When I first read about Bill Sparkman's strange death, I felt certain that the overexcited "Lynching in Lower Glennbeckistan" angle wouldn't pan out. Reading between the lines of the initial AP reports, I figured it was possibly a suicide, or maybe a backwoods-bred meth-fueled wrong-place-wrong-time mistaken identity sort of incident, like one might expect to find in the Kentucky sticks. But more likely, I thought it would turn out to be a sex crime. Behind the flowery encomia bracketing every report, Sparkman's biography remained conspicuous and fairly suggested a familiar profile. Here was a guy — a cancer survivor, I realize — well into middle age and never married, who taught middle school, who adopted a son. Long active in the the Boy Scouts, Sparkman had written for the local-yokel paper where he reported on small town events, which in all probability meant pre- and post-game access to the high-school locker room. However you approached it, Sparkman's personal legacy revealed a pattern of choices that situated him at the sidelines of boyculture. Guys like this are in every town. They're usually civic-minded and neighborly, but on second thought, weird. If they are harmless, it doesn't mean they're not brooding. Mothers are oblivious. Fathers are suspicious. And shame on those who notice, I suppose. When blogger Dan Riehl said what I was thinking, Andrew Sullivan snorted and a mob of commenters filed in to express hysterical indignation.
As facts about the case trickled out, the "populist terror" narrative quickly fractured. It turned out that Sparkman's corpse wasn't exactly "hanging" from a tree, as initial reports claimed. It turned out, curiously, that he was bound and naked. It turned out that Census officials could not confirm that he was actively canvassing in the Clay County area at the time of his death. And it turned out that Sparkman was once affectionately known to fellow Scout leaders as "Fe Fe," ostensibly for his "poodle-like curls." I'm not sure what to make of that last detail, but there it is. In no time, it seemed that only one piece of the original media-projected narrative could be sketchily corroborated (by a coroner's statement), and that was the bit that stirred Huffpost partisans into a pother — that the word "Fed" was either written or "scrawled" on Sparkman's chest. Well, I want to see a photograph. Specifically, I want to examine the "F." And I want to know what the fuck Sparkman's grieving mother meant when she was asked about her son's death and said: "I have my own ideas, but I can't say them out loud." Mothers know their sons. What did Bill's mom know?
You'd think reporters would be curious enough to ask. And you would be wrong. Just when things were getting to be interesting, the Sparkman case receded from the headlines. One might chalk this up to media bias, to a telling case of heartland-hating journalists tripped up by an inconveniently shifting storyline. But I suspect it has far more to do with journalistic laziness and cultural ADD. I remember just after the towers came down, I joked to co-workers that someone really ought to check on Richard Jewell's alibi. They might have been offended by my display of bad taste, except they didn't know what I was talking about. The memory hole is shallow.
The lone exception appears to be one Robert Stacy McCain, a former Washington Times reporter who has been skulking around the Appalachian hills on his own dime, chatting up locals and piecing together what there is. His first dispatch is an instant classic of gonzo crime reporting. To his credit, McCain is neither pursuing nor dismissing any specific theory about Sparkman's death (though he's pretty sure it wasn't a suicide); he just seems annoyed by the gaping incuriosity of today's journalistic class. The kids are due for a lesson, even if they're not paying attention. (McCain's supplemental writings on the Sparkman case are archived here.)
Anyhow, until I see good reason to revise my hunch, I'll wager a beer that Sparkman's death ends up under the Special Victims Unit. If it turns out to be Tea Party lynching, I'll eat a bug. And if it turns out that the case is just filed away like an old pay-stub, I won't be surprised.