ATLANTA — The body of the asphyxiated man was discovered in the backwoods of Clay County, Ky., near an old family cemetery. A rope around his neck was tied to a tree.
He was a 51-year-old part-time teacher and a former Boy Scout employee -- a gentle man who, one relative said, never caused any trouble.
That would be mystery enough. But the dead man, William E. "Bill" Sparkman, was also a part-time employee of the U.S. Census Bureau. He was found with the word "FED" written across his chest in what appeared to be felt-tip marker, according to Jim Trosper, the county coroner.
Now state and federal investigators are exploring whether Sparkman -- one of hundreds of part-time employees working for a Census Bureau that is under increasing fire from conservatives -- was targeted because of his job.
"If he were killed because of his [government] employment, that'd be a federal case," said David J. Beyer, a special agent with the FBI, which is conducting the investigation with the Kentucky State Police.
The case so far is notable for the lack of details divulged by law enforcement officials -- and the conclusions that have been drawn nonetheless in some quarters of the liberal blogosphere, which is rife with concern that anti-government rhetoric that has escalated in the Obama era could spill over into anti-government violence.
After a detailed report on Sparkman's death by the Associated Press this week, Village Voice Media's True Crime Report blog cited the recent "rage against Washington . . . especially in the rural South," and said the death had "all the makings of some anti-government goober taking his half-wit beliefs way too far."
A Huffington Post commentator with the handle "tantrictim" called the death "the sort of thing one expects to see in some right-wing banana republic dictatorship."
But as of Thursday, state police had yet to rule whether Sparkman's death was a homicide, suicide or accident. Investigators were awaiting a full report from the state medical examiner, said Lt. David Jude, a Police Department spokesman. Jude reported the cause of death, and details about the rope, late Thursday afternoon.
Sparkman's body was discovered Sept. 12 by visitors to the cemetery in the remote community of Arnett's Fork, about 100 miles southeast of Lexington. The body was not hanging from the rope, but on the ground, police said.
Set in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains, Clay County is dominated by the heavily wooded Daniel Boone National Forest, where federal officials have been fighting a long-running war with marijuana growers who typically plant their pot on the federal land.
The county is the second-most destitute in Kentucky, with 41.9% of residents living in poverty in 2007, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. In the last 20 years, it also has consistently been one of the state's top five marijuana producers.
But that, too, could have nothing to do with the case. Investigators would not say whether they were pursuing the possibility that the drug trade was involved.
Outsiders perceived as threats to the pot crop have been hurt before, according to Ed Shemelya, marijuana coordinator for the Office of National Drug Control Policy's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area that covers a three-state swath of Appalachia.
However, he said, much of the drug-related violence has been directed toward thieves. Typically, he said, if a person happens to stumble on the plants, "they'd politely let you know that you don't need to be there."
In Gainesville, Ga., on Thursday, Shasda Guier was mourning the death of her cousin. Guier, 37, had last spoken with Sparkman in April. Though he had been battling non-Hodgkin lymphoma, she said, he was happily moving forward in life, working on a teaching certificate and excited to be working for the Census.
"We couldn't believe who would ever want to harm him, because he was such a gentle man," she said. "He had this desire to help people. We were just dumbfounded."