Fbi Got Its Man, But Family Seethes

Posted: August 12, 1990

PIKEVILLE, Ky. — Before depositing the nude body of his pregnant lover and informant in a weed-covered ravine, FBI agent Mark S. Putnam kissed her on the cheek.

But this single expression of tenderness toward 28-year-old Susan Daniels Smith, whom he later confessed to strangling in a fit of "uncontrolled rage," did not deter Putnam from hiding his crime.

By his own account, instead of turning himself in, Putnam called his wife, Kathy, methodically cleaned the blood out of his blue Ford Tempo rental car and then lied repeatedly to Kentucky State Police investigating Smith's June 8, 1989, disappearance.

A year later, after failing a polygraph test, this churchgoing former soccer champion became the first FBI agent to be convicted of homicide. Putnam, 30, pleaded guilty June 12 in Pike Circuit Court to first-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

For Smith's family, the year between crime and punishment was an emotional roller coaster of frustration, hope and despair. Within two weeks after Smith disappeared, Smith's sister and an FBI agent had provided state police with evidence pointing to Putnam's involvement.

Now, angered by the plea agreement and the reluctance of state and federal authorities to focus on Putnam as a suspect, family members are accusing the FBI of helping to cover up its agent's misdeeds.

"They used her and they killed her and they dumped her out like a bag of garbage," said Shelby Ward, Smith's sister, who said that even Putnam's latest version of the incident is "filled with lies."

Ward, 35, who has filed a wrongful-death suit against Putnam and a similar claim against the FBI, said in an interview that she believed that her sister's killing was a "cold-blooded murder" and that a more zealous investigation would have led to Putnam more quickly and netted him a stiffer sentence.

The FBI has launched an internal review of its handling of the Putnam case, said Bill Cheek, an FBI spokesman in Louisville. "Your questions are premature," he said. "Obviously, it's very easy for a relative to criticize what we've done."

Capt. John Lile, a spokesman for the Kentucky State Police, said that it was unfair to "Monday morning quarterback" the investigation. "The bottom line is, it's the same result: He's in jail and we put him there," Lile said. ''We did what we had to do. We got our man."

*

Susan Smith grew up poor in the Tug Valley, best known for the legendary 19th-century feuding between the Hatfields and the McCoys. Ward said that their great-grandmother's uncle was "Devil Ance" Hatfield, so called for his meanness.

Smith, the fifth of nine children raised by coal miner Sid Daniels and his wife, Tracy, lived in an isolated, wooded creek hollow in Freeburn, an old coal camp near the West Virginia border.

Tracy Daniels remembers her daughter as a good student and a cheerleader. Against her family's wishes, Susan left school after eighth grade and, at 19, married Kenneth D. Smith of Vulcan, W.Va.

The Smiths had a son, Brady, and a daughter, Meranda, and were divorced about six years ago. But, Ward said, Kenneth Smith stuck around his ex-wife, refusing to leave.

They were an odd couple, prone to violent fights, her relatives said. Kenneth Smith, who declined to be interviewed, worked infrequently and had occasional run-ins with the law, including traffic violations and a misdemeanor drug possession conviction. Meanwhile, Susan Smith began operating as a police informant.

One of those she helped was Bert Hatfield, chief sheriff's deputy for Pike County. It was Hatfield who, in September 1987, introduced her to a young FBI agent whose diligence had impressed him.

"He was really everything that you expected of a police officer," Hatfield said of Putnam. "He enjoyed his work. . . . He wasn't a clock- watcher."

Putnam, originally from Connecticut, had co-captained a championship soccer team at the University of Tampa. After completing a training program at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Va., he was given his first assignment in Pikeville.

The father of two, he attended Catholic church and coached soccer at the YMCA. "He was great with the kids. He was really patient with them," said Nancy Short, who was then the YMCA's program director.

From the start, Ward said, Smith's family had warned her against becoming involved with the FBI. "She had all of our lives in danger" because "people don't like rats around here," Ward said.

But, Ward said, "she told me she had to. . . . It was like she was in something that she couldn't get out of, like she knew too much. She told me that she knew things on Putnam and the FBI that could ruin them all."

Putnam's relationship with Smith appeared professionally productive for both of them. Smith helped Putnam convict a one-time friend of hers, Carl ''Cat Eyes" Lockhart, of bank robbery and claimed to have assisted him on other robbery and drug cases. The FBI paid her $9,000 for her troubles, a healthy sum for a woman on welfare.

But Smith wanted more than money. "When she met Putnam, she thought that was the handsomest man she'd ever seen in her life, and she fell in love with him," Ward said.

In his nine-page sworn confession, Putnam said he had sex with Smith no more than four or five times, always in his car.

But Billy Joe Daniels said that his sister gave him $100 or $150 once or twice a week for two years to drive her to what she said were romantic trysts with Putnam in Pikeville, an hour from Freeburn. Ward said that the two made love in motel rooms, an abandoned airport, mountain strip mines, even Putnam's house when his wife was away.

"She would do anything for Putnam. . . . I'd never seen nothing like it in my life - anybody that would fall in love and get so possessed over a guy like she did," Ward said. "And the way she talked, he filled her head that he loved her, too."

Bert Hatfield suggested, however, that much of the affair may have taken place in Smith's mind. "Susan Smith would have said that she was having an affair with President Bush," he said. ". . . She thought every guy was crazy about her."

At the time she died, Smith may have felt she had lost Putnam. "He wanted out," Ward said. Smith had had a miscarriage in January, Ward said, but was again pregnant in February with Putnam's child. Ward said that Putnam's FBI partner, Ron Poole, and probably at least one of his superiors, knew about the pregnancy.

By April, though, Putnam had transferred to Florida. Before he left, Ward said, her sister told him of the second pregnancy. "She said he tried to shove her out the car door then - and the car still running," Ward said.

A worried Ward began to fear for her sister's life. But Smith reassured her. "No, not Mark, he could never hurt anybody," Ward recalled Smith saying.

According to his confession, whose details Smith's family disputes, Putnam returned from Florida to Pikeville the night of June 8 and Smith visited his room at the Landmark Inn, demanding to talk about the pregnancy.

As he drove her out to the eastern edge of Kentucky, she threatened to tell the FBI, Putnam's family and the newspapers about the baby, he said. Putnam said he responded by offering to adopt the baby, if the baby was his. He said any court would grant him custody because of her background.

Around midnight, the discussion turned violent. Putnam said Smith started slapping him. "In an act of extreme rage," he said, "I reached across the car and grabbed her by the throat with both hands and straddled her by actually sitting on top of her in the seat. I started choking her and telling her to shut up."

Two minutes later, when he checked her pulse, she was dead.

As far as the state police were concerned, police spokesman Lile said, Susan Smith's disappearance initially was just another missing-person case, one of about 8,000 they handle each year.

According to state police files, Ward immediately suspected that Putnam was involved. A week after Smith was killed, Ward told police that Smith had been awaiting a ride from Putnam when she disappeared. She said the FBI agent was responsible for her sister's pregnancy. And she asked that Putnam be given a polygraph.

Instead, police administered a polygraph to Ward, who was found to be telling the truth in her statement. The FBI, according to Ward, reacted even more harshly. Ward said Terry Hulse, a supervisor in Covington, Ky., told her: ''From what I heard, your sister slept around with everything in Pikeville." Hulse was unavailable for comment.

State police interviewed Putnam soon after Smith's disappearance. He said Smith had told him she was on her way to meet drug-dealing friends in Princeton, W.Va. Putnam's FBI partner, Poole, however, told a different story. He said he had taken Smith to the Landmark Inn to discuss her pregnancy with Putnam.

Still, it was not until six months after her disappearance, when Smith failed to contact her children at Christmas, that police decided that foul play might have occurred, Lile said.

Their prime suspect, however, was not Putnam, but Kenneth Smith. "Here was on one side an FBI agent that you've done bank robbery investigations with. He's educated and credible," Lile explained. "On the other hand, you had Kenneth Smith."

Smith had a history of violence toward his ex-wife and a "strong motive" for hurting her - namely, his jealousy over the relationship with Putnam, Lile said.

Smith's use of prescription drugs made two polygraphs "inconclusive," police records state. But after a third test, police decided that he had no knowledge of his ex-wife's whereabouts.

In May, with Kenneth Smith eliminated as a suspect and Ward pressuring authorities, the FBI officially joined the investigation "because of the possibility that a federal kidnapping violation had occurred," said Cheek, the FBI spokesman in Louisville.

On May 19, the FBI finally insisted that Putnam take a polygraph. He failed, and shortly afterward, before Putnam was charged with a crime, plea negotiations began.

Pike County Commonwealth Attorney John Paul Runyon later said the state was lucky to wind up with a manslaughter conviction and 16-year sentence, given the lack of direct evidence against Putnam.

And despite the long delay, Cheek said the agency deserved credit for its role in bringing Putnam to justice.

"It's distasteful to us to have to look at one of our own agents," he said. "But, yes, we solved the case."

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