By Joe Sharkey
Susan Smith, 28 years old when she was killed in 1989, was a coal-miner’s daughter from one of the most desperately poor places in America, the rolling, environmentally ravaged mountains of eastern Kentucky, and specifically the narrow Tug Valley, along which the Tug Fork river runs and forms a border with West Virginia.
In 1992, when I was researching my book “Above Suspicion,” which was set in this area, I had the good fortune — not by any means a given in reporting a true-crime non-fiction narrative story — of cooperation among almost all of the principal characters in this profoundly sad story. The major exception, obviously, was the dead girl, Susan Smith, who had been strangled and left in a mountain ravine in 1989 by a young, handsome FBI agent for whom she had been working closely as a criminal informant, and with whom she had become sexually involved.
As an experienced journalist, I was able to report out most of the human landmarks in Susan’s life — her history, her character and behavior, her family and social milieu, and even many of her secrets. But to this day, it has troubled me that “Above Suspicion,” a book that I think pushed beyond the boundaries of the honest, accurate, workmanlike true-crime genre and made its way at least to an outpost in the realm of literary journalism, did not adequately convey the vitality that Susan Smith, as screwed up and invincibly feckless as she was, brought to her twenty-eight years on Earth.
To evoke the sentiment of a traditional ballad that was later popularized as an Irish lament: Susie, I hardly knew ye.
Earlier this year, when I learned that “Above Suspicion” was being adapted as a motion picture and was about to go into production (as it did, in late May), I fretted about the way Susan might be depicted. It was so easy to misunderstand her, as had been the case even with many who actually knew her. Was she merely (and please excuse the term) hillbilly white trash, a drug-dealing, drug-using, sexy, no-account hustler who was always looking for trouble — and eventually found more than she bargained for? Was the movie Susan merely going to be depicted merely as a screen on which the stunning dramatic tragedy of Mark Putnam would be projected?
So when I learned that a young British actress named Emilia Clarke had been signed to play the part of Susan in the movie, I was very curious. Ms. Clarke was — and is — best known as the fantasyland queen, the Mother of Dragons, with the confounding name of Daenerys Targaryen, in “Game of Thrones,” a wildly popular television series that I had, of course, heard of, but had never seen.
I looked Clarke up, and my interest was pleasantly piqued. Here, it seemed, was a young actress with a fabulous television-drama career and a wildly adoring fan base who, clearly, had arrived at a point as she approached the age of 30 where she felt a need to evolve creatively as a serious movie actress, rather than a famous television-series star. As a result, earlier this year Clarke starred in what I can only define as a “weepie” movie, “Me Before You,” about a young woman who falls in love with a dying quadriplegic. However, that movie received mainly unenthusiastic reviews (it “sits at the point where tedium, ridiculousness and heartfelt sentiment converge,” according to at New York Times critic), and did only moderately well at the box office thanks, no doubt, to Clarke’s considerable drawing power.
Then, even as she embarked on an exhaustive national and international publicity tour for “Me Before You,” Clarke went for the role of Susan Smith after brashly introducing herself to the “Above Suspicion,” director Phillip Noyce, in full character as a sassy, flashy coal-miner’s daughter, complete with a southern Appalachian “hillbilly” accent that, I was told by someone who was astounded at her deftness, “she absolutely nailed.”
Well hang on here, I thought. This woman could have a pick of parts in a Hollywood that’s panting for the next hot young actress, and she chose the Susan Smith I wrote about in “Above Suspicion”? It was a choice that took brains to see, and guts to attempt. Obviously, Clarke saw the Susan whom I had at least drawn the emotional outlines of in the book, and decided she could make the role her own. And as the movie has progressed on location in Kentucky, where it is expected to wrap in July, it became clear, to me at least, that Emilia Clarke, who seems to be in just about every scene they are shooting, is going to bring life back to Susan Smith, a poor country girl with notions.
O.K, so I’m optimistic about this movie. I will keep you posted here.
In the meantime, as I work on a new edition of the book (which has been out of print for years), here are some of my personal notes on the real-life Susan Smith and the place where she lived and died, Freeburn and Pikeville, deep within the rugged hills of eastern Kentucky.
People in those parts gossip and, to an unusual extent that even today gives us a usable explanation for why the fabled Hatfield-McCoy feud lasted for forty years, they traffic in hearsay. Growing up and living in precisely the place where that acrimonious, complex and bloody feud played out over decades, Susan Smith was both a literal descendant (her mother’s family was McCoys; her father’s family came from the Hatfields) and a metaphorical one.
One of my challenges in researching the “Susan” in “Above Suspicion” during my lengthy stays in the Pikeville area in 1992 was the difficulty of sifting rumor and gossip from fact about a character in the book who was dead.
Susan’s sister, Shelby, who became the family spokeswoman of sorts after her sister’s body was found (the father being incapacitated in the final stage of the coal-miner’s blight, black-lung disease), was constantly perplexed by her vexing, wildly impulsive sister, with whom she had an uneasy and sometimes estranged relationship. Shelby never met Mark Putnam, though she did have her misgivings and, later, her dark suspicions about the FBI agent whom Susan had become so infatuated with.
Still, though she was frequently quoted in the press as a source after Mark Putnam confessed in 1990 to killing Susan a year before, the only time Shelby ever even laid eyes on Mark was at the court proceeding when he made his confession and was sentenced to 16 years in prison and became the first FBI agent ever convicted of homicide.
Shelby was always difficult for me to assess. After Susan’s body was found, Shelby had what she told me was an exclusive arrangement with a local writer with no real journalism experience for a quickie paperback book (“The FBI Killer”), and a related, largely fictionalized made-for-TV movie based on a sketchy narrative bolstered with occasional reference to news accounts that conveyed only the basics of the events surrounding the complex and emotionally tangled case. It was a largely ignored, dreadful movie, even by the standards at the time of made-for-TV movie fare.
To me, incicidentally, an indication of Shelby’s tenuous engagement with Susan in life was that, in death, Shelby could produce only a single photograph of Susan — an unflattering portrait of her that appeared in media accounts following Mark’s confession.
Likewise, Susan’s off-again on-again, drug-dealing ex-husband Kenneth had been able to dig up only a grainy photograph of her, though he did helpfully rummage through a box looking for a better one when I stopped by his rusted old trailer near Freeburn to talk to him one afternoon in 1992. Outside the trailer, as the affable Kenneth and I spoke, the couple’s young son Brady skidded up on bicycles with some scruffy friends, one of whom regarded me suspiciously and asked young Brady: “Is that the man killed your mama?”
Actually, the best appreciation and fullest accounts of Susan Smith that I was able to find came from the man who did kill her, Mark Putnam, and from the woman who had warmly befriended her in life, and was Susan’s fiercest advocate in death, Kathy Putnam, Mark’s wife.
Some of the other contours of Susan’s life were filled in for me by people who knew her as a child and as a woman, including the librarian at the nearest town library, a few miles from Freeburn in Phelps. Mable Dotson remembered Susan as a curious, rebellious but unfailingly polite and amiable girl, a seventh-grade dropout whose entire life trajectory was spent hurtling down the wrong track. “But that girl, she read,” she told me. “Especially after what we now know was her time working for the FBI, she would come in and ask what books she should be reading, you know, to stay current. I found that amazing.”
Susan’s reputation was not good in Freeburn. Some unflattering tales I was frequently told about her were undeniably true: She was wild and unreliable; she sold drugs; she lied almost pathologically; she desperately craved attention and affirmation; she bragged about things small and large; she “went with men.” She “had a mouth on her.”
But better aspects of her personality also emerged thorough my reporting. In her finer moments (and she had many of them), she was cordial and hospitable. She tried to be a good mother to her two young children, even though she had absolutely no role models in her life, or in her extended social network, to teach her how that might be accomplished. Taking off from her home base in the Tug Valley area of Freeburn and just across the river in Vulcan, West Virginia — even for extended periods with Kenneth on various drug-business (or drug fueled) capers — was not entirely out of the ordinary for her. Nor did it necessarily constitute evidence, at least from the perspective of her social environment, that she was a grossly neglectful mother, given the child-minding assistance in an impoverished society that was readily available through her more firmly anchored sister Shelby, or through a local network of friends and relatives. Heck, there was always somebody to watch the kids.
Also, Susan managed to maintain a stable household in the Tug Valley, near where she grew up in a mountain hollow that one acquaintance called “Lonesome Holler.” It was a home, as disordered and chaotic as it might have been, with comings and goings by disreputable acquaintances and inveterate couch-surfers, including a hapless but determined bank robber named Carl “Cat Eyes” Lockhart. Such was not then (and is not now) an unusual way of life in an impoverished place where people drift through day and night seeking company, diversion, amusement, shelter, some laughs, a few beers, some weed, a couple of pills, a caper, a quick tumble when the opportunity arose.
The Susan I was able to piece together after her death was a deeply troubled young woman who nevertheless functioned, and sometimes with alacrity, such as when she was working criminal cases as an informant for Mark. Yes, Susan sometimes dealt drugs and certainly she used cocaine and marijuana when it was available. But I could find no evidence that she was drug-addled. Methamphetamine abuse, whose physical ravages become apparent in a person over a fairly short period of time, does not seem to have been her style, as it was with so many people in her milieu. For example, when her scant remains were found in a mountain ravine a year after she was killed, the forensic examiners did not have much to report beyond this:
She had good teeth.
Susan insisted on being noticed, even demanded it. In the gossip-driven environment of the Tug Valley, she was known as a flirt, a “cock tease,” a flake. But to the extent I could discover after her death, Susan was also faithful, in her fashion, to any man she was with, no matter how awful that man might be. She was kind. If you were her friend, you liked her a lot, even if you knew not to trust her.
As to the personal relationship with Mark, there was dispute – always based on hearsay — about how and when she and the dashing young FBI agent became sexually involved during her several years of working as his valuable (and well-paid) informant starting in 1987. Much of that was driven by uninformed speculation that sprang from on Susan’s own, probably exaggerated, tales about her exciting relationship with Mark, who was perhaps the handsomest man in the area, a solid guy with manners and with a status job who was — and this is key to understanding to her obsession with him — the only man in her life who ever treated her with respect.
Till he killed her, that is.
There is no doubt that Susan regarded Mark as the knight in shining armor who would rescue her from her miserable life on his white charger.
Much of what was said about Susan and Mark’s relationship after he confessed and her remains were found came from “hillbilly hearsay,” which is usually as dramatic as it is unreliable. It was well known that Susan was telling tales back in Freeburn of her sexual relationship with Mark, which she implied had been longstanding. When I interviewed him in prison in 1992, Mark insisted to me, however, that his intimate relationship with Susan was brief and began only in December 1988 — though he conceded a very close “informant” relationship with her for for more than a year before that he increasingly had become uneasy and uncomfortable with, especially given Susan’s clearly expressed sexual intentions. Those he said he simply shrugged off, till he did not.
Most definitely, Susan had unrealistic expectations. She clearly loved him. And he felt genuine affection and empathy toward her. To him, she was useful in his career ambitions, specifically in his labors in the two-man Pikeville FBI office as a genuinely good cop in a very tough place that got tougher, in time, than anyone could have imagined. He wanted her to find a better life. He just did not realize the extent to which she believed that life would be with him.
Mark’s wife Kathy – abjectly lonely in Pikeville, a place where outsiders are regarded suspiciously — also felt genuine affection for Susan. As Susan’s work with Mark progressed, the two unhappy women became friends and talked frequently, mostly in lengthy nighttime phone calls. Kathy, remembering her own rebellious and sometimes rocky youthful years before she met Mark, tried to show Susan that her life could improve if she set goals. In turn and in her own clumsy way, Susan began modeling herself after Kathy, in dress, in bearing, and even in speech.
Kathy was confident in her marriage, even though it had entered rough waters during their final year in Pikeville, when Mark was overworked and Kathy was miserable, frightened of sneering local criminals who loomed a bit too close, desperate to get out and see Mark reassigned to a better FBI office far from those hills. Kathy remained confident in her marriage till the final reckoning, the night when her husband finally confessed to her that he in fact had had a sexual relationship with Susan, and followed that by confessing that he’d killed her too.
Kathy is being played in the movie by Sophie Lowe, a British-born Australian actress with a promising movie
background (“Beautiful Kate”), and good notices in television. I don’t know much about Lowe, but I do know the role of Kathy will be crucial in a character-driven movie in which two appealing and headstrong young women, wife and mistress, orbit tragically around a man who is about to bring worlds crashing down.
Let me share here some of what Kathy told me about her feelings for Susan, as I was researching “Above Suspicion” in 1992, when Mark was already serving a sixteen-year prison sentence. (Mark served ten years and was released in 2000).
Kathy’s said, “As hard as this whole thing is, I still feel for Susan — even more so now than I did before. She was headed down the wrong path anyway, and something was eventually going to happen to her, but this … [She began crying].
“She and I developed a close relationship as soon as she began working with Mark and sharing her troubles with me. She came to me in the way she did, I think, because I could talk to her on her level. I understood what her feelings where, her hopelessness, not being able to get out of that. I’d been there before I met Mark. I was in a position where I could say to her, ‘But look at me, Susan. Yes, I have all of these things that you want. But you can do it too, if you set goals.’
“Mark had talked to her about getting away from abuse, getting out of Freeburn. He told her, ‘Take the money the FBI’s giving you. Get a job, establish yourself with your kids, find a new place.’ But she always wanted the easy way out. It was like banging your head against the wall, trying to get through to her that she could set goals and find a good life. It also was so hard for me because I understood everything that she was saying. I understood her mindset. I knew how she was thinking but I couldn’t break through and make sense to her….”
She told me she knew Susan had become obsessed with Mark, but that she trusted him to maintain professional boundaries with a needy, manipulative but very useful informant.
“It never occurred to me that Susan and Mark were having an affair. In fact, I was convinced to the contrary. It was out of the realm of possibility,” she told me, adding that when she had asked him about rumors of a relationship between the FBI man and his informant it in Pikeville, he had scoffed at the idea.
“There was no way my mind that this had happened. I thought, I was too close to Susan. She would have told me! It’s the one thing that to this day I cannot understand. I don’t understand. There’s two ways to look at this, but the one thing I would have expected of her to do was to tell me. …”
I spoke with Kathy at length over many months as I was researching the book, and many more after “Above Suspicion” was published in 1993 and generated strong media attention. Kathy was always forthcoming and honest, even when being so made her pain worse. She never ducked a question or shaded the truth. She was a remarkable woman, and I liked her enormously.
Kathy Putnam, who steadfastly stood by Mark in prison, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1998.
She was 38 years old. She and Mark had two children, both now adults.
[A new edition of “Above Suspicion” by Joe Sharkey, with an updated epilogue, was published in 2017. The movie, which stars Emilia Clark, Jack Huston, Thora Birch, Sophie Lowe and Johnny Knoxville, and is directed by Phillip Noyce, will be released in 2018.]
I live in the trailer park where most of the movie is being filmed. Can’t wait to see the finished product.
For some reason I was reminded of this case the other day. I read Aphrodite Jones’ book years ago. I haven’t read Mr. Sharkey’s book. I was going to order a used copy from Amazon. But then I ran across information about the movie and the updated version of the book. So I think I’ll wait for the update to read the it. I look forward to reading it. I’m particularly interested in what happened to Kathy Putnam. I read that she died of issues at least partly related to alcoholism.
He will get what’s coming to him when he meets his maker! He should have never led that poor woman on like that! Then kill her! He’ll she should have killed him! Not really, no one should kill, but at least she had reason!!
Well first I want to thank you for writing about Smith with grace and dignity. I was so deeply saddened about this case and so angry about how Putnam used and then betrayed her. I flat out don’t believe his claims about not knowing how much she had fallen for him. I don’t believe he was intimate with her just a few times. His “punishment” was not punishment. Just ten years of rehab so he could reinvent himself and move on to another life
He gave Susan a Death Penalty. What about the pain & loss to her kids and family. He is evil and selfish and I have no sympathy for him at all. I pray there is a reckoning for Putnam..at least in the next world. And I pray that when it happens it is appropriate to this arrrogant unapologetic prick.
Thank you! Finally, someone else who gets it.
I’m simply an avid reader of true crime and have no relation to this case, but I’m so sick of Mark Putnam being treated as the victim. Only once has Susan been treated as the victim, and that was on the ID channel of all places. Putnam is NOT the victim. It’s unfathomable to me that an author would depend on the victim’s murderer for a “true” picture of the victim.
In practically every review for “Under Suspicion”, Mark Putnam is looked upon with pity because HIS life was ruined, as if HE is the victim. “She forced him, she lied, she was trash, he resisted, he was helpless, yadda yadda”. No! He was an educated, highly-trained FBI agent, yet Susan somehow bears more blame than he! Perhaps if he had not been written as such and perhaps if that murderer hadn’t had such a heavy-hand in portraying Susan’s personality and how things happened, the actual victim would get more sympathy than the man who strangled her for what must have felt like an eternity, hid her body, lied, cheated, broke oaths, took away her kids’ mother, etc.
I don’t think any rational person would see Mark Putnam as a victim and I don’t think anyone can see Ms. Smith as innocent. Mr. Putnam is a killer and Ms. Smith used her unborn child as a weapon for revenge. They both lived badly and the consequences were terrible. I do think author Mr. Sharkey portrayed Mr. Putnam as an unrealistically sympathetic character especially in the death scene, where Mr. Putnam apparently isn’t aware he’s killing Ms. Smith. That was not realistic to me, not at all. It takes time and strength to kill someone and it would be hard to pretend it isn’t happening.
I am sorry for the delay in replying. Hadn’t seen. I would say that I tried, being aware of exactly the issue you describe, to present Mark Putnam, who I interviewed over two days in prison in Minnesota, as accurately as possible, given the constraints of non-fiction as opposed to fiction. Thanks for your note. JS
I am a man who is educated with a good career I cheated on my wife years ago, and that was enough for me. There is no reason to kill – but in self defense – and you are spot on with your assessment of this psychopath, Mark Putnam. If anyone should have been sensitive to Ms. Smith, given her place in life, it should have been him. Realizing how many lives he ruined…troubles me when he was set up to create a new life…disgusting. Your comments hit home, and you stated things the way they are.
As I said in a reply to a previous comment, I do think that you will find Emilia Clarke’s depiction of Susan Smith in the upcoming movie adaptation of my book to be true and honest. Ms. Clarke was determined to bring Susan to life, from the Susan she found in my book, and I watched her on location doing precisely that. I told her then how grateful I was that she (and Phillip Noyce directing) had done it so brilliantly, and I trust you will find the same when the movie comes out.
I hope where ever that son of a bitch is Susan’s ghost is haunting him. Taking away his peace and happiness…til the end of his days!!
I grew up in pike county an was fascinated with this case , when I first read Above Suspcion and Fbi killer years ago , I felt like I knew Susan , I knew so many girls just like her , beautiful mountain girls trapped in a cycle of poverty an hopelessness , who dreamed of something more , cause I grew up the exact same way an was married young to a troubled girl who reminded me so much of Susan , she also suffered a tragic end , But anyway Susan was the victim in this case not Putnam, I understand the suduction because these mountain girls are extremely hard to resist lol, but he was so self absorbed trying to protect his perfect life that he couldn’t let her destroy his spotless reputation . My one complaint with Mr sharkeys account was I thought it overly sympathetic to marks side of the story , an left out evidence that the affair went on for much longer than he said , like the records an testimony that he had rented a motel room nine times at the Golden rod motel an was seen ther with Susan long before he claimed the affair started . And her family had some of marks clothes that she wore home from his home where she claimed to stay when his wife spent months out of town , but this is a story that needs to be told an im glad it is getting the attention it deserves , It was a tragedy that destroyed two families . Eastern Kentucky is a hard place for people who havnt spent time there , there are few places in America more tragic , but few places filled with great people , poor , hopeless , and trapped , but also caring giving loyal . Iv been all over the country in my life an there is no where that I would rather live than in the hollers an hills of kentucky .
I agree with you, with two exceptions: I could find no evidence, beyond the sort of rumor-sharing that is inherent in this culture, of trysts between Susan and Mark Putnam in the Golden Rod motel. Susan famously was telling untrue stories about the extent of that relationship, which in a way made this even more tragic. And please remember that the “Iago” of this tale, the feckless FBI agent Ron Poole, himself collected Susan’s clothing from the Landmark. I had access to all of the testimony and FBI and police records, and I left out nothing of significance to my conclusion that various pitiful forces collided on that awful night. The trail of destruction was, as you say, tragic. Many thanks for your note. JS
Joe, what does “Lago” mean in this context?
“Iago,” with an “I” — Shakespeare’s sinister, manipulative villain in “Othello.” In the play, of course coincidentally, Iago’s wife is named Emilia.
Thank you. I must have missed the part of Agent poole collecting the clothing from the Landmark Motel and consequently the significant of the activity. Now I am wondering if you view Poole as manipulative ( and then in what way) and how this affected Susan and Putnam’s actions.
I call BS. She had the same opportunities as anyone else to seek a career, go to college and make a life for herself but instead made another bad choice by marring a man who was apathetic to her, another bad choice by having 2 children with him, another bad choice to be an informant when she didn’t have an out, knowing things could turn ugly, another bad choice tempting a married man, another bad choice actually sleeping with him, another bad choice not to have an abortion when she had no means herself to provide for the children she had, let alone another baby, another bad choice threatening Mark Putnam.
It was only this series of bad choice after bad choice that propelled the situation to where she ended up dead. Putnam was certainly no saint, but also not the first guy to commit adultery after spending long periods away from his wife and being seduced by a loose woman. He had no history of violence or anything else noteworthy, was lured into this trap that Susan set as a way to try to have a life she Did Not Earn.
Obviously it is not fair that she was murdered, but she is quite responsible for putting herself in a position of risk over and over again to the point where Darwinism comes into play.
I too have been to eastern KY. It’s a s-hole full of hicks who don’t have the common sense to move somewhere better, then try to be proud about having a bad life instead of seeking a better life to rise their children in. No work? Have more kids and let the government pay for it.
No recreation? Smoke meth, shoot heroin, and drink at the local bar. It’s a time proven winning combination of how to win at life. Now add being the only person who could have snitched on a bank robber to the list and seducing, then blackmailing a married man. FULL OF WIN.
At least Mark Putnam put in for a transfer and obviously didn’t want her to get pregnant, wanted things to end before it came to Susan’s death but she kept playing a sick game till the very end. It’s not as though Mark chose to leave his wife for her, he tried to do the right thing until the horrible mistake, brought about after a lot of paranoia from investigating people who wouldn’t hesitate to bury him in the ground if they had a chance.
Eastern KY is a bad place for anyone to be, but especially a lone FBI agent.
That last line could have been the kicker for the book. Thanks for the comments. JS
I was appalled by your comments. You sound like a misogynistic, elitist asshole. Not all people have the same opportunities as you must have had. As far as tempting a married man, Mark Putnam was in a superior position to Susan Smith. Mark Putnam is the one who broke his wedding vows and the FBI’s Oath of Office. He is the one who should have said NO if she came on to him. The person who made the most egregious choice was Mark Putnam when he decided to murder Susan Smith and their unborn child. Sure Mark Putnam put in for transfer, he wanted to escape his bad choices. Mark Putnam got off easy compared to Susan Smith. So lets all remember that Mark Putnam is not the victim in this story, Susan Smith and her children are.
Dave on behalf of all of us hicks here in pike county I want to apologize for us cuz we prefer to live in an asshole. To our defense we don’t have fully functional brains. As you well know. Every hick here is tore up over your visit here was not a pleasant one. My mom who is also my aunt , as well my second cousin plus my parole officer is especially distraught( thank god for spell check on that one) about not meeting your standards. Please give us another chance to prove ourselves to you. We have a Buffalo Wild Wings now if ya like spicy food. I hear it’s real nice but since they don’t take food stamps I cannot confirm this intel. Also I attended the car wash university up the holler down the road don’t mean to brag but I did finish 14th in my class. So if ya car gets dirty on the way here it’d be my pleasure to clean er up. We all hope to see ya real soon. By the way if for some reason ya do make it back can I borrow 20 bucks. For some meth ya know.
Thank you! My thoughts, exactly! Susan Smith brought her demise on herself. The real victims in this mess are Kathy Putnam, and her and Mark’s two children.
I was brought up as a coal miners daughter in Harlan County Ky. At no time did I consider being an informant , although I’m no saint. I understand why “outsiders” view us as they do. Not all females turn out like Susan Smith . I went to college and earned several degrees …one as a Registered Nurse..one in counseling and Human services plus others. We make our own choices. By the way , I still live in the area (in Laurel County ). Remember the most famous of all …coal miners daughter ? Wonder why Loretta Lynn made the choices she did ?
Thanks for this note. For outsiders who want to understand this area better, and as an antidote to that awful “Hillbilly Elegy,” I recommend “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia” by Elizabeth Catte. –JS
I grew up in the same area as Susan. I had no family support system. We lived on welfare. However, I studied, got married young, had 3 kids & still graduated from college with a degree in Nursing. I have traveled all over the US working as a nurse. I currently reside in Alaska. Don’t tell me girls from Appalachia are doomed and to be pitied. You just have to make the right decisions. I have a great life, but I worked hard for it.
I am from Eastern Kentucky (Whitesburg) about 25 mins from Pikeville, I now live in Indianapolis. While I agree with a lot of what you’re saying …Eastern Kentucky has drug dealers and drug users…. but Indianapolis and other cities also have them…..Indianapolis is actually not a very safe place to be.
I am friends with and have family that are very successful people…they were all born, raised and still live in Eastern Kentucky.
Eastern Kentucky was a flourishing area until the later 80’s.
Even though you think the area is full of “hicks” there are still some great people in the area.
I never said any of that in the book. JS
I never said that in the book or on this website.
What a wildly misogynistic and tone-deaf display of word vomit.
Not sure where the “misogynistic” comment came from, but I agree. And, though I am sure this was not the intent, Emee’s original comment could appear to suggest that Susan Smith, the murdered coal miner’s daughter, the dead woman was in part to blame. The book (and I think in the movie too) showed serious consideration of the ages-old exploitation of this region of Appalachia by outside interests, and on the culture that enveloped Susan Smith, who of course was no saint. Emilie Clarke, in her brilliant portrayal of Susan Smith in the movie, understood that thoroughly and the result was a poignant depiction of a troubled and troublesome woman who was trapped culturally and psychologically. The book, and I think the movie directed by Phillip Noyce, told it like it was, without preaching. — Joe Sharkey
I’m cat eyes lockharts sister and the way you all made him look and act was sickening.he loved Susan he told her to rat so she could leave Kenneth..if you want the truth right the truth not gossiping whores from freeburn who didn’t know what was going on anyway only reason that thay talked to you was you was paying them off ..except cat eyes you use his name and talk about him and judge him and never once met the man..I will contact a lawyer on you because you have no right to do what you have done ..
To cat eyes lockhart’s, please tell me amd others just why he would want to be told on?. I’m pretty sure that no matter the amount of love he may have felt for Susan Smith he sure as hell woukdn’t say ” oh umm btw Susan you go ahead ams tell on me, that way I go to prison and you get paid”. Sorry but so.ehow you don’t come off as very smart. How would you expect a person such as your brother to be portrayed?. As a saint? Or as a good man?. Not.about to happen, as for mark putnam he will get his just punishment when he dies. Other than self defense or defence of people in your immediate surroundings there is no excuse for killing. And to the person that says she hopes Susan’s spirit hauts her killer, I ‘say me to!!’. And I’d bet if maek putnam told the truth about that, that he’d say she is haunting him. Also, a thanks for the article to the blog owner. I saw the episode on this by way of a crime show app on Amazon prime.
Susan should not be portrayed in an innocent light. She was scheming and no evidence was found she was ever pregnant. Do I feel sorry for her, Yes I do but she was willing to break up a family to get what she wanted and had more or less left her kids to the dad. The only reason why her and Kenneth had kids was for the extra money. Do I feel sorry for Mark, No, I do not. He knew that he should never have become sexually involved with Susan. She was delusional to think Mark would leave his family and wife for her. I can only assume she was delusional because of drugs.
Carl Edward Lockhart is my father. This is a sad situation and it has made the lives of many turn upside down for many years.
I can only imagine, I really feel bad for Susan’s children.
Yep, if Kathy was standing by him…her heart was awfully bad #ByeKathy
I have read both your book and the book written by Aphroditie Jones, (who has a series on the ID channel, and was a former professor at Pikeville College in the 80’s). Being from Pikeville, I am most interested in how our area will be portrayed in this new movie, because thus far, both the previous movie and the two episodes about the case that have appeared on the ID channel have been far from correct. I am very familiar with the Phelps and Freeburn area, as well as the rest of Pike county and surrounding counties having traveled these areas extensively for my job. I know the way people live in these hollers. ID channel’s episode of “Betrayed” had Susan living in a very modern home complete with sidewalks in a suburban type neighborhood…that is a completely bogus portrayal of that area. So, yes, I am so very much looking forward to this new movie. Let’s see if they get it “right”. I highly doubt it.
I have read your book. I’m from Harlan where the movie was filmed. When and where can we see the movie?
I wish I could give you a better answer than “sometime in 2018.” I was a consultant with the movie and I really liked the folks in Harlan, as did the stars and the crew. JS
In my opinion, Mark is a despicable liar. Because of his job, good looks and status, he got off too easily. Susan Smith was not an innocent woman; she knew she was playing with fire. She even befriended Mark’s wife, Kathy, and neglected to tell her the truth about her relationship with Mark. Deceptive. Susan did not deserve to be murdered. I will never believe that her murder was unintended. Too convenient. I believe that killing Susan was a deliberate course of action that was intended to solve Mark’s problems with his wife. There would be no baby with Susan, so no exposure there, and he would be off the hook. But he was a hypocrite, not about fidelity, integrity, or bravery. Not only did Mark take Susan away from her children. I believe the tolls on his own wife and children were enormous. The stress likely contributed to Kathy’s excessive drinking and early demise. Mark’s own children grew up without their mother. He got off with too light a sentence and the means to reinvent himself. Susan, Kathy, and their children and families were not as fortunate. The justice system was not fair in this case.
Hey there Mr. Sharkey ~ Just a fan here from Louisiana, keeping up with your work. I’m actually watching Susan’s “Betrayed” episode on Discovery ID as we speak, which reminded me to keep an eye out for the movie premier this year. LOVE your book. And my heart goes out to Susan’s family– particular Mrs. Shelby Ward. I see a lot of myself in her. Take care and Godspeed, ~Alissa
Does anyone have an idea when the movie shot in Harlan will be premiered?
I do not know, alas.
Would you please post on here when you find out ? I have lived in Harlan all of my life. We had so much fun watching it being filmed.
interesting Mr. Sharkey that you never reply to any comments dealing directly with the predjuiced view of Appalachia , particularly where this crime ( and yes it was a crime!) occurred .
I just watched it, too, and again disappointed that nothing was true to our area. Very interested if the movie will be, I highly doubt it, seeing as how it’s being filmed in Harlan!!!
Yesterday I finished reading “Above Suspicion” and I cannot stop thinking of all those involved. Such a tragedy on so many levels. Kudos to you for bringing the characters to life and not just go with the easy stereotypes. Any idea where I can watch the movie? I have Netflix, but it doesn’t seem to be on Netflix.
Kim, Thanks for the kind words, and especially for your comment about stereotypes. I was amazed, 25 years after I wrote the book, when I went back to Pikeville and Freeburn after the movie shoot, people I had written about in the book, not always glowingly, still were gracious and forthcoming. No release date yet for the movie, though now I understand it’s next year. Everybody who’s seen it says it’s a terrific movie and that Emilia is great in that role.
Does anyone know if Mark ever remarried after he was released from prison?
Mark Putnam reminds me of the priests and ministers who see their victims as a “perk”. This was explained to me by an insurance investigator who had been sexually victimized as a child. People in love with their power see their illicit activity with those they have power over as a “perk” of their position and possibly all their hard work. He did it because he could and he thought he could get away with it all in that remote, forested area. Did he strangle her while they were having sex or after he beat her unconscious? He himself said she wasn’t that attractive, just available.
Attorney who did sex abuse cases
Mark & Kathy were both victims. They were both naive about how manipulative people like Susan can be. She set out to steal another womans husband & break up his family while pretending to be Kathys friend . She would do anything to get her own way. It is doubtful if she was pregnant & if she was how would she know who was the father.she had so many men. She did not deserve to be murdered, but she had many chances to change her life & wouldn’t do it. The FBI has a lot of blame for sending a young, naive agent out to a place like this, without a strong, experienced agent to supervise him. So sad. So many lives ruined.
Mark was not a victim. He used Susan to help him achieve success in the FBI. When he no longer had a use for her he murdered her. His inexperience has nothing to do with his lying and cheating, those things speak to his character.
That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever read. Susan did not force him to kill her. He had other options. As far as her trying to “steal another woman’s husband” it is impossible to have an affair with a married person without that person’s cooperation don’t you think? It was his choice to break his vows. Susan did not marry Kathy. Mark did. They were his vows to keep or break. You sound like a man who has cheated a time or two and refuses to take responsibility for it. Instead you would have us believe you had no choice b/c you were seduced by a succubus with a siren’s call too beautiful for a mere mortal man to resist…………oh poor pitiful you!! Kathy was definitely a victim. But Mark was not. And Susan, despite her flaws (which we all have BTW), was also a victim. No person has the right to take the life of another unless in defense of their own life (Physical danger, not a danger to your social life, career, or social image).
Just read the book.. wow! what a sad sad situation for everyone involved. I for some reason found that I really had a problem accepting some of Kathy’s actions in regards to Mark’s FBI career. I found it weird that when he was rejected because of a medical issue, she took it upon herself to jump in and push until he was accepted. and did it without even letting him know. also when she told him to call in late the day after to polygraph that she would take control of the situation. then she roared up to the Miami headquarters by herself while he waited at home. all through the book I really just kind of found her very pushy and Mark somewhat of a wimp.. Just something through the entire story that sticks with me. I and My Husband both were employed in public safety for many years and I can not recall ever seeing or hearing about a wife (or Husband) who took over to that degree.
Yup. I agree, and I knew her very well. She denied none of this, and both Kathy and Mark thought the book was fair and accurate. JS
The book may have been fair and accurate ( and I’m from Pikeville tyvm) but for the movie to be filmed in Harlan!?! Of all places!?!
Seriously, a true negative to the film’s producers on that call- and you as well, as the author of the book and visitor to Pike County, Joe Sharkey!! Shame on all of you! I loved the book , but lost some respect when I learned how you supported filming in an entirely different town, county, region of where the actual events took place.
Sorry to be so late with this reply, but am now just seeing your note about the choice of location for the filming. The director, Phillip Noyce, told me that he spent over a month driving around eastern Kentucky scouting locations. He ruled out Pikeville itself because the town has become somewhat more bustling than it was in 1989, and doesn’t look the same. Harlan, though, more resembles the Pikeville of the book. I should add that the folks in Harlan were wonderful to the movie crew. they were hospitable, helpful, curious and just plain nice. I spent some time there on location when the movie was being shot, and I will always have a warm feeling for Harlan, as well as for eastern Kentucky. Joe Sharkey
That isn’t deliberate. WordPress is very unwieldy, sorry to say, and I am planning to find another platform for this. I’d go back and review what I apparently overlooked from you, but WordPress, as I understand it at least, would make that cumbersome. The only comments I ignore are the few that mischaracterize the book by claiming it’s bigoted toward people and/or culture of eastern Kentucky, which it is not. I leave that to the awful “Hillbilly Elegy.”