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  • Writer's pictureJ. R. Erickson

The True Story that Inspired Still Falling

As with all the novels in the Troubled Spirits series, Still Falling is inspired by a true crime. I first heard of this case more than a decade ago when I saw a made-for-TV movie about the murder, but years later, I read a truce crime novel about the case titled Above Suspicion by Joe Sharkey. It was an interesting case and ultimately inspired the story in Still Falling.

As I’ve said before, the inspiration and the final book rarely look the same. Still, if you haven’t read Still Falling, you might want to read the book before reading the true crime story.

If you want a deeper dive into the case, I recently covered it on my true crime podcast, Bitter Endings. You can listen to that at the link below or find it on any podcast app you prefer. 

The Murder of Susan Smith

If life had unfolded for Susan Smith the way it did for most residents of Pikeville, Kentucky, she never would have met FBI agent Mark Putnam. But life is unpredictable and in Susan’s case, a relationship which should have been among the safest in her life turned out to be the deadliest.

Susan vanished on June 8th, 1989. It would be a year before her whereabouts were known. A year of wondering if she left, or perhaps was silenced by her ex-husband, a year of grief for the children and family she left behind. When the truth of what occurred on that fateful summer night was revealed, those who loved both Susan Smith and Mark Putnam were devastated.

Susan Daniels Smith was born in Matewan, West Virginia in 1961. She was one of nine children. Her family relocated to Freeburn, Kentucky, when Susan was very young.

Her life would not be easy. She dropped out of school in the seventh grade and at fifteen years old, met her future husband, Kenneth Smith. Ken was twenty-two and a local drug dealer. Over the next several years, Susan would give birth to two children. Her husband would be in and out of jail on drug charges and their marriage was often tumultuous, spurred in part by Ken’s abusive behavior and both of their regular use of drugs.

Susan’s life took a fateful turn in 1987 when she met FBI agent, Mark Putnam.

Mark Putnam was born in 1959 in Connecticut. In many respects, he was the all-American kid and an overachiever. He majored in criminology at the University of Tampa and entered the FBI academy. Mark was meticulous and before entering the FBI, he clerked in their offices.

During this time, he also met his wife, Kathy Ponticelli. In many ways, Kathy was Mark’s number one supporter. She believed in him completely, and when he questioned his capabilities as an FBI agent, she bolstered him.

While Mark was in the FBI academy, he and Kathy had a child, a daughter they named Danielle.

Mark was twenty-seven years old and had graduated from the FBI academy just one week before when he was assigned to the little two-man FBI office in Pikeville, Kentucky. To say he was out of his element is an understatement. Starry-eyed with visions of grandeur, Pikeville was the last place he could imagine making his mark in the FBI.

The placing wasn’t ideal, and Mark’s wife was deeply unhappy in their new location. Still, Mark tried to make the best of it, determined to carve a place for himself in the FBI.

The Pikeville office was not impressive. It was a tiny space with a couple of desks. There was no secretary, so Mark’s wife Kathy took on a lot of the secretarial duties, fielding calls for Mark. Besides the tiny office, Mark’s colleague at the FBI was not enthused about the work that came in, which left Mark chasing leads solo most of the time.

Mark and Kathy settled in with their daughter into a two-story colonial in a subdivision in Pikeville. Kathy did her best to make a life for them, but she struggled with the isolation and the sense that she was an outsider.

A bank robbery in Kentucky would ultimately be the catalyst that brought Mark Putnam to Susan Smith’s door. One suspect in the robbery was a man named Carl Edwards Lockhart, known as ‘Cat Eyes.’ In 1987, Lockhart was released from prison for a previous bank robbery and he and his girlfriend rented a room from Susan and Ken. By this time, Susan and Ken had divorced, but they still lived together with their two children.

Mark Putnam set his sights on Kenneth as an informant regarding Lockhart. Kenneth turned out to be an unreliable informant and Mark shifted his attention to Susan Smith. She and Ken’s children were young, both under seven, and she had a drug problem. She needed the money that Mark offered and she agreed to become an informant.

For the next two years, Susan and Mark met regularly. Mark paid Susan for information on ‘Cat Eyes’ Lockhart, including a tip that Susan had seen sawed-off shotguns and ski masks in a bag Lockhart owned. The FBI apprehended Lockhart, and Mark had his first success in the FBI.

During this time, Mark’s wife, Kathy, had another child and life grew tense for the Putnam’s. She hated living in the isolated mountain town of Pikeville.

Mark, still desperate to prove himself, relied heavily on Susan for information and eventually their relationship shifted from professional to sexual. Susan began calling Mark’s house at all hours of the day and night and inserting herself further and further into his life. Their sleeping together perhaps confirmed her hopes that she and Mark Putnam might someday be together.

Mark, however, had different ideas. He distanced himself from Susan and stopped using her as an informant.

Much to Mark and Kathy’s relief, Mark was transferred to the FBI quarters in Miami, Florida in 1989 and they moved.

Still, Mark wasn’t done with Pikeville. He had to return in the summer of 1989 to finish up a case that he’d been working on. It was during this visit that he saw Susan Smith for the last time. They drove to an isolated area on Peter Creek Mountain on June 8th, 1989.

After that meeting, Susan vanished.

A year would go by with no news on the whereabouts of Susan Smith. Her sister pushed investigators to look into her disappearance, steering them repeatedly toward Mark Putnam, the FBI agent Susan had told multiple people she was having an affair with.

Police hardly considered Putnam. After all, he was an FBI agent. They looked at Susan’s ex-husband as well as ‘Cat Eyes’ Lockhart as potential suspects, but could find nothing linking them to her disappearance.

Finally, attention turned toward Florida where Mark Putnam had relocated the year before. Investigators wanted him to take a lie detector test. He agreed and failed.

Mark confessed to the strangulation of Susan Smith.

He told investigators he’d been wracked with guilt since the murder and had been wanting to confess.

Mark said that when he’d met with Susan on June 8th, 1989, she confronted him, angry that he’d left and essentially abandoned her. She told him she was pregnant with his child and she expected him to support the baby. Mark told Susan if paternity proved he was the father, then he and his wife Kathy would take the baby and raise it themselves. According to Mark, Susan was furious, and she attacked him in the car. Mark fought back and strangled Susan to death.

Again, this is his word against hers, and Susan did not live to tell her side.

The day after Mark murdered Susan, he drove around Pikeville, taking care of his business, while Susan Smith lay dead in the trunk of his car. That evening, he drove to an old coal mining road and dumped Susan’s body in an isolated ravine.

Everyone in Mark’s life was shocked-especially his wife, Kathy. Susan Smith’s family was heartbroken. Her two young children had been left without a mother.

Ultimately, Mark Putnam pleaded guilty to killing Susan Smith. He was the first FBI agent ever convicted of murder.

Mark was sentenced to sixteen years in prison, but was released after ten years. He has been free since 2000.

Much of my research for this case came from Joe Sharkey’s book Above Suspicion. If you want to grab a copy of the book, you can find it here on Amazon. Above Suspicion by Joe Sharkey 

If you’d like to read Still Falling, you can grab a copy on Amazon here. It’s available in eBook, Kindle Unlimited and in paperback.

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