Mark Putnam: Love and Murder in Appalachia

Eastern Kentucky is about as far from the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas and Hollywood as you can get. But that’s where this week’s case takes us. From last week’s mob murder in Beverly Hills, we travel to Pikeville, Kentucky. There, in 1989, FBI Agent Mark Putnam killed an informant with whom he was having an affair.

Mark Putnam

Mark Putnam was born on Independence Day in 1959 and studied criminology at the University of Tampa. After college, he attended the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He married Kathy Ponticelli, the daughter of a wealthy real estate developer, shortly after graduating.

Mark Putnam and his wife, Kathy and daughter Danielle in 1987
Mark Putnam and his wife, Kathy and daughter Danielle in 1987

The FBI assigned newly-minted agent Putnam to Pikeville, Kentucky for his first case, bank robber Carl “Cat Eyes” Lockhart. Putnam was to gather evidence to convict Lockhart.

Susan Daniels Smith

Susan Daniels was born in Matewan, West Virginia in 1961. Matewan is at the heart of the area embroiled in the infamous nineteenth century Hatfield-McCoy feud. The old feud was part of Susan, as she was a descendant of both clans. Her father came from the Hatfield while her mother was a descendant of the McCoys.

Susan Daniels Smith
Susan Daniels Smith

Susan met Kenneth Smith in 1977 when she was just 15 and he was 22. Smith was a local dealer in methamphetamine, PCP, and cocaine, hardly a model citizen. Nevertheless, the two married sometime in the late 1970s. Although the marriage produced two children, it’s hardly surprising that there were problems. The couple divorced in the mid-1980s.

Mark Putnam Finds an Informant

Recall that in 1987, Agent Mark Putnam was just beginning his investigation of “Cat Eyes” Lockhart. Sheriff’s deputy Bert Hatfield suggested to his friend, Susan, that she could earn extra money by becoming an informant. Putnam and Susan met in the spring of 1987. They met frequently to exchange information about Lockhart’s activities and plans.

Susan Smith in 7th grade, the last year she attended school
Susan Smith in 7th grade, the last year she attended school

Susan’s collaboration with Putnam was successful. The FBI arrested “Cat Eyes” Lockhart in December 1987. The following year saw him sentenced to 57 years in federal prison for robbery. For her assistance in the case, Susan received $5,000 (nearly $12,000 in 2021 dollars).

Mark Putnam Crosses a Line

The case may have been over, but Susan and Mark continued to meet. Sometime in mid-1988, they began a sexual relationship. According to what Susan told friends, they met in motels for sex. In his later confession, Putnam claimed they only had quickies in his car. Regardless of where they met, the two continued their affair.

Mark Putnam was smart enough to realize that continuing to see Susan could be detrimental to his career and his marriage. In early 1989, he requested and received a transfer to Miami, Florida (Kathy had hated Pikeville anyway). However, mid-1989 saw him back in Kentucky to wrap up a car theft investigation.

An Affair Turns to Murder

Putnam and Susan met during this visit to Kentucky. While they were driving on an isolated country road on June 8, she told him she was pregnant. She said the child was his and threatened to expose him. In his confession, Mark said that he pulled off on the side of the road to continue the discussion. He said that he and his wife would adopt the baby. Susan objected and began slapping him. In what he called “an act of extreme rage,” he began choking her. Soon Susan Smith was dead. If, as he claimed, Putnam tried to reviver her, his efforts were unsuccessful.

Mark Putnam under arrest
Mark Putnam under arrest

Now Putnam had a dead body on his hands. He placed Susan in the trunk of his rental car. The next evening, he dumped her off an old coal mine road about nine miles north of Pikeville. Then he went home to his family in Florida.

Susan’s sister, Shelby Ward, reported her missing three days later. It took a year, but suspicion slowly focused on Mark Putnam. After failing a polygraph examination, Putnam confessed and led authorities to where he’d dumped Susan’s body.

Shelby Ward, was the one who reported Susan missing
Shelby Ward, was the one who reported Susan missing

Epilogue

Mark Steven Putnam pled guilty to one count of first-degree manslaughter (Susan’s autopsy determined she had not been pregnant). Sentenced to 16 years in prison, he served 10. He was a “model prisoner” inside. He lives in Georgia, is remarried, and works as a personal trainer. To date, he is the only FBI agent convicted of homicide.

Mark Putnam is now a personal trainer
Mark Putnam is now a personal trainer

Putnam’s first wife, Kathy stood by him while he was in prison. She died of a heart attack at age 38 in 1998. Years of struggles with alcohol had compromised her health.

In the early 1990s, writer Joe Sharkey penned Above Suspicion, a book about the case, which he recently revised and updated.

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5 Replies to “Mark Putnam: Love and Murder in Appalachia”

  1. Well now. How nice for him. I wonder if he’d be a ‘remarried personal trainer’ if he were anything other than white?

    1. He served his time there have plenty of persons of color who were released either by being model prisoners or because they were found not guilty, Mark had no former criminal file and was, before the murder, an upstanding citizen,

  2. It’s interesting how the movie ‘Above Suspicion’ left out the part where it turned out Susan wasn’t really pregnant afterall.

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