When an eastern Kentucky census worker was found naked, bound with duct tape and hanging from a tree with "fed" scrawled on his chest, suspicion fell on the hardscrabble Appalachian area where bad news seems like a way of life.
Perhaps Bill Sparkman had been a victim of violent anti-government sentiment in an area known for a rampant drug trade and where "revenuer" is still a dirty word.
That speculation was doused Tuesday when authorities said that Sparkman killed himself but staged his death to make it look like a homicide. The conclusion that Sparkman died by his own hands, and not by those of anti-government zealots, was seen by Clay County community activist Doug Abner as a vindication for the area.
"That's a horrible thing that's happened to that fellow," Abner, senior pastor at the nondenominational Community Church in Manchester, said in a phone interview. "But like most Clay countians, I feel like we get a bad rap. It's just a stereotypical thing."
Abner was always skeptical of the speculation that Sparkman may have been a victim of anti-government sentiment, saying "We're really not that bad."
"We're not asking for an apology," he added. "We just want people to start looking at us different."
Sparkman, 51, was found strangled Sept. 12 with a rope around his neck near a cemetery in a heavily wooded area of the Daniel Boone National Forest in southeastern Kentucky.
On Tuesday, authorities for the first time released key details such as Sparkman's wrists being bound so loosely that he could have done the taping himself. Kentucky State Police Capt. Lisa Rudzinski said an analysis found that the "fed" on his chest was written "from the bottom up."
He was touching the ground almost to his knees, and to survive "all Mr. Sparkman had to do at any time was stand up," she said.
Authorities said Sparkman was not under the influence of any drugs or alcohol at the time of his death. His clothes were found in the bed of his nearby pickup truck.
"Our investigation, based on evidence and witness testimony, has concluded that Mr. Sparkman died during an intentional, self-inflicted act that was staged to appear as a homicide," Rudzinski said.
Sparkman's mother, Henrie Sparkman of Inverness, Fla., bristled at the conclusion: "I disagree!" she wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
Authorities said Sparkman alone manipulated the suicide scene, which was so elaborate that a man who discovered the body was convinced Sparkman was murdered.
Rudzinski said Sparkman "told a credible witness that he planned to commit suicide and provided details on how and when."
Authorities wouldn't say who Sparkman told of his plan, but said Sparkman talked about it a week before his suicide and the person did not take him seriously. He told the person he believed his lymphoma, which he had previously been treated for, had recurred, police said.
Sparkman also had recently taken out two accidental life insurance policies totaling $600,000 that would not pay out for suicide, authorities said. One policy was taken out in late 2008; the other in May.
If Sparkman had been killed on the job, his family also would have been be eligible for up to $10,000 in death gratuity payments from the government.
Sparkman's son, Josh, previously told AP that his father had named him as his life insurance beneficiary. Josh Sparkman said earlier this month he found paperwork for the private life insurance policy among his father's personal files but wasn't sure of the amount. Police wouldn't say who the beneficiary was.
The Census Bureau suspended door-to-door interviews in the rural area after Sparkman's body was found, but a spokesman said normal operations would resume in Clay County next month.
Anti-government sentiment was initially one possibility in the death. Authorities said Sparkman had discussed perceived negative views of the federal government in the county.
A friend of Sparkman's, Gilbert Acciardo, previously told AP that he warned Sparkman to be careful when he did his census work. Acciardo, a retired Kentucky state trooper, said he told Sparkman people in the area would view him differently because he worked for the federal government.
"The death of our co-worker, William Sparkman, was a tragedy and remains a loss for the Census Bureau family. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends," said census spokesman Stephen Buckner.
State Sen. Robert Stivers of Manchester also expressed sympathy for Sparkman's family but charged the media with rushing to "sensationalize" before all the facts were known.
"They have painted us with a brush that should have never been used," he said.
Stivers predicted mixed feelings among Clay County residents about the conclusion reached by police that Sparkman died of a suicide and was not the victim of anti-government rage.
"They'll be relieved that it has been debunked, but they will be upset that the speculation was reached without a proper investigation," he said.
Associated Press writer Hope Yen in Washington contributed to this report.