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Slaying by FBI agent still in spotlight

Published Jun. 9, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

One year into a 16-year sentence, former FBI agent Mark Putnam is coming to grips with life in prison. When he is not reading or exercising, Putnam spends his time working in the hospice or the chapel of the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minn. He is talkative during his calls to his family in Connecticut.

Hundreds of miles away, a team of specialists in Kentucky is poring over a skeleton in a Frankfort laboratory. The 28-year-old woman was reported to have been four months' pregnant when she was killed, but medical examiner's officials have yet to find a trace of the fetus.

The remains are those of Susan Daniels Smith, who was Putnam's informant and lover before he strangled her on June 8, 1989.

On June 12, 1990, Putnam pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter for killing Smith. It was the first time an FBI agent had even been charged in connection with a homicide.

A year later, Putnam's and Smith's families are coping with the tragedy in their own ways _ one by telling the story, the other by quietly wishing it would go away. But it is unlikely that the controversy will die down soon.

The exhumation of Smith's body on May 20 for a full autopsy _ begun Thursday because the family asked that the first one be halted _ has brought the case back into the headlines. A wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the family against Putnam is pending, and a similar action is threatened against the FBI.

A feature article about the case in May's editions of Gentlemen's Quarterly magazine gave the story renewed national attention. And at least one book and a television movie are in the works.

Pike County _ with its coal strikes and the legacy of the feuding Hatfields and McCoys _ has had its share of violence. But nothing has rocked the area quite like the story of Putnam and Smith.

In his written confession, Putnam said he strangled Smith in a fit of rage because she was threatening to tell his wife and superiors that she was carrying his child. Putnam, who had already been transferred to Miami, hid the body and returned to his wife and two children.

A year later, apparently wracked by guilt, Putnam offered to lead authorities to Smith's body. In exchange, Putnam was allowed to plead guilty to the lesser charge and was sentenced to 16 years in prison.

But the dead woman's sister, Shelby Ward, whose clamorings about Smith's disappearance first brought the case to light, still insists that there was more than an unwanted pregnancy behind the killing.

She said that FBI Agent Ron Poole, who was Putnam's superior and knew of the pregnancy, had talked with her about his partner's alleged illicit activities.

"He said he knew some things on Mark Putnam that was awful . . . furnishing informants with guns and drugs. Susan, too," she said. "There's a lot of things I've not told the press . . . things that my sister told me."

Poole, who was transferred to Lexington shortly before Putnam's conviction, declined to comment on the case or his feelings about Putnam. Ward believes the autopsy might prove that Putnam's confession was not the whole truth.

Aphrodite Jones, an assistant professor of English at Cumberland College, is working on a book about the Putnam case for Zebra Books of New York. Her premise is that Putnam returned to Pikeville, knowing that he would probably have to kill Smith.

"He flew into West Virginia when he had business in Lexington," Jones said. "He rented a car when he could have used an FBI vehicle. Why?"

Jones said she didn't think Putnam wanted to kill Smith, but rather that he "was pushed to it. But the bottom line is he's a killer."

Several of Smith's survivors, including ex-husband Kenneth Smith, have received money from Jones' advance. Jones said half of the royalties from her book, which is due at the publisher in September, will go to the family.

Ward said she would be paid $50,000 for helping with the movie. Kenneth Smith could not be reached for comment.

"I've thought about it and I feel sort of bad collecting money off it, but I went through a lot of hell for it," said Ward. She said some of the money would be put into a trust fund for Smith's children _ Meranda Lynn, 8, and Brady, 5.

Through all this, Putnam has remained silent. He declined a recent written request for an interview.

Putnam's family also has refused to talk to reporters. But his younger brother, Tim, agreed to talk last week with The Associated Press.

The younger Putnam, 30, an employee for the Connecticut legislature, said the case has made life uncomfortable for the family.

"I see a lot of people we both grew up with," he said. "They're all supportive. They were shocked. Because it's not something you would expect out of Mark or anyone in our family."

The situation also has gotten in the way of the brothers' relationship. While his mother talks to Mark about once every two weeks, Tim Putnam hasn't heard from his brother since Christmas.

"I think the reason he doesn't call me, I think he's embarrassed, not really proud about what he did or where he is," he said. "He's doing okay, considering."

Some have said that Putnam, who will turn 32 on July 4, confessed to the murder to hide something worse from authorities. But Tim Putnam said he believes his brother just couldn't bear the guilt.

"That's exactly it. He couldn't handle it," Tim Putnam said.

There also is talk in Pikeville that Putnam is not even in prison. Tim Putnam said those rumors were ridiculous.

"My mother's been out to visit him," he said. "He's definitely in prison."

Tim Putnam said interest in the case was "understandable." But unlike Smith's survivors, he said his family has tried to avoid discussing the case in public.

"We don't want to make a secret about it, but we prefer not to bring it out," he said. "I just wish it would all die down. The family's been through a lot this past year."

Mark Putnam's wife, Kathy, who could not be reached for comment, has moved to Minnesota to be near her husband. His new attorney, Pat Molloy of Lexington, said she and the children visit the prison regularly.

Neighbors say Smith's children are living happily in Freeburn with their father. But Katheryn Sizemore, Kenneth Smith's landlady and a neighbor, said it is obvious that the children miss their mother.

"The girl is kind of forlorn sometimes," she said. "Her father said she told him, "I sure wish my mommy had lived."'


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