The “expertly told” true story of an FBI agent’s affair that leads to murder in Kentucky coal country—soon to be a major motion picture starring Emilia Clarke ( Publishers Weekly ).When rookie FBI agent Mark Putnam received his first assignment in 1987, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream, if not the most desirable location. Pikeville, Kentucky, is high in Appalachian coal country, an outpost rife with lawlessness dating back to the Hatfields and McCoys. As a rising star in the bureau, however, Putnam soon was cultivating paid informants and busting drug rings and bank robbers. But when one informant fell in love with him, passion and duty would collide with tragic results. A coal miner’s daughter, Susan Smith was a young, attractive, struggling single mother. She was also a drug user sometimes described as a con artist, thief, and professional liar. Ultimately, Putnam gave in to Smith’s relentless pursuit. But when he ended the affair, she waged a campaign of vengeance that threatened to destroy him. When at last she confronted him with a shocking announcement, a violent scuffle ensued, and Putnam, in a burst of uncontrolled rage, fatally strangled her. Though he had everything necessary to get away with murder—a spotless reputation, a victim with multiple enemies, and the protection of the bureau’s impenetrable shield—his conscience wouldn’t allow it. Tormented by a year of guilt and deception, Putnam finally led authorities to Smith’s remains. This is the story of what happened before, during, and after his startling confession—an account that “should take its place on the dark shelf of the best American true crime” ( Newsday ). Revised and updated, this ebook also includes photos and a new epilogue by the author.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
About the Author
Joe Sharkey was a weekly columnist for the New York Times for nineteen years. Previously, he was an assistant national editor at the Wall Street Journal and a reporter and columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer. The author of four books of nonfiction and one novel, Sharkey is currently an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Arizona. He and his wife live in Tucson.
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By Joe Sharkey
Openroad Integrated MediaCopyright © 2017 Joe Sharkey
All rights reserved.
The baby threw up just as the eighteen-wheel coal truck with the word Jesus on its front plate barreled out of a blind switchback and bore down on them like a forty-ton avalanche of soot.
It was a drizzly, cold afternoon in February 1987. Skidding on the slick mountain road, Mark Putnam managed to pull the 1980 Oldsmobile far enough off to the side, where he slowed to a crawl, the passenger door nearly scraping the granite wall that went a hundred feet up. The coal truck rumbled by with its horn shrieking.
"Oh my God," Kathy Putnam said in a slow, low voice from the back seat, where two-year-old Danielle lay across her lap, miserable with car sickness and fatigue.
When they caught their breath, Kathy cleaned up with a diaper. Her gaze met her husband's dark eyes in the rearview mirror. "Listen, Kat, we don't have to do this," he said with a grimace, and added, only partly in jest, "Do you want to turn around and go back to Connecticut?"
Kathy was nothing if not a good sport. Three years before, when she and Mark had dashed off to get married in New York City, she had known very well what she was getting into. Mark was a young man with one overriding goal: He intended to be an FBI man. And together, they had accomplished that. Theirs was a marriage remarkable for its synergy — her hard-nosed realism applied to his unchecked zeal, his fortitude to her diffidence, creating a force that augmented their individual strengths. If Mark's first assignment out of the FBI Academy was a forlorn outpost in the isolated mountainous coalfields of eastern Kentucky — in Pikeville, a town neither of them had heard of until two weeks earlier — well, they would make a go of it and wait for a better assignment in years to come.
Kathy smiled, tickled the baby's chin, and said, "It's going to be okay. You'll see." Mark guided the old car, its engine straining, up the steep mountain road.
"We keep going up," he said disconsolately from the front seat, where he was wedged uncomfortably between the door and a stack of pillows on top of a picnic cooler and some cardboard boxes that claimed the passenger.
"Gotta go down eventually," she replied cheerfully.
In a while, they were relieved to see a road sign, CONGESTED AREA, but it only marked the truck pull-off for a coal-mine operation below the blasted rocks and stepped contours of a strip-mined mountain. Heaps of coal chunks clattered noisily on conveyor tracks that crisscrossed down from outcrops high up the ridge. Broken trees and shattered boulders lay scattered on the site in huge heaps. Staring in wonder, they drove past and started another steep climb.
Kathy frowned at a Triple-A road map, but it was clear there was no real choice except to go straight ahead on the winding two-lane. There weren't any intersections, and few pull-offs. But after a while, they saw evidence of a settlement: unpainted little frame houses set onto shelves of land hacked into the hills; tumbledown bungalows and rust-streaked trailers pushed up close against the highway, as if waiting to pull out into traffic. On a sagging front porch, a woman in a faded print housedress and muddy field boots studied them from a rocker.
A mile farther, the highway bored down abruptly and swept open into four lanes at the base of a deep gorge blasted through the rock, with walls one hundred feet high, the surfaces of which were veined with glistening narrow seams of coal that might have been drawn in by a thick black marker. They sped past another road sign, PIKEVILLE — POP. 4,500, and past an exit that wound around into a small community shadowed by surrounding mountains and skirted by a narrow meandering brown river. A jumble of neat buildings dominated by a brick courthouse with a weather vane on top, Pikeville looked like a village in a model railroad display, except for another billboard at the entrance to town, this one bigger, that said:
Fun filled weekend carnival celebrating the heritage of PIKEVILLE, KY
Rides! Handicrafts! Good eatin's.
On either side of the billboard's message were cartoon images of stereotypical shotgun-wielding hillbillies with ratty straw hats, patched overalls, big gnarly bare feet, and goofy smiles showing missing front teeth.
"Is this us?" Kathy said, taking this sight in with some amusement.
Mark looked anything but amused. He drove on slowly. A mile beyond the exit, the road narrowed and began to climb once more. Mark made a U-turn and drove back to the little town in the coalfields of Kentucky where their lives would change forever. In 1997, Kathy Putnam was twenty-seven years old, six months younger than her husband. She and Mark had both grown up in Connecticut, where they had met five years earlier. With their daughter, they made a handsome and cozy family — Mark, dark and sensitive, a muscular young man who had been a star athlete in college and stayed in shape by running and lifting weights; Kathy, with her delicate features and untamed light brown hair, hopelessly unathletic; and amiable Danielle, already chatty, with her mother's quick smile and her father's flashing eyes. If the FBI had commissioned a recruitment commercial to get young families to consider a career in the bureau, the Putnams would have been in it.
But that commercial probably would have shown the family arriving somewhere other than isolated Pikeville, the seat of Pike County, Kentucky, a corrugated chunk of land shaped, in fact, like a lump of coal. It sprawls over 785 square miles, most of them situated between two rivers, the Levisa Fork and the Tug Fork, which tumble out of the high watershed of the western Appalachian range down into the Cumberland Plateau. They flow north for about a hundred miles and join at the old railroad town of Louisa to form a river known as the Big Sandy, which then plunges northward under rocky escarpments forming the border between Kentucky and West Virginia, and finally empties into the Ohio River.
It is a land extravagantly endowed with mineral and other natural resources — and thus cursed with plunder. After the Civil War, timber barons cleared the mountains of their magnificent hardwood forests, and when they were gone, coal barons came in to dig for the wealth underneath. Under a thin veneer of modest prosperity in small towns such as Pikeville, the toll of over a century of feverish exploitation was evident, both physically and socially, as Appalachian historian Harry M. Caudill put it, in "exhaustion of soil, exhaustion of men, exhaustion of hopes."
"Dogpatch" was what some new arrivals called the place. The term, though a misnomer with origins in Al Capp's classic Li'l Abner comic strip set in a fictional Arkansas hamlet, conveyed the disdain outsiders often bring to their first encounters with "hillbillies" and the condescension that has always seeped down the map to rural southern Appalachia from the urban media centers. During the heyday of the sensationalist press in the late 1880s, big-city newspapers from the East were drawn to southern Appalachia by the colorful narratives afforded by the Hatfield–McCoy feud. The stories gave birth to the stereotype of hillbillies as perpetually befuddled lummoxes engaged in contentious disputes, surrounded by sexually amenable Daisy Maes, bumptious elders, and assorted comic shotgun-toting wild men, all coexisting in dim-witted timeless bliss in a junkyard Eden where tranquility is regularly shattered by thumping mountain quarrels.
As with most enduring stereotypes, there is always authentication available to those who look for it. Pikeville and the neighboring Tug Valley along the border with West Virginia were in fact the locale for the Hatfield and McCoy war that raged here after the Civil War and continued into the first years of the twentieth century. In the hilly rural areas outside of town, welfare has been a way of life for generations, the teenage pregnancy rate is among the highest in the country, abuse of both illegal and legal drugs is rampant, and feuds lasting generations simmer like stew pots.
The geography itself explains much of the history. It was here in southern Appalachia that the liberal imagination stumbled into the back alley of the industrial revolution, on a vast, fan-shaped plateau of deep, sinuous valleys and hulking mountains where wealth has been found, and carted off, since the days when the first agents of capitalism descended with pockets full of coins to claim the land.
The settlers of this place were pioneers who came through the Cumberland Gap seeking not the rich farmland of the Ohio Valley, but the nearly impenetrable hills to the east, hacking their way along animal trails into the Tug Valley, a rugged terrain that offered no guarantees except solitude. This is the hillbilly stock, described by Caudill as "a population born of embittered rejects and outcasts from the shores of Europe, as cynical, hardened, and bitter a lot as can be imagined outside prison walls."
It is a place whose young people have long plotted to leave, as soon as they can. According to Caudill, by the end of the 1950s, three-quarters of the annual crop of high school graduates were migrating out of the plateau. What they left behind was a society as stratified as its landscape, one still nearly feudal in its relationships between rich and poor — the rich clustered in small towns like Pikeville, among the banks and courthouses, the marginalized poor clinging stubbornly to life in smoky hollows and along the ridges, with walls of granite at their backs and thick veins of the richest bituminous coal in North America underfoot. Long accustomed to the appraisal of outsiders, inured to flash floods, mudslides, mine explosions, and rockfalls, alert as guerrillas this remarkably homogeneous population includes some of the most cantankerous and individualistic humans alive on the continent.
These were the people Mark Putnam, rookie special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, twenty-seven years old and all of one week out of the academy, was sent to serve. Being a federal law enforcement agent in such a place meant encountering a long legacy of futility left by the land-deed agents, railroad cops, coal-company detectives, government revenuers, federal officials, and social reformers who had trampled the hills for a century, outsiders attempting to exploit — or in some cases, to save — indigenous interests. Mark brought with him an analytical wariness unusual for a young cop off on what others might have looked forward to as a great adventure.
Just before graduation from the sixteen-week training course at the academy, when he got his orders to Pikeville, he had approached an agent who had lived in Louisville, in the bluegrass flatlands of Kentucky two hundred miles across the hills. The agent had whistled softly as he looked over the rookie's papers. "Pikeville? I can't believe they're sending you there, a pretty Yankee boy in his first office! It's the mountains, Mark. You don't know what you're in for. Just watch your young ass down there, buddy."
In fact, Mark was worried not by the potential dangers of the post, but by the apparent lack of supervision. Pikeville was a two-agent office, nearly a three-hour drive from the regional office in Lexington, and farther yet from the FBI's main Kentucky office in Louisville. Shortly after the Putnams arrived, the senior agent from the Louisville office, a man seldom seen from year to year in Pikeville, drove down to offer the new arrivals a welcome. He told Mark frankly that he would have been better off in a more central office like Lexington, where there were dozens of more experienced agents to teach him the ropes. But the supervisor pointed out the bright side to Mark's situation. A small isolated office such as Pikeville offered certain career opportunities for a rookie looking to make a name for himself. It was the political and administrative center of a region that always ranked at the top for the sorts of crime and mayhem that can keep a cop's life interesting. And besides, he would not be following a tough act.
"I'll be right up-front with you, Mark. You're right out of the academy. This is an office that needs new blood. It has a lot of potential that hasn't been worked at for years. We thought that you would benefit from this. You could do a lot of screwing around down there, but you're obviously gung ho, and there's a lot to keep you busy if you want to work it. Anything that comes out of there is a bonus for us because we don't expect much from Pikeville. Look at it as a potential career-maker."
"I'm going to bust my ass for you," Mark assured him.
"Just do your caseload. You don't have to bust your ass."
It puzzled Mark not to have heard at least a robust pep talk. The senior agent left him instead with this: "I won't kid you — nobody else wants to come here, which is why you got it. Luck of the draw, I guess."
There was another, unspoken, reason for the assignment. The FBI, with its deeply entrenched love of detailed record keeping, liked to insist that its files be as neat as its agents' attire. But over years of indifference, the Pikeville Bureau had become an administrative disaster. The office needed more than new blood and a degree of supervision — it needed a clerk to straighten out the mess. Whatever his nascent abilities as a crime-fighter — and Mark Putnam had been considered one of the most promising rookies in his graduating class — he had another skill that put him at the top of the list for a vacancy to be filled in Pikeville. For four years after college, while he and Kathy worked toward getting him accepted as a special agent, Mark had toiled as a clerk in the busy FBI office in New Haven, Connecticut, where he had soaked up everything he could learn from the fifty agents assigned there, while shrugging off a depressing bureaucratic refrain: "Clerks don't make good agents." Now, having overcome that prejudice to finally gain admission to the ranks, he realized that he also had to demonstrate the obverse — that in his case, at least, an agent must also make a good clerk.
It was characteristic of the Putnams' marriage that Kathy had been the one to shore him up and motivate him for the assignment — after initially intervening and trying to have it changed. Before they packed up the car in Connecticut, Mark had told her about his apprehensions, saying, "I'm afraid I'm going to screw this up and ruin my career before it gets going. I'm a rookie and a Yankee, with no law-enforcement experience." So his wife had called the special agent in charge in Louisville to point that out, but she was told that the assignment was firm. "Tell him the Pikeville office can be a career-maker if he handles himself well," she was told.
Resigned to labor night and day to do just that, Mark reported to work on a Monday morning in late February 1987. The Pikeville FBI office was a tiny room on the ground-floor front of the federal building, with a window that looked out on Pikeville's sleepy Main Street. It was still staffed by Mark's two predecessors, Dan Brennan and Sam Smith, who were awaiting transfer to more appealing locales, with Sam headed out within a month. The new man had to squeeze past their desks to get to his makeshift work area, which consisted of a chair, a telephone, and a cleared space on the table that held the paper-shredder, mail bin, and answering machine. There was no secretary; after Mark settled in to the work routine, Kathy would begin to fill that role for him, fielding calls and passing on messages from home. When she came in to visit during Mark's first week on the job, she was surprised by the humble surroundings, which she thought looked like the cubbyhole in an automobile showroom where the customers sign the loan papers.
The office transportation fleet consisted of a beat-up Dodge Diplomat with nearly a hundred thousand hard miles on it and a four-wheel-drive Bronco, both of them already claimed by the two veteran agents. Kathy needed the Olds to get them settled in their new home. With a territory of several thousand square miles to cover in Pike County and adjoining counties in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, Mark resented having to arrange for a bureau car like a teenager asking his father for the keys.
"Where are you going? I need to know where you're going," he would be told by one of the other agents.
"I need to go out and interview this guy. You're not using the car, dammit."
"Why don't you wait till tomorrow? We'll go out and do it together."
"Come on, man. Days are passing! I want to get rolling."
Again and again, he heard the same frustrating message. "Relax. You've got a big career ahead of you. You're not supposed to go overboard down here — this is a sleeper office that nobody cares about," as Sam Smith told him.
Excerpted from Above Suspicion by Joe Sharkey. Copyright © 2017 Joe Sharkey. Excerpted by permission of Openroad Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I am fan-crushing on Joe Sharkey and wish he’d written even more books than he has. This is the second book I’ve read by him and they are page-turners. Sharkey especially understands women. Each of these real people - no matter how flawed – is relate-able. On the one hand, your heart will go out to many of them. On the other hand, you will be secretly relieved that you know none of them.
Mark Putnam is a rookie FBI Agent. A week after graduation he is sent to Pikeville, Kentucky for his first assignment. Pikeville is not anything like what he and his wife, Kathy, were expecting. We're talking mountain folk, drug rings, and lots of miscellaneous crimes. But all this is okay with Putnam. He was a man bent on becoming a great federal agent and he's willing to put in the time and effort to reach his goal. Meanwhile, Kathy is a stay at home mom with their young daughter, Danielle. When Putnam put informants on his payroll, he ran into young, pretty Susan Smith. Susan was a single mom, a drug user, and although most people really liked her, she was a consummate liar. She sets her eyes on Putnam and she's determined to make him hers. Putnam only refused her advances for a short time before they began a somewhat torrid affair. When Putnam ended the affair, Susan wasn't about to go peacefully. There was a horrific struggle and in a rage, he strangled her to death. Tormented with guilt, after a year, Putnam confessed to what he had done and led investigators to Susan's remains. BOOK BLURB: This is the story of what happened before, during, and after his startling confession—an account that “should take its place on the dark shelf of the best American true crime” (Newsday). This is an extremely well written true crime account. The author stuck to fact-based journalism. This was a kind of sad read. I felt so much sympathy for Kathy (wife) and Susan...two women who loved the same man. Mark seems to have let his ambition steer him in the wrong direction and in the end, he could not live with himself. Many thanks to the author / Open Road Integrated Media / Netgalley for the digital copy of ABOVE SUSPICION. Opinions expressed here are unbiased and entirely my own.
First published in 1993, this current publication has the addition of follow-up notes by the author updating the status of those involved and his observations during his return visit to the area of Pikeston, Kentucky. Mark Putnam and his family accept his first “G-man” assignment in the dreary town of Pikeston Kentucky. His wife, Kathy, is very supportive and patient with the extensive hours required for him to make a good first impression. Part of his job is using informants, one of whom is a young spit-fire local girl, Susan, who falls head over heels in love with the handsome, professional, and preppy young man. Without proper supervisory guidance and at times, overwhelmed with the duties, paperwork, and crookedness of the people, including the law, Mark makes some bad decisions and falls prey to Susan’s constant suggestions. What follows is the sad crumbling of his faith in himself, his career and his family, culminating in an instant of overreaction that affects everyone for life. Joe Sharkey has done an extensive and tireless research of the people, places, personalities, and frames of thought that shaped these individuals and the events that unfolded. The end result is fact-based journalism at its best. He can encourage the reader to feel sympathy for the perpetrator, the victim and both families, and disdain for others in the outer circles who contributed to the perfect storm in numerous ways. This is an engrossing read, never boring or slow, and will keep your attention to the last page. I look forward to the movie coming out in 2017. It will be difficult to convey the emotions. As Sharkey noted in his final comments, the challenge for both the book and the movie was to reflect the “female gaze”. I suggest reading the book first to get a better understanding of the emotions of those affected. (I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thank you to Open Road Integrated Media and NetGalley for making it available.)