman's hanging was a ruse to mask his suicide for a big insurance payout. ...

“[I]nvestigators noticed the foot-tall letters scrawled in black felt-tip pen looked like they could have been written by the victim himself, and they soon found out that he believed he had cancer, had two insurance policies worth $600,000, and had an adult son in need of money.

“The key clue was the lack of defense wounds — the only visible marks on his body were a furrow around his neck and insect bites,” The AP reported.

"If there is ever a homicide, a healthy person would put up a good fight and you would see injury and trauma to the neck and to the arms," said Dr. Cristin Rolf, deputy state medical examiner.

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The AP provided this chronology of events:

“On Sept. 12, the Kentucky resident drove his Chevy pickup — packed with a rope, a roll of duct tape and some red rags — deep into the Kentucky woods, where outsiders are mostly treated with distrust and apprehension. He stripped down to his socks and walked to a nearby cemetery.

“He taped his ankles and wrists, but his wrists were bound so loosely that he had considerable mobility, leaving investigators to believe he could have done the taping himself, authorities said. He scrawled the word "fed" upside down on his chest, taped his Census Bureau ID to his head, stuck a red cloth into his mouth and placed another piece of tape over it.

“Sparkman then strung a rope from a tree, placed a noose around his neck, and leaned forward, using his own body weight to cut off oxygen to his brain, investigators said.

“He likely became lightheaded from lack of oxygen, then lost consciousness. ‘It would not be an excruciating death,’ said Mike Wilder, executive director of the state medical examiner's office.

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What makes my assumptions about the character of the state of Kentucky even worse was the attempt to contextualize Sparkman's death against the state’s known but relatively distant history of racialist lynchings:

"In the boom years of lynching, between 1882 and 1930, Kentucky would be the third deadliest state for blacks to die by lynching. Between 1865 and 1940, at least 353 people in the state were killed by lynch mobs; one scholar says 75 percent of them were black."

It was a character assassination by history book, and Kentuckians would be right to object.

Like most anyone in the blogosphere, I take some snarky pride in calling them like I see them. When I get it utterly, forensically wrong, I like to own the admission that I didn’t see what I thought I saw.

Culchavox to Kentucky: My bad.

Image credits: Bill Sparkman: Source unknown. Rudzinski and Wilder: AP/Brian Bohannon.

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