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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28 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,

      1. Erin is right. If he were a person of color, he wouldn’t be out of prison in 10 years or at all for killing someone. He disposed of the body after the killing . He didn’t even confess until after a year, after being a suspect and after a failed polygraph test. Might not have even been a manslaughter. There was motive to kill given that she was claiming to expose their relationship and pregnancy placing his career and family on the line. He has told his story but she is not here to tell hers so we will never truly know what happened on the day of her death but one thing is certain, 10yrs was too short a time compared to the sentence being served to people of color for the same crime. A black person would have been given life to death sentence in the 1980s /90s.

      2. To hell with that. He murdered a woman in cold blood with his bare hands and he only had to serve 10 years. Ridiculous.

      3. It’s sad that you rob a bank “Cat Eyes” and you get nearly 60 years thanks to Susan Daniels Smith, But you murder a PREGNANT informant and you only do 10 years? Aint America wonderful!

      1. Thank you Irving, good read. So many people who throw racism accusations out should look at themselves first. We are all family, good and bad we are the same!

      2. Irving, I just read the article you linked to and wow was it enlightening. I think many times white people try to be social justice warriors and speak out for people whom they don’t see as equals, thinking they are doing them a favor when it’s just down putting, as they ARE, of course EQUALS.

      3. Website “Intellectual takeout”, receives funding from right wing groups, and the Koch brothers. I wouldn’t take what they say as truth or without right wing , white supremacy bias.

    2. I hear you Erin. But I had pleaded guilty to murder in 2001 of a Chicago police man and got out 2012 for good model. I didn’t even know dude was a undercover cop. I thought he was some white dude trying to scare me with a pistol. I used my instincts and shot first. Sometimes you get the good people who believe in real justice, and sometimes you do get them racist tyrants.

    3. What is the point of stating this? Isn’t the fact that he was an FBI agent who had an affair with his informant and then killed her more pertinent to the story and any judgments about his conviction and sentence than his race? It’s not as if there are any similar cases regarding black FBI agents.

    4. Geez. The race thing rears it’s ugly head yet again. What about our esteemed OJ Simpson. Probable killer of 2, convicted robber, African American- plays golf and smirks for the camera. How nice for him.

    5. Stop that racism stuff. I believe he behaved while in prison, that’s why he only served 10 years, not because he’s white. If he was black with good behavior, they would do the same thing also. Racism equals hate. The people who are obsessed with it, they’re the racist.

      1. I work in the system and between race and class, it makes all the difference. Your out of touch.

    6. I was about to come to the conclusion that things were all fine between the races until the O.J. Simpson acquittal. One of the news outlets had a camera set up in the basement of an AME church where those good Christian folk breathlessly awaited the verdict. When he was declared not guilty, you would’ve thought Obama had been elected. They jumped up whooping and dancing around as if everyone of them had won the lottery. They were not concerned about Justice being served; they only wanted the Black man to be found not guilty. The icing on the cake was when president Obama declared Treyvon Martin was “the son he never had.” The reason George Z. was found innocent by a racially diverse jury was because he was simply protecting his life from having his head bashed into the concrete sidewalk. The reason Treyvon Martin was killed was because he did not have sense enough to ask, “why are you following me?” Trayvon, in typical thug style, tried to give an innocent man a beat down. He just chose the wrong man and got what he deserved. His mother and daddy were not married; he had no strong father figure to teach him any better. He did not know how to control himself and he paid the price.
      As far as Michael Brown, that gentle giant, the only way his DNA and blood splatter could’ve gotten on the inside of the police cruiser was he was sticking his hand in there trying to get the officer’s weapon. What would you do if someone were banging your head in the concrete and you had a weapon? What would you do if someone’s trying to snatch your weapon away from you? As a Black friend of mine said, “Those boys were thugs and they deserved to die. As far as O.J. Simpson is concerned, as sure as I am black and you’re white, OJ is guilty.”

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

  3. Also, let’s talk about Larry Miller, president of Nike Air Jordan. He ADMITS to killing an African American kid when he was 18. Claims self defense, but who doesn’t. Absolutely no consequences for that action. Do you think that’d fly if the same situation involved a WHITE president of Nike? I’m not saying Larry Miller should be prosecuted and I’m not defending Mark Putnam’s disgusting actions, all I’m saying that your comment about “gee this wouldn’t happen with anyone but a white guy” is ridiculous.

  4. The movie also didn’t show that Susan Smith’s body was decomposing for a year before Putnam decided to tell where her bones could be found.

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