Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A terrible end to the mystery

A colleague heard the news from some Charleston, S.C., locals and passed along the word: The body of Tom Sponseller, the restaurant-industry leader who’s been missing for 11 days, had been found in a garage.

More details have emerged since that midday flash. Authorities say Sponseller died of what is almost certainly a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. He was discovered in a room within the garage where local workers would sometimes steal a smoke. The details suggest the Citadel graduate locked himself inside. The garage itself had been searched three times since Sponseller’s Feb. 18 disappearance, but the key to his location wasn’t available until today.

The police also revealed they’d found a note today in the deceased’s Columbia office that mentioned a federal investigation into the disappearance of a six-figure sum from coffers of the organization Sponseller headed, the South Carolina Hospitality Association. No details were disclosed, but you have to wonder how the authorities could have missed such a key clue in the last place where Sponseller was known to be alive.

Many of us from the parent company of Restaurant Business have been in Charleston for the last few days for a foodservice conference. The mystery of what happened to Sponseller has been a frequent topic of conversation. No one speculated that it could end this way. But, as several remarked, you just never know what secrets a person might be harboring.

All I know is that I interviewed Sponseller a few months ago for a freelanced story that ran on the National Restaurant Association’s website. He’d taken a group of Hospitality Association members to Atlanta to learn how restaurateurs there were reducing their contributions to landfills.

He surprised me by voicing a contrarian view of an industry initiative that has been widely praised by the business. Because he was a lobbyist, having spent 22 years leading the South Carolina group, I expected him to be politically correct, even if he had a dissenting view of something related to the industry. Instead, he said point-blank that he disagreed with a tack the trade was taking.

The developments suggest that unflattering details about Sponseller are likely to emerge soon. But anyone who met him is almost certainly wishing right now that the situation, no matter how bad, had ended much, much differently.

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