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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Darrell Lunsford: Dashcam Video Records a Murder

Last week we looked at the murder of former child actor Carl Switzer, “Alfalfa” of The Little Rascals. Our subject this week is the murder of Darrell Lunsford, an East Texas police constable. His murder was the first case where dashcam video led to the quick arrest of the killers. The video also ensured their conviction.

Darrell Lunsford is Murdered on the Highway

At about 1:20 on the morning of January 23, 1991, Constable Lunsford noted a vehicle he considered suspicious. It was a ten-year-old Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with Maine license plates. As the car passed through the tiny town of Garrison, Texas on U.S. Highway 59, Lunsford pulled it over. Lunsford got out of his cruiser, but before he did, he activate his dashboard camera.

Photo of Darrell Lunsford in uniform
Constable Darrell E. Lunsford, Sr.

Three Hispanic men occupied the Cutlass: the driver, Reynaldo Villarreal, his half-brother, Baldemar, and Jesus Cortez Zambrano. Lunsford asked Reynaldo for identification. He claimed to have a driver’s license but said he didn’t have it on him. Reynaldo failed to mention that the three were heading to Chicago from Houston with 30 pounds of marijuana.

At 1:27, Lunsford asked to look in the Cutlass’s trunk and the men reluctantly agreed. When he and Reynaldo opened the trunk, the scent of marijuana was immediately evident. Although told to stay in the car, Baldemar got out and joined Reynaldo in talking with Lunsford. Suddenly, Baldemar grabbed Lunsford by the legs while Reynaldo grabbed him from behind. The two men, soon joined by Zambrano, then began to kick, beat, and stab the immobilized officer.

Sill frame from Darrell Lunsford's dashcam video seconds before the deadly attack
Still frame form Lunsford’s dashcam video, seconds before the deadly attack

Not content to disable Lunsford, Baldemar shot him in the neck with the officer’s own gun. The bullet severed his spinal cord, killing him instantly. The three dragged the body to a nearby ditch. Then they sped off in the Cutlass, leaving Lunsford’s body and his cruiser on the side of Highway 59.

Darrell Lunsford Murder Suspects Captured

Shortly before the murder, Sheriff’s Deputy Don Welch drove by the traffic stop. Moments later, when the Cutlass zoomed past him, Welch turned around and found Lunsford’s body. He radioed for help. Chief Deputy Thomas Stanaland noticed the video camera in Lunsford’s cruiser. He watched the video, then made a copy of the tape.

Analyzing the video, police were able to identify the three suspects. The trio had abandoned their Cutlass less than a mile from Garrison when they realized Welch had spotted them. On foot now, and toting 30 pounds of marijuana, they didn’t move fast. A highway patrolman spotted and arrested Reynaldo Villarreal later that same day. Two days after that, authorities found and arrested his brother, Baldemar. It took another week, but Zambrano was soon in custody as well.

Shooter Baldemar Villarreal in court
Shooter Baldemar Villarreal in court

All three men stood trial for murder and were convicted. Baldemar Villarreal, the actual shooter, received a life sentence. Reynaldo Villarreal received a 40-year sentence while Jesus Zambrano drew a 30-year term.

Epilogue

A few months later, on September 21, 1991, Texas State Trooper Andy Lopez, Jr. stopped a suspicious vehicle along U.S. Highway 77 in Refugio, Texas. In an eerie echo of Lunsford’s murder, three Hispanic men were in the car transporting a cargo of marijuana. At first, they men allowed Lopez to open the trunk. But then, one of the suspects drew a handgun.

Lopez quickly knocked the suspect off balance and drew his own gun. The two men exchanged shots. The armed suspect continued to fire at Lopez while the other two fled on foot. By the time help arrived, the armed suspect had suffered mortal wounds in the gun battle. Lopez credited the video of Lunsford’s murder with helping him learn what mistakes to avoid in a similar situation.

Sign identifying  a portion of U.S. Highway 59 as the Darrell Lunsford, Sr. Memorial Highway
Sign identifying a portion of U.S. Highway 59 as the Darrell Lunsford, Sr. Memorial Highway

According to Bureau of Prisons records, Baldemar Villarreal is in prison in Beaumont, Texas with no release day. He is likely to spend the rest of his days behind bars. Reynaldo Villareal languishes in the Federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. His planned release date is January 2026. Jesus Zambrano served 27 years of his 30-year sentence and was released in 2018.

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George Trepal: Murder by Means of a Rare Poison

Last week’s blog underscored the old saw about there being no honor among thieves. This week, our topic is George Trepal, a murderer with a genius IQ.

Problems with the Neighbors

Two families lived next to each other amid the orange groves of the tiny town of Alturas, Florida. In one house, mine worker Parearlyn “Pye” Carr lived with his wife Peggy and their children from previous marriages. Even though they had only been married for a few months, Peggy suspected her husband of having an affair. There was also frequent strife among the children, who were in their teens and early twenties.

Peggy Carr portrait
Peggy Carr

The other family was George Trepal and his wife, Dr. Diana Carr (no relation to Pye). George was a chemist and Diana an orthopedic surgeon who people said dominated George. Both belonged to Mensa, a society for people with high IQ.

George Trepal at the time of his trial in 1991.
George Trepal at the time of his trial in 1991.

You’d think two families living close together with no other neighbors nearby would form a bond but not in this case. The two families argued frequently over things like firecrackers and loud music. It seemed that Diana and Peggy’s stepson, Duane, were frequently at odds. And on one occasion, Peggy and Diana had a ferocious altercation over Duane’s alleged bad behavior.

A Strange Illness — And Death

Peggy Carr worked in a local restaurant. One day her daughter, Sissy, visited her at work. Peggy complained she didn’t feel well, and Sissy urged her to go home. Her youngest son found her lying on a sofa, unable to speak. Her family rushed her to a hospital.

At the hospital, doctors spent three days running tests but couldn’t find anything wrong. They suggested that perhaps Peggy’s symptoms were psychosomatic—all in her head. But her symptoms slowly disappeared in the hospital, so the doctors sent her home. The symptoms returned almost immediately.

Again, Peggy couldn’t speak. She was able to write a note saying, “My feet are killing me.” As they drove Peggy back to the hospital, her son Travis and stepson Duane both started feeling a burning sensation in their own feet. Now doctors suspected poisoning. They thought it might be a metallic substance like arsenic. But when Peggy began to lose her hair, they suspected the poison was thallium.

Peggy slipped into a coma, while doctors put Travis on a respirator. Peggy died in March 1988 after Pye allowed the hospital to take her off life support.

Detectives Find Thallium and Finger George Trepal

Detectives tested the Carr’s well water and dozens, if not hundreds, of items around the house. They found no thallium until they noticed an eight-pack of Coca Cola under the kitchen counter. Four of the bottles were empty and all four contained traces of thallium.

The Carr home
The Carr home

Product tampering is a federal crime, so the FBI was now involved. They found that someone had deliberately opened the bottles in the eight-pack. Since one else in the area developed symptoms of thallium poisoning, investigators concluded that someone had targeted the Carr family.

Naturally, Pye was the initial suspect. But authorities doubted he would poison his own son. Besides, tests showed that Pye himself had consumed thallium. Investigators widened their circle and began to consider the oddball neighbor, George Trepal.

George Trepal was an intelligent but passive man. Even the Carr family thought he was harmless. But George Trepal wasn’t harmless. A self-taught chemist, he had a 1975 conviction for manufacturing methamphetamine for sale. When questioned about the Carrs, he was nervous and complained at length about things that seemed trivial to detectives. Detective Susan Goreck befriended him and got to know him well. He told her he hated people less intelligent than himself and people he couldn’t control. Both traits applied to the Carrs.

The George Trepal house at the time of Peggy Carr's murder
The George Trepal house at the time of Peggy Carr’s murder

George Trepal Arrested and Convicted

Eventually the FBI found traces of thallium in a small bottle in Trepal’s garage. They arrested him and charged him with murder. They also found a room in his house full of BDSM paraphernalia. The supposedly meek Trepal appeared to have a vivid fantasy life.

George Trepal's garage. Inside, investigators found thallium that the jury decided he used to poison Peggy Carr.
George Trepal’s garage. Inside, investigators found thallium that the jury decided he used to poison Peggy Carr.

George Trepal refused a plea deal that would have sent him to prison for life. Instead, he went to trial. A jury found him guilty and, on March 16, 1991, the judge sentenced him to death.

George Trepal prison photo
George Trepal prison photo

Epilogue

Dr. Diana Carr died at age 69 in 2018 from complications following a stroke. George Trepal still sits on Florida’s death row. He maintains his Mensa membership and continues to file appeals, all of which have failed.

Dr. Diana Carr (no relation to Pye Carr)

Detective Susan Goreck and Jeffrey Good wrote a book about the case, Poison Mind.

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John Wesley Hardin: Ruthless Old West Killer

Last week I told you about modern-day killer Colin Ferguson. This week, we take a trip back to the old West to meet John Wesley Hardin. He’s not as famous as, say, Billy the Kid or Wyatt Earp (they had better publicists). But Hardin was a prolific killer. He claimed to have killed 42 men. Contemporary newspapers put the count at 27.

Ferrotype mirror image of John Wesley Hardin (Public Domain)
Ferrotype mirror image of John Wesley Hardin (Public Domain)

John Wesley Hardin — A Violent Boyhood

John Wesley Hardin entered the world near Bonham, Texas in 1853. His father, a Methodist preacher, named his son after the founder of the Methodist denomination. The Civil War broke out when Hardin was eight years old. The next year, when he was nine, he tried to run away with his cousin and join the Confederate army. His father dissuaded him with “a sound thrashing.”

John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin

When Hardin was 14, he got into a fight with classmate Charles Sloter, a boy Hardin described as a bully. Sloter wrote something on the chalkboard disparaging a girl at the school. History doesn’t record what the writing said, but Sloter then claimed Hardin had written it. Hardin denied it. According to Hardin, Sloter punched him and pulled a knife. Hardin had a knife of his own and stabbed Sloter in the chest and back, nearly killing him.

Hardin’s First Killing

In November 1868, Hardin and a cousin engaged in a wrestling match with a former slave named Major “Mage” Holshousen. During the match, Hardin and his cousin threw Holshousen to the ground, cutting his face. Hardin claimed that the next day, the former slave “ambushed” him as he rode past. Hardin then shot Holshousen five times with his Colt .44.

Union troops occupied Texas in the wake of the Civil War. More than a third of the state police were former slaves. Hardin’s father felt a fair trial for killing a black man would be impossible, so he urged Hardin to go into hiding. Some historians believe Hardin wouldn’t have had any problems with an all-white jury, but he left anyway.

John Wesley Hardin
John Wesley Hardin

According to Hardin, while he was on the run, authorities discovered where he was hiding. They sent three Union soldiers to arrest him. Hardin laid in wait for the soldiers and killed two of them with two blasts from a double-barreled shotgun. The third soldier ran, and Hardin pursued him. The soldier shot at Hardin, hitting him in the arm. Hardin shot the man dead with his pistol.

Outlaw on the Run

By now, John Wesley Hardin was a full-fledged outlaw. He roamed around Texas and, for a while, even taught school in the tiny town of Towash. The students had a reputation for being unruly and frightening off teachers. But Hardin earned their respect—and attention—by carrying a revolver to class.

On January 20, 1875 the Texas Legislature authorized Governor Richard B. Hubbard
to offer a $5,000 reward for the apprehension of John Wesley Hardin.
On January 20, 1875 the Texas Legislature authorized Governor Richard B. Hubbard
to offer a $5,000 reward for the apprehension of John Wesley Hardin.

Respectability wasn’t in Hardin’s future, though. On January 5, 1870 (some sources say Christmas Day, 1869), he got in a card game with Benjamin Bradley. He had a run of luck and Bradley threatened to “cut out his liver” if he won again. Hardin was not armed and left. Later, though, the two men found themselves facing each other in the street. The classic “walkdown” made famous by books and movies was, in fact, quite rare in the old West. They occasionally occurred, though, often among southern gunmen as a continuation of the idea of the “gentlemen’s dual.” Bradley fired and missed. Hardin shot Bradley in the head and chest, killing him.

John Wesley Hardin Kills a Man for Snoring

In the early 1870s, the fugitive John Wesley Hardin (using an alias) met James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Hardin admired the lawman-gambler and the two became friends. Hardin claimed that on one occasion, Hickok arranged for one of Hardin’s cousins to escape from jail.

In 1871, Hickok was the town marshal of Abilene, Kansas, a rough-and-tumble Cowtown. On August 6, Hardin checked into Abilene’s American House Hotel after a night of drinking and gambling. Sometime during the night, loud snoring coming from the adjacent room occupied by Charles Couger awakened him. After shouted demands to “roll over” had no effect, Hardin drunkenly fired several shots through the wall. Although he probably intended only to wake Couger, one bullet pierced his heart, killing him instantly.

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok (Portrait taken in 1873 by George Gardner Rockwood at his New York studio three years before Hickok's death in Deadwood)
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok (Portrait taken in 1873 by George Gardner Rockwood at his New York studio three years before Hickok’s death in Deadwood)

Hardin—half dressed and still drunk—saw Hickok coming with four policemen. He escaped out a second-floor window onto the hotel’s roof, then jumped to the street. He hid in a haystack all night. The next morning, he stole a horse and escaped. He never returned to Abilene.

The incident apparently embarrassed Hardin. He later complained about the press he received from it and omitted it entirely in his autobiography.

Prison and Afterwards

Hardin evaded the law for several years. But on August 24, 1877, Texas Rangers and local lawmen accosted him on a train near Pensacola, Florida. Hardin attempted to draw a Colt .44 cap-and-ball pistol, but it caught in his suspenders. The lawmen knocked Hardin unconscious and took him prisoner.

Hardin went on trial for killing Brown County, Texas Deputy Sheriff Charles Webb. On June 5, 1878, he was sentenced to 25 years in Huntsville Prison. He attempted to escape–unsuccessfully—several times. Eventually, though, he adapted to prison life. He read and studied law. He also penned an autobiography in which he wildly exaggerated and even fabricated incidents in his life.

Harden was released from Huntsville prison in February 1894. He was forty years old. Eventually pardoned, he passed the state bar examination and earned a license to practice law.

The Death of John Wesley Hardin

In El Paso, Texas, lawman John Selman, Jr. arrested an acquaintance of Hardin’s and the two men got into a verbal altercation. That night, Hardin was playing dice in the Acme Salon. Selman’s father, 58-year-old John Selman, Sr., entered the saloon, walked up behind Hardin, and shot him in the head, killing him instantly. As Hardin lay on the floor, Selman fired three more bullets into him. John Wesley Hardin was buried the next day.

John Henry Selman, Sr.
John Henry Selman, Sr.

Selman stood trial for murder. He claimed self defense and got a hung jury. Before his retrial, though, he himself was killed in an argument over a card game.

John Wesley Hardin's grave in Concordia Cemetery, El Paso, Texas.
John Wesley Hardin’s grave in Concordia Cemetery, El Paso, Texas.

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