MARK Putnam was always determined. After achieving his dream of joining the FBI, he was assigned a position in Pikeville, Kentucky -- a remote area in the mountains -- and moved there with his wife Kathy and their children.
But when he began having an affair with his drug-addicted informant, Susan Smith, things took a turn for the worse. In 1989, Susan became pregnant and claimed the child was Mark’s. She proceeded to threaten Mark -- claiming she was going to tell the FBI and his family about their affair unless he left his wife and kids to be with her. Upon hearing this, Mark sprang into what he called an emotionally charged violent rage and strangled Susan to death. A year after the murder, Mark led police to her body -- in exchange for pleading guilty to a lighter charge of first-degree manslaughter.
Joe Sharkey’s true crime account Above Suspicion, soon to be a movie starring Game of Throne’s Emilia Clarke as Susan and Jack Huston as Mark, gives a detailed account of the events leading up to Susan’s death and the aftermath of Mark’s crime. Believed to be the first active FBI agent ever to be convicted of homicide, Mark Putnam made headlines for his “crime of passion.”
Read on for an excerpt of Above Suspicion, and then download the book.
By JOE SHARKEY
She insisted that the baby was his, and that she would tell the FBI, his wife, and his children about it. But unless it was to renounce everything else and stay with her forever, he could not figure out what she expected him to do. He thought about the two and a half miserable years working grueling hours in Pikeville, the phone calls at three in the morning, the threats, the corruption he saw everywhere he looked, the stress of the impending trial, Kathy’s misery, the intimidating phone calls from Poole, Charlie Trotter wavering in his motel room, the stress of starting a job anew in a high profile bureau like Miami. And now, beside him, Susan shrieking. But then she took a breath and her voice was calm.
“Ron says they’ll fire you when they find out.”
He bristled at that. “What about Ron, goddammit?”
She backed down. “Nothing. He didn’t say nothing. They will fire you, though, Mr. FBI.”
At the coal town of Meta, he turned right onto Route 194, a narrow two-lane that winds southeast along Johns Creek into the rugged hills that border the Tug Valley. Once in the hills, the only turnoffs are narrow gravel roads put in by mine companies who then abandoned the roads when they finished blasting out the coal, leaving behind chewed out mountains.
As they drove toward Freeburn and Barrenshee Hollow, Susan sobbed uncontrollably. As they approached the crest of Peter Creek Mountain, she caught her breath and lunged across the seat at him, slapping him with both hands. Fighting to keep control of the car, he made out the contours of one of the coal-road turnoffs in his headlights and turned abruptly onto it, bumping about fifty yards up the road and scattering gravel loudly under the car. He shut off the engine and the lights. Susan’s sobs were the only sound in the darkness. Where the sky showed above the ridge, it was filled with stars. Mark rolled the window down and felt the air on his hot cheeks and burning eyes. He listened, as if trying to extract from the gloom any sound other than Susan’s short panting.
Placing his hand on her shoulder, he said, “Let’s try and work this out instead of acting like a couple of idiots.” This was exactly the kind of lonely dark setting that had led to sex on other occasions, but even the intimation of affection now caused Susan to recoil in revulsion and slap his hand away.
“What’s gotten into you, Susan?”
The question set her off again. “What do you mean me? You’re messing with me, Mark! I know that now. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to let you prance down to Florida with your little wife and your spoiled kids to resume your wonderful life. You owe me, buddy!”
He had the sense that these were lines someone else had given her. Buddy wasn’t a word she used, and Mark thought he knew where she had picked it up.
“Susan, I’ve given you everything I could. Leave Kathy and my kids out of this.” She looked down with surprise. He realized he had been using his index finger to poke at her chest for emphasis.
“You sure did give me everything you got,” Susan said, and patted her belly again. He studied her body, thinking again that she did not look pregnant, but not having any good recollection of how a woman is supposed to look at five months.
“And now I’m going to have a little Mark Jr.,” Susan went on, having regained her composure. “I’m going to bring this baby down to Florida and knock on your door and put the little bastard right into your precious daughter’s arms. Your son is going to want to know why the baby’s name is Mark Jr., the same as him. I can’t wait to see the look in your wife’s eyes! Then you know what I’m going to do? I’m going right on down to your FBI Miami Vice office and tell your new friends there how you solved your cases by fucking an informant and leaving her pregnant and barefoot to look after herself in Kentucky. I own you, Putnam! I own you and your precious job!”
She was determined. “I own you! Own you! Ron says they’ll fire you and Kathy will leave you!” “Ron again?” She laughed in his face.
“Susan, just tell me what you want from me. From day one, all you’ve done is bitch and feel sorry for yourself. Now please just tell me straight, what do you want from me?” His heart was pounding.
Now she was all business. “We are going to have this baby. You will be there when it’s born and sign the birth certificate as its daddy. Second, you will leave that whore Kathy and those spoiled kids and marry me. If you don’t, I’ll ruin your life.” She smiled triumphantly.
Mark, never a negotiator, argued as if a compromise could be reached. Kathy hadn’t done any injury to Susan. Far from it. Kathy had been Susan’s friend, her confessor, even her role model. When Mark wasn’t in the mood, which had been very often during their last months in Pikeville, Kathy had been the stalwart who patiently endured Susan’s crying jags on the phone, the one to assure Susan that she had value, that she was better than she believed.
“Susan, cut … the … shit.” He struggled into a dominant position, working to pin her arms. Her screaming horrified him. Fogged by their breath, the windows were as opaque as if covered by snow.
“You used me! You owe me!” she protested.
“I paid you,” he said with cruel sarcasm.
“You bastard!” Susan screamed, flailing at him. “I should have killed your kids.” With a guttural moan, she dug a long fingernail at his eye. Electrified by the sudden pain, he swung at her, this time with a fist and as hard as he could. But he missed. His hand slammed into metal on the dashboard.
“Fuck you to hell!” she cried as the punch flew past. Blood oozed from the gash across his knuckles. She saw the bleeding hand and bit it, with her feet pressed stiffly against the windshield. The pain was astonishing. She hissed through her teeth. He needed quiet. He needed to think. Shut up! he thought, wrenching his hand free and grabbing her neck with both hands. He held her that way, pressing for silence for almost two minutes, until her fury and his abated. He let out his breath steadily while she struggled weakly and then submitted to his will. “Relax, Susan, relax,” he said, almost as if he were giving her a massage. When his breath was fully exhaled, his grip relaxed. The tension drained from his arms, which fell heavily and painfully to his side.
Susan was quiet. He opened his eyes and inhaled unsteadily, not knowing whether ten minutes or ten seconds had passed. His face stung from the slapping. She was a fighter, all right. But now she was leaning against him, her fight gone. He stroked her damp brown hair, wondering why she was not breathing heavily after she had struggled so hard.
“Susan, are you going to take it easy now?” he said, nudging her gently as if to wake her up. He regretted the insults. His lips brushed the top of her head. His shirt was soaked; his right hand throbbed, the knuckles wet with blood. He’d never felt more physically exhausted. “Susan, let’s go.” Turn to Page 14
The night had grown chilly; he thought of starting the car to get the heater going. Freeburn was still ten miles around the mountain. Quietly he said, “I’ll drive you home.”
She slumped forward when he removed his arm. As he tried to ease her gently off the console and into the passenger seat, her neck craned at a grotesque angle.
He blinked and said, “Oh, my God. Oh, shit. Oh, my God.” He shook her. He sat her back and pounded on her chest. “Susan! Susan! Oh, my God!” He tried blowing air into her mouth, but her lips were cool and unyielding. He pounded on her chest and felt frantically for a pulse.
His first thought was that it was a coincidence; she’d had a tragic heart attack exacerbated by the excitement. He certainly hadn’t killed her, not that easily. There would be some explaining to do, but …
Then he knew. She was dead and he had killed her.
He cradled her head and rocked back and forth sobbing, staring in disbelief at her face, very white and composed in the chill glow. I have killed this person, he thought. A mother of two children. This girl in my arms.
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Featured photo: Mark and Kathy Putnam with their daughter Danielle in 1987. All photos courtesy of Open Road Media.
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