This story was one of the very first true crime stories that I followed and is in part the reason I am obsessed with true crime in general. I remember when the story broke, being in the next town over, at the age of 12. I remember when two books were quickly published afterwards and devouring both of them and any news article I could find on the subject. This was the days before the internet of course, but living in a small town, with a scandal that included something as big as the FBI, was pretty major.
Mark Putnam was a recent graduate of the FBI academy in 1987 when he was assigned the small post in Pikeville, an FBI outpost that was inside the Kentucky State Police post and manned by two agents. Mark had grown up a working class child although some had some unique opportunities similar to a child with a more upper class upbringing. He grew up in Connecticut and secured a partial scholarship to a college prep school due to his soccer skills for high school. After graduating high school, and being the captain of the soccer team his senior year, he went onto college in Florida and returned home. Shortly after this he completed the FBI academy as he and his wife Kathy began a family and worked entry level jobs. In 1987 Mark, his wife, and the couple’s young daughter Danielle moved to Pikeville for his first assignment.
Susan Daniels Smith grew up poor in an area on the border of Kentucky and West Virginia, the fifth of nine children. Although Susan was known in her school and by her family to be a smart child, often checking out books at the local library, she would quit school after the 7th grade and shortly thereafter began to live with her soon to be husband, Kenneth Smith at age 15 to Kenneth’s 24 years. Kenneth was a small time drug dealer and eventually found himself in trouble in the late 70’s, landing a short sentence in prison. Susan and he had two children and divorced shortly after the birth of their second child, Brady, who had an older sister Miranda. Although the couple was divorced they were often in an “on again/off again” status and it is likely the divorce was in order for Susan to be entitled to welfare benefits for the children.
Mark, by all accounts, was eager to prove himself to the FBI and was not afraid of hard work. He quickly associated himself with local law enforcement which was atypical of the aloofness that local police associated with the FBI which, despite his status as an “outsider” did a lot for both his reputation as a law man in the local community and in the FBI structure as well. Shortly after Mark was transferred the other FBI officer was as well, placing another agent in the office with him. Mark had no supervision or mentorship available within the FBI so he sought out his own with local law enforcement. This is how the unlikely coupling of Mark and Susan started.
Being an informant was a fairly common phenomenon in the area during this time although the pay was low and the risk was high. The pay, however, for an FBI informant as opposed to a local law enforcement informant was much higher and more steady. After being introduced by a local police officer as someone who knew a top suspect in a series of bank robberies (which were federal offenses as opposed to local ones), Susan and Mark began to work together. Susan’s information and testimony regarding the individual she knew paid her well and secured the conviction of the suspect.
At some point, an affair ensued between the two. Exactly when, and for how long, is not something that can ever be truly known. Susan told friends and family that it went on for nearly the entire two years he was at the Pike County post although Mark argues that it happened only a few times and for less than a month. Susan said that it was a passionate affair, with the couple meeting in hotels, cars, and even Mark’s home while Mark’s testimony was that he only had sexual relations with her “about five times” in his car.
Mark’s story was that, months after rumors of the affair began, the actual affair itself began. I find it hard to believe that Susan would tell people for months that an affair was ongoing and Mark would deny it, only to eventually give into the temptation. I strongly suspect that Susan was most likely telling the truth, or coming closer to telling the truth, than Mark was in relation to the duration, frequency, and intensity of the affair although this fact will never be truly known.
An unusual aspect of the affair was that Susan began an unlikely friendship with Kathy, Mark’s wife, during the time frame of the affair. Per Kathy’s story, the friendship began as more one-sided with Kathy offering emotional support to Susan as she shared her concerns about her own drug use, her ex-husband’s abuse, and her economic woes but even according to Kathy the friendship became more two sided as time went on with Kathy also sharing with Susan about her inherent isolation being in an area foreign to her without friends or family. Kathy said in the past that Susan confessed to Kathy her love for Mark but remarkably, at least according to Kathy’s story, she did not end the friendship over this and did not suspect an affair. She assumed it was Susan’s wishful-thinking.
Local rumors, after the story broke, was that Susan was not the only person that Mark had an affair with. One rumor that I heard then, and since have had a fairly reliable source confirm, was that Mark also had an affair (among a few others) with a teacher in my town that I actually babysat for in my youth. What I know is factual is that when the story broke, she was one of a few women questioned (and as far as I know the only one in my town – this story was actually in the next town over from mine) due to allegations of an affair and years later a friend of mine confirmed that not only was she questioned but the affair had happened – her source being her own mother who was a friend of the woman.
After a fairly large criminal case unrelated to anything Susan had been an informant for the Putnams, who by now had a second child, Mark Jr., were reassigned to Miami due to some threats received by Mark’s family from people related to the defendants. Mark himself admitted to more or less leaving without a word to Susan, although she at some point had his phone number in Miami and continued to talk to both he and Kathy on the phone (my theory, which I have no proof of, is that Mark simply called her and continued to converse with her).
Very shortly after the move Susan told Mark she was pregnant with his child according to some sources, although Mark said he was not aware until he saw her after being flown back to Pikeville for a criminal trial related to work he had done while there. Mark said that his coworker, the other FBI agent in town, showed him results from the pregnancy test from the local health department and that he (the other agent) put Susan up in the same hotel that Mark was staying at for the duration of the trial unbeknownst to him until he arrived as sort of a “set up” for Mark to face his consequences. We don’t have any sort of statements from Susan, or for that matter his coworker, to refute this although I always suspected that Mark was aware when he arrived and that while his coworker may have made the arrangements for her to stay in the hotel (at the FBI’s expense no less) that Mark was aware before he got there.
While Mark was fairly busy during this time with real FBI work, he does say that he eventually had a conversation with Susan about the pregnancy which Mark did admit that he could have been the father to the child given the timeline. Mark says that he offered to pay for an abortion which Susan rejected and that he also offered for he and his wife to raise the child which she also rejected and was insulted by. Mark says they went for a drive to talk (per him in order to avoid anyone else from seeing them, he took her to an isolated area) and that Susan continually called his wife a whore, among other things, which resulted in Mark becoming angry and “snapping”, resulting in him strangling her to death. Susan’s voice is lost as to what her version of events were. It is evident that there was a struggle as Mark had a scratch on his hand, scratches on his neck, and a scratched eye later and he returned his rental car early due to the windshield being busted.
Mark maintains that after the murder he put Susan in the trunk of his rental car and returned to the hotel. The following day he had to go to the state FBI headquarters in Lexington, a drive that in 1989 would have been upwards of two and a half hours. He drove his car, Susan’s body still in the trunk (this was summer) and finished the police business he had in Lexington then returned home. While he was there another FBI agent casually asked about his hand injury, to which he replied that he cut his hand on a nail at his Pikeville home that had not sold yet, stating he went by to do a few things around the house.
When he returned he said that he drove to an isolated spot and put Susan’s body, from which he removed all of her clothing, in a ravine. Mark said that a woman riding a horse spotted him near the ravine and that Mark pretended to have stopped on the side of the road to urinate. Mark cleaned the car, switched the rental car for another stating that a coal truck and spilled coal on the windshield and broke it, and concluded his business in Pikeville. He then flew back to Miami.
Both Mark’s coworker, Ron Poole, and Susan’s sister, Shelby noted Susan’s absence. Mark talked to both of them on the phone during this time and claimed to have briefly spoken to her about the pregnancy the night of the murder but said he knew nothing else. He told Susan’s sister to report her missing. Mark also mentioned that Susan had discussed the possibility of “going up north” for a drug by, which seems to have been something she had been considering doing as this story was known to others. Weeks turned into months and no one took the disappearance seriously for a long time.
Susan was troubled, and most believed she had just “ran off”, as she had done a few times prior, or that one of many people could have harmed her. Susan’s ex-husband was known to be abusive and Susan had made more than a few enemies due to her informant work with the FBI. Kentucky State Police officially investigated the case as a missing person and it seems eventually asked for the FBI’s help in interviewing their agents, both Mark and Ron, who at this point had also been reassigned to another office, to eliminate them as suspects.
During Mark’s interview both the internal investigator with the FBI and KSP detectives noticed some statements he gave that alarmed them, most notably referring to Susan in the past tense when no body had been located and the investigation was being conducted as a missing person and not a murder. Mark was also asked to take a lie detector test, which he agreed to do (I believe that Ron Poole was asked as well but I couldn’t find any information about if he took one). Mark took the lie detector test, which while never admissible to court set more red flags to investigators as all of his answers regarding Susan (at this point he was not admitting to an affair or anything) showed deception.
Several days later, with an attorney, Mark confessed to killing Susan and dumping her body. In a plea for a shorter sentence at a federal facility (as opposed to a state prison) Mark told investigators where he left the body. Nearly a year to the day after her murder, Susan’s body was located and her family was able to lay her to rest. Mark spent ten years out of his sixteen year sentence incarcerated. While incarcerated, his wife passed away partly due to complications from alcoholism.
I’ve read both books written on the murder. Above Suspicion by Joe Sharkey has been made into a movie slated for release this year. I read both that and The FBI Killer by Aphrodite Jones as a child/teenager when they came out and more recently reread Sharkey’s book as it’s available on Kindle. I haven’t reread Jones’ book since I was a child as I have not had luck in finding it other than to order it from a third party on Amazon which I will most likely do. Sharkey’s book, in my opinion, is highly biased towards Mark’s image of a good FBI agent that “snapped”. He took Mark’s confession at face value and seemed to believe every word of it, discounting things that Susan had told her family due to Susan’s reputation. I can’t specifically remember Jones’ book having any bias and I remember when I read the books the first time I preferred hers as it seemed to give Susan a bit more of a voice although it would have been the very early 90’s when I read it and I would have been a child. It is possible in retrospect that hers could have been more biased toward Susan.
Some of the things I’ve recently read that Mark said early on was that he was doubtful of the pregnancy and that he may not have been the father. I’m not certain how he could be doubtful of the actual pregnancy as it was documented by the health department that she was, in fact, pregnant. However I will agree that paternity could not be established at all. When Susan was found she was a skeleton and there would have been very little chance, especially in 1989, of any DNA on a fetus that may not have even had bones present. To me what is more important, however, is that Mark himself acknowledged that if she was pregnant than he could, in fact, be the father. Due to the condition of the remains Mark’s version of events to the murder has to be taken for face value.