Author’s note: I watched “Game of Thrones” only twice, the first time in 2016, just a few days before I was headed to Kentucky as a consultant where the movie adaptation of my book was being filmed. The second time was the much-publicized finale of the monumentally popular TV fantasy series in May of 2019. I was particularly taken with — stunned, I would say — the thundering, violent scene in which the beautiful regal character Daenerys Targaryen, “Mother of Dragons,” is stabbed to death and her body is carried away by a fire-spewing, shrieking flying dragon. The actress Emilia Clarke, who played Daenerys, happens to also be the star of the movie version of my true-crime book “Above Suspicion,” in which she plays a sassy, pretty coal-miner’s daughter named Susan Smith, who was murdered in a fit of passion on a lonely mountain near isolated Pikeville, Kentucky, by an FBI agent with whom she was having an affair. What stunned me watching the finale of “Game of Thrones” was that there was at least dignity for Daenerys in having a raging dragon lovingly carry her body into the skies, perhaps to Valhalla. But the FBI agent, Mark Putnam, killed Susan Smith, and then, horrified by what he’d done, stuffed her body in the trunk of his car and drove with it the next day to routine meetings with FBI officials, two hours away in Lexington, Kentucky, before returning to Pikeville that night. Then he drove back into the mountains, stripped her body, and dumped her down a ravine at an abandoned strip mine, where she lay, savaged by animals, bereft of any dignity, for almost a year before Mark confessed and told officials where he had left the body.
As I say in the Epilogue to “Above Suspicion,” updated here, I told Emilia Clarke on location that I thought she had brought Susan Smith to life, more fully than I had been able to in the book. She finally bestowed dignity on that poor soul.
UPDATED EPILOGUE FOR “ABOVE SUSPICION”
[“Above Suspicion” was originally published in 1994 by Simon & Schuster and reissued in an updated print and e-book edition in 2017, with a new Epilogue, by Open Road Integrated Media. This new Epilogue was then updated in May 2019. The Epilogue picks up on Page 359 of the book.]
This sad story became sadder on February 5, 1998, when Kathy Putnam suddenly died at the age of 38. “Mrs. Putnam was found dead in her Manchester, Connecticut, home by her 13-year-old daughter, Danielle” and had died of “an apparent heart attack,” the Associated Press reported.
After Kathy’s death, her parents, Carol and Ray Ponticelli, took Danielle and Mark Jr. into their home in Manchester until Mark was released from prison in the fall of 2000. Kathy’s parents always remained close to Mark. “He’s a wonderful man. It was a crime of passion,” Carol told The Hartford Courant newspaper when Mark was released, his sentence reduced from sixteen years to ten for good behavior. A Kentucky corrections department spokesman said that Mark had been a “model inmate” who volunteered in the chapel and commissary and took classes in maintaining heating and cooling systems.
Mark later remarried and is living in the South, as are Danielle and Mark Jr. None of them wished to comment for this revised epilogue to the new 2017 editions of this book, which was originally published in 1993 and republished in 2017 in updated print and e-book editions by Open Road Integrated Media..
After I interviewed him over several days in 1992 in a federal prison Rochester, Minnesota, I HAD stayed in touch by mail with Mark until early 1999. I remained in close touch with Kathy for many years after “Above Suspicion” was published in 1993, while she struggled mightily to keep her marriage and her family together, and as she fought personal demons, including her raging fixation on Ron Poole, whom she saw as a half-baked but nevertheless sinister Iago: always scheming, driven by intense jealousy of Mark and a desire, apparently never realized, for an intimate relationship with Susan. Poole’s incessant interferences were “contributing factors in causing the death of Susan Smith,” Kathy asserted in an eight-page statement to the FBI in March 1992. “I wish to make it known to the FBI that I am terrified of Ron Poole,” she said.
I had interviewed Kathy at length at her home in Connecticut in 1992, and for years afterward I spoke frequently with her in long phone calls, often through her tears. She was invariably honest and forthright; she always insisted that nothing be held back, that nothing was out of bounds in her deeply personal recollections, not even things that were profoundly painful and sometimes embarrassing to her. Kathy was brave. I admired her enormously. Near the end I was not a good enough friend to her, though. As often happens in long-distance acquaintanceships, we drifted away and after a while I simply stopped checking in. Then reality and profound regret struck with a phone call from her mother Carol in 1998: “I just wanted to tell you that Kathy died.”
A local newspaper in Connecticut said that heavy drinking had contributed to Kathy’s sudden death. From prison in 1998, Mark answered my condolence letter in a long reply, in which he discussed his anguish about his wife’s emotional distress. “Joe, she couldn’t shake the deep depression which engulfed her, nor would she accept the fact that she had a problem. Over the years her condition deteriorated to the point where suicide was a common theme to our nightly calls. No matter what the family and I attempted to do, she shut us out. Her condition was exacerbated by the fact that she was drinking heavily. Unfortunately, the kids bore the brunt of her capriciousness. It got to the point where she wouldn’t let me talk to the kids alone, and wouldn’t let Ray and Carol see them,” he wrote, referring to Kathy’s parents.
His letter, several months after her death, added, “The kids and I have indeed grown closer as a result of our loss and have a steely determination to succeed.” He said he had sent them a postcard with photo of a bulldog and the motto attributed to Winston Churchill, “Never, never, never give up.” He wrote, “Kind of ironic, Joe, the kids are now laughing for the first time in a long while. We are all encouraging them to talk about things good and bad.”
I should note that in hours of one-on-one interviews in prison in 1992 and in letters to me, Mark always expressed shock and remorse. “I can’t accept what I have done to my wife and kids,” he wrote to me from prison in 1994. “As I look around my environment my insides scream that I don’t belong here, yet I know deep down I need to fulfil my societal obligations. I try to put myself in the place of Susan’s family and yes, I would want me away for a long time.”
In 2000, two years after Kathy’s death and the same year that Mark was released from prison, Ron Poole died at the age of 50, after a twenty-year career as an FBI special agent. An FBI investigation into Poole’s actions in Pikeville had veered into other cases in eastern Kentucky after 1990. Among them were the rogue agent’s role in advocating for release from jail of a convicted killer who then went on to commit multiple murders during the time he was also an informant for Poole. In another case in 1990, Poole’s undercover work was cited in a successful sting operation that led to federal bribery convictions of four eastern Kentucky county sheriffs and a police chief — but even that case raised questions about the agent’s behavior, including from a county sheriff who testified that he had declined to work with Poole because he “appeared to be more interested in having sex with a woman he was sent to investigate.”
In 1991, The Lexington Herald-Leader had excoriated the FBI in an editorial. “If the FBI has a woodshed, it should take Ron Poole there for some serious career counseling,” the newspaper said. “Clearly, the FBI needs to take a long, close look at its policies and practices involving informants.”
The internal FBI investigation concluded with a censure, demotion and suspension of 40 days without pay for Poole, and a censure and suspension of 14 days without pay for Terry Hulse, the supervisor in Covington who was responsible for the Pikeville regional office about 200 miles away. Despite his scheming and manipulations, Poole was unaware that Mark had killed Susan till Mark made his confession, the FBI investigation found.
In 2016, Jim Huggins, the courtly FBI supervisor who led the investigation that ultimately led to Mark’s confession, told me that the Bureau’s existing procedures for handling informants were “tightened” after the Putnam case. In general, said Huggins, now retired, a supervising agent’s job is to closely evaluate the use of and payments to informants. He said, “If you’ve been around a while, you should be able to tell when something isn’t right. With a female informant especially, like when Mark told Hulse, ‘Listen, she visited the office and brought me a gift.’ Bingo, that’s when the first light goes off. So you call up Mark and say, ‘What the hell is going on here, buddy?’ Which opens a dialogue. There’s your opportunity to have a talk with a young agent, and it’s where an older mentor who has been around for a while makes the difference.”
In 1990, Susan’s family filed a wrongful death suit against Mark Putnam. A federal bankruptcy judge awarded $463,837 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages against Putnam, who had filed for personal bankruptcy in prison in 1993. “We got the judgment against him and never could identify any assets in his name. It was not collectable,” said Larry Webster, the Pikeville attorney who filed the lawsuit.
In Pikeville, Detective Richard Ray was named Trooper of the Year in 1991 by the Kentucky State Police. Ray took his plaque and resigned, saying he was disgusted by the department’s general penny-pinching on investigations, including the Putnam case. He is retired.
John Paul Runyon, the Pike County commonwealth attorney, was reelected unopposed to a sixth term in 1992. Runyon remained convinced that Mark Putnam never meant to kill Susan Smith. “I believe it was accidental,” he told me in 1992, though of course it was also criminal. He remained distressed by what he regarded as the FBI’s casual attitude toward using informants, especially as illustrated by the Putnam fiasco. “I was very emphatic. They sent agents to my home to talk to me about it, and I told them flat-out, if there’s one thing you need to learn from this case, if nothing else, you need to take a real close look at how you deal with informants — what kind of protection you give them and what concern you have for them. I told them, if you don’t have a policy already, you need to develop one, and if you have a policy, by God, you need to start enforcing it.”
Runyon, who had discussed his role in the Putnam prosecution at length with me in Pikeville in 1992, died in 2015, age 90.
As for Susan’s children, her son Brady died several years ago after overdosing on a combination of methadone and Xanax, Larry Webster told me. Miranda is married, with a child, and is living near Phelps. Kenneth is living quietly in the same area.
In the summer of 2016, I went to see Shelby Ward, then 61, who still lived in a house beside the Tug Fork River in Freeburn. Citing an exclusive-rights contract she said she had signed in 1990 with a television production company, Shelby said she was unable to discuss with me the quarter-century-old case and its aftermath, including a surprising long-distance friendship that had developed between her and Kathy Putnam. After Mark went to prison, Kathy reached out to Shelby. Though the two women had never met, and Shelby was the first person to suspect that Mark (who she had never met) had killed her sister, the two became friends in long phone calls of the sort that Kathy often had with Susan and with me. Shelby said that Kathy “would talk of waking up in the middle of the night with the telephone receiver in her hand, swearing she had been talking with Susan.”
The material in this book all comes from my own conversations with the people involved, as well as from police and FBI files, court records, and historical research. There are numerous passages in this book of reconstructed dialogue. These were always derived from the recollections of at least one person who was directly involved in the conversation. In dialogue involving Susan Smith, I satisfied myself that what someone recalled her saying in a specific instance was also consistent with what other people who knew her recalled about her attitudes and state of mind at the time. I depended on Mark Putnam’s recollections to reconstruct the final tragic conversation between him and Susan on that dark mountain siding where he killed her.
As a journalist I have written thousands of stories, including more than nine hundred columns for The New York Times. Most of them quickly fade in a reporter’s memory, but the details of this one have haunted me for twenty-five years, partly because “Above Suspicion” is fact-based narrative journalism about a tragedy involving complex personalities and events in a compelling setting. Meanwhile, I have always been intensely curious about and sympathetic toward Susan Smith, the only one of the principal characters that I was, of course, unable to speak with.
Susan, as everyone who knew her agreed, could drive you crazy with her prattling and her fables and wishful exaggerations and her pitiful desperation and inability to get herself out of the circumstances and the geography that trapped her. Susan did not have the emotional skills to leave, and she looked to Mark as her ticket out. As Kathy Putnam always told her, before Kathy learned the truth about her husband and Susan: Choices have consequences; goals can be achieved; there is usually a way out, especially if you’re young and smart and so personable (as Susan definitely was this) that the world is inclined to cut you slack, to meet you more than halfway.
“That girl was just likeable,” Bert Hatfield, the deputy sheriff who first befriended Mark as a rookie agent new to the territory in 1987, told me in the summer of 2016 from the used car lot he still operated in Freeburn, the old coal-company hamlet where Susan grew up and lived. “She was so convincing, no matter what bullshit she was talking. Her personality was just that good. People liked her, me included. But Susie always wanted more out of life than she was able to get. She didn’t know how to go about it even when the answers were so clear.”
In the awful end, Susan hitched her wagon to a handsome federal law-enforcement officer with a young wife and children, a man who regarded her as a difficult but valuable employee who was good for a quick occasional tumble in a car on a dark mountain road.
Much of what I learned about Susan’s real personality, as opposed to the one assigned to her by gossips, came from detailed and deeply emotional recollections by Kathy Putnam, who should have been Susan’s adversary given the circumstances of the betrayal, but who, even in the depths of her despair, always considered Susan as a friend whom she had lost.
Who was Susan Smith? I was still poking at the question in the summer of 2016, when I revisited the places in Kentucky where she lived and died.
Larry Webster, the Pikeville attorney who represented Shelby Ward and the rest of Susan’s family after she was killed, still had a vivid impression of her a quarter century later. He said, “I hate to be stereotypical, but she was kind of typical of a lot of young mountain women. They just have a certain charm to them, and their sexuality is kind of overt and unashamed, but sort of innocent in a way. I’m sure Mark Putnam was charmed by Susan, who was different from any girl he knew before — unlike his wife, who was probably kind of prudish and had money, the kind of wife he needed to marry.” Of course, Kathy (who Webster never met) didn’t have “money,” but she did project outward poise and, to Susan’s hungry eye, a cosmopolitan style that may have seemed exotic in Pikeville at the time.
People in Freeburn who remember Susan, including her sister, all seem to have accepted the idea that she and Mark had a long, intense affair that lasted for two years and included torrid assignations in motels and even, as Susan bragged to friends, at the Putnams’ home in Pikeville during a time when Kathy had traveled back to Connecticut for the birth of their second child.
It certainly makes the story more cinematic to envision the sweaty young lovers, the dashing lawman and the perky, pretty mountain girl, tangled in the bedsheets. But I don’t buy it. I believe the truth is actually sadder.
In his confession, and in subsequent conversations with me at the prison during which I took him over key details again and again, looking for discrepancies that I never found, Mark consistently maintained that sex with Susan was quick and opportunistic, certainly not planned (he didn’t even have condoms), and that it had had occurred over a period of months starting in December 1988, and not years, as some accounts based entirely on local speculation insisted. These things supported this: The unequal power relationship between the two, underpinned by his sense of status and propriety, if not morality, and the obvious embarrassment he exhibited had at being seen with her. The Putnam home in Pikeville had nosy neighbors who were vigilant about neighborhood comings and goings, and who certainly would have taken note of a sassy coal-town girl spending the night when Kathy was out of town. As I see it, Mark had no good reason that I could ascertain to lie about sex with Susan after he had admitted to killing her.
“At the times I had sex with her it was always in the car, and I never had sex with her at my house or at a motel,” he said in his confession statement of June 4, 1990 — and he repeated that to me on several occasions. Yes, he sometimes legitimately used FBI money to pay for a motel room for her, in keeping with prevailing practices on providing informants with temporary sanctuary if that seemed appropriate — and Susan was being threatened by criminals. But I think a car on a dark, remote mountain pull-off, and not a double bed at a roadside motel, was where sex between Mark and Susan occurred.
For example, the Goldenrod Motel, where Susan claimed Mark took her for trysts, was on Rt. 23 north of Pikeville and within a stone’s throw of the Pikeville State Police barracks, where Mark was obviously well-known. That made it an unlikely spot for a cautious man like Mark to arrange a sexual encounter. There were always eyes on you in Pikeville. However, that somewhat seedy motel was just down the highway from Marlow’s, the country-western saloon where Susan, a regular, was known to have picked up men on occasion before she began working for Mark.
Mark may have been the only man in her life who treated Susan with respect, but I myself do not believe he respected her enough to even take her to a motel. He fucked her in a car.
Decades later came the movie. In the winter of 2016 I learned that Phillip Noyce, the Australian director of movies such as Salt, The Quiet American and Clear and Present Danger, had agreed to adapt Above Suspicion as a feature film, with shooting starting in the spring. Phillip said he and a location scout spent weeks driving around eastern Kentucky looking for locales but he ruled out Pikeville and instead chose Harlan, a gloomy little town of about 1,800 in the Kentucky coal-belt about eighty-five miles southwest of Pikeville.
“Pikeville doesn’t look like Pikeville anymore,” he told me when I visited the Harlan location in July as filming was underway on the movie, starring Emilia Clarke (famous for playing Daenerys Targaryen, the “Mother of Dragons” in the hit HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones), with Jack Huston as Mark. Jack had been featured in TV’s Boardwalk Empire and had just come off playing played the title role in a 2016 remake of the biblical epic Ben-Hur). Sophie Lowe played Kathy Putnam. Thora Birch played Susan’s sister. Johnny Knoxville played Susan’s husband.
Revisiting the region for the first time since 1992, I was surprised by how right Phillip had been. Pikeville today does not look much like the sleepy county seat I encountered in 1992. A new 25-acre University of Pikeville campus and medical center sprawls down a hill overlooking downtown, across the street from two new hotels. Main Street and Courthouse Square have been spruced up with new facades and even outdoor stages. There’s a flashy new 7,000-seat concert and sports events arena called the Eastern Kentucky Expo Center, which opened in 2005. These expensive improvements all were part of an ambitious publicly financed plan to beautify Pikeville as a center for regional tourism in eastern Kentucky. The impetus for this was that Pikeville and eastern Kentucky had been given a big tourism boost in 2012 by a well-received TV miniseries about the legendary Hatfield-McCoy feud that had spilled over the mountains from the Tug Valley to the county courthouse in Pikeville in the second half of the 19th Century.
Larry Webster, who has practiced law from his office near the courthouse for over a quarter century, chuckled at what he regarded as folly. He explained that the well-funded gentrification came about because of significant local influence at the state capitol and a belief that as the coal economy collapsed, tourism would become a new source of revenue. “One of our local guys got to be governor for two terms, so he had time to send money our way,” Webster said, referring to a former coal-mine baron, Paul E. Patton, the first Kentucky governor to two terms in 1995 (thanks to an amended state constitution) since 1880, whose tenure as governor ended after he tearfully admitted in 2002 to an extramarital affair with a woman who operated a state-regulated nursing home.
“They put all these big buildings up and created an illusion of more prosperity than you will actually find here,” Webster said. “After that TV series on the Hatfield McCoy feud created all this interest, people started roaring in here to see everything – but really there ain’t much to see. All we can do really is put up signs saying ‘This is where something happened.’”
(The Hatfield-McCoy TV miniseries was actually filmed in Romania which, to my eye, does not look much like the Tug Valley. Given the landscape, I expected that Count Dracula would be lurking in those hills, not “Devil Anse” Hatfield.)
The producers and the director of the movie version of this book, to their great credit, were adamant about filming in eastern Kentucky, even though the remoteness of the region – it’s more than two hours from any significant urban center –- added extra expanse to the budget, not to mention logistical burdens. The producers firmly believed, as I did when writing the book, that geography itself is a character in “Above Suspicion.” They affirmed the concept of “authenticity of place,” even though the crew and cast had to spend months encamped in a little town with so few amenities that several of the stars and producers actually adopted a hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant in town, one of only a few non-fast-food restaurants in the area. It seemed to me they had created a colonial version of the Polo Lounge or some posh Hollywood haven. Movie stars could be found in this Indian take-out joint eating from Styrofoam plates and plastic utensils on days when the hectic shooting schedule actually permitted enough time off for lunch away from the clamor of the set.
I was fascinated by all of this. Through the summer of 2016, more than a hundred cast members and crew had assembled in little Harlan, a town surrounded by mountains with a single roadside motel, a 60-room Comfort Inn, which was packed with the movie people. To accommodate the spillover, houses and spare rooms had to be rented all over the area (Emilia and her assistant and a security man occupied a rented house in the hills). Harlan is dry, so the Hollywood people organized supply wagons for booze-runs. The nearest location for alcohol was the town of Cumberland, 27 miles away, but the sole convenience store there sold only light beer, and even then did so warily. More serious booze runs clattered over mountains to Knoxville, Tennessee, well over two hours away, where at least beer, liquor and wine could be acquired in bulk to ferry back to Harlan.
“Above Suspicion,” the book, is an American tragedy that links three people: an ambitious young man who wanted affirmation in his dream job as an FBI agent, and two women who circled him in emotional orbit, impelled by their own conflicting desires, each unaware that a terrible collision lay ahead.
In a work limited to factual reporting and observation, and what can be reasonably interpreted from those facts, Mark Putnam was a far easier character for me to understand than Susan or even the tortured Kathy. An inherent peril was to see the women only as satellites of the man. The challenge, for both book and movie, was to reflect what is increasingly known in literature, including the literature of cinema, as the Female Gaze.
I knew Kathy very well, but I fretted — in 1992 and still today — over not having known Susan.
One sweltering afternoon in July during the “Above Suspicion” movie shoot in Harlan, I somewhat clumsily tried to explain this concern to Emilia Clarke. Emilia was then twenty-nine, only slightly older than Susan had been when Mark killed her. I was amazed to see how closely she listened to me. Often, the author of a book being adapted as a movie is seen as something of an inconvenience on a set, but that was not the case on the “Above Suspicion” shoot, where I was welcomed as a consultant and made to feel part of the crew.
On that afternoon, Emilia was between takes filming the final poignant scene in which Susan, radiant in a gossamer white dress, speaks knowingly from the grave about the futility of dreams. Disarmingly courteous, Emilia told me she had almost worn out two copies of “Above Suspicion” while preparing for the role. “They’re all dog-eared and I’ve scrawled all over them,” she said.
On location, she devoured my notes and more than a hundred pages of badly typed, single-spaced transcripts I had made from audio tapes of Kathy’s and Mark’s reflections for research on the book twenty-five years before. She switched effortlessly between her native London accent and the eastern Kentucky “hillbilly” twang that her friends said she had been perfecting for months in character in Los Angeles and London before shooting started in Kentucky. Then she did the final take, bathed in ethereal blue light as Phillip Noyce softly called “Action!” and she repeated her last ironically sad lines about the death of dreams.
Sitting with the director as this scene was shot, I realized that, in a way that written words did not alone adequately achieve, this young British actress working day and night in forlorn Harlan, Kentucky, had worked magic and brought to life a vision that I recognized as Susan Smith.
(The movie was originally scheduled for release in 2018. Late that year, it was in fact released in a dubbed version in Turkey and then in a version with Arabic subtitles in the Middle East. Phillip Noyce said the new release date in the U.S. is August 2019, but as of the spring of 2019 no official announcement had been made. )
After the movie wrapped in mid-July of 2016, I drove across the mountains from Harlan to Pikeville, and then onto Route 23 north of town, toward the mountain where Susan’s body had lain within weeds and strip-mine debris for nearly a year until Mark confessed from Miami and told them where they would find her. The Goldenrod Motel and Marlow’s are gone, and there are no coal trucks now spewing black nuggets as they hurtle north. That’s because the boom and bust cycles of coal are over. As cheap and less polluting fuels like natural gas won out, coal production in eastern Kentucky in 2015 was the lowest in eighty years, and there were fewer coal-mining jobs in Kentucky than at any time since reliable records were kept starting in 1927.
One after the other, the giant coal-producing companies went bankrupt, leaving behind devastated landscapes and poisoned streams, bestowing billions of dollars in cleanup costs to be borne by taxpayers, who also bear the costs of welfare, unemployment, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security Disability payments that sustain the economy and have “made Appalachia into a big and sparsely populated housing project, too backward to thrive, but just comfortable enough to keep the underclass in place,” as Kevin D. Williamson had put it in a brutal assessment in the conservative National Review magazine.
The landing at the turnoff where Mark Putnam dumped Susan’s body is not as isolated as it was in 1989. Hatcher Field, the little general-aviation airport for Pike County, is nearby, though it hasn’t had commercial air service since July 2015, when a daily flight to Nashville on an 18-seat twin-propeller plane was discontinued after nine months because few passengers were using it. The collapse of the coal economy was blamed.
The place where Susan’s body had lain is at the summit of a former hilltop strip mine that earth-movers had rumbled in to landscape, leveling the overburden – the mountaintop debris from strip-mining — into a meadow where two weathered park benches sag in the mud. The dirt bikes that Mark heard whizzing nearby when he laid Susan’s nude body in that ravine have given way to all-terrain vehicles that scoot on the sculptured slopes. An equestrian center a few miles away now attracts riders on trails lacing through reclaimed slopes. From the crest of the hill, the mountains of Appalachia are stacked to the horizon like so many loaves of bread.
The roads corkscrewing through the hills from here to Freeburn have not changed much since the days when Bert Hatfield taught Mark Putnam how to grit his teeth, take his foot off the brake and drive like a goddamn hellbound hillbilly. Treacherous turns suddenly arrive at tiny hamlets with old cars parked outside trailers. At each hamlet, steepled saltbox churches push up right against against the roadside, their electric signs worrying about Satan or panting apocalyptic visions of a Rapture soon to come.
At the end of such death-defying highways lay the isolated old coal-camp towns like Freeburn, population 399. Sustained by government checks and social inertia, Freeburn itself looked physically unchanged in 2016, a quarter-century after since I first came there.
In Freeburn, where coal jobs are long gone, malicious gossip at least persists as a thriving industry, now amplified by social media. On the online “Freeburn Forum,” I read the following observations in 2016: “I’m just wondering something, does Pam & Jessica share dentures? LMAO, I just figured since they’re so nasty, they would! I think it’s hilarious how Jessica always made fun of other people but NOW she has dentures too…” … “I used to live in Freeburn it was awful. everybody is on drugs, nobody has nothing better to do than sit on there butts and draw checks for a living …” … “Some very important information. He is the nasty man on earth and like to have sex with serveal partners at one time, he claims to be a Christian but he is evil and wicked… “ … “Those nasty girls are ugly with a capitol U they should take there SSI check instead wasting it and put it down on some false teeth …” … “My husband cheated on with this wh*re she gave him a blow job for 3 Percosets …”
And so on. And so on.
I was happy to find Bert Hatfield, good ol’ boy personified, still presiding over his small used-car lot beside the stubby bridge that crosses the tumbling Tug River to West Virginia. I talked again with him in his office inside a cramped trailer at a desk piled high with papers and files, with a police scanner to the side. He was still a deputy sheriff, but he said that be believed his days in law enforcement were numbered.
“The drugs are worse than I ever saw before, and I thought I seen it all,” he said. Before, a cop had the standing and experience to at least deal familiarly with traditional brews of marijuana and cocaine and meth and pain pills and heroin, fueled of course by alcohol. But in conjunction with law enforcement crackdowns on pain pills, the chemical formula that concocts this social dysfunction and criminality has been altered, most graphically in a deadly new epidemic of cheap heroin tricked out with an opioid called fentanyl that skyrockets the potency of heroin — and its lethality — by more than fifty percent. The opioid crisis was nodding in open sight in these places.
“I don’t even know these kids,” Bert said. “I used to be able to say, listen, I know your father or your sister, but there’s a new element coming around now that doesn’t even think the same way. In law enforcement, you better be able to change with the times or get out, and I’m ready to get out.”
As the local cop who first introduced Mark to Susan, a girl who he grew up with in Freeburn, Bert still had vivid emotions concerning her. “Susie had been my informant for years before I introduced Mark to her,” he said. “She gave me valuable information, and she did the same for Mark.”
Was he aware of the sexual relationship that developed between the two?
“Like everybody else I heard talk, especially from what she was telling folks. But Mark and I spent a lot of hours together and I never saw that side of him, and he never mentioned anything like that to me. Toward the end, I did warn him about getting too involved with this girl, that she was running her mouth pretty bad. I did try to send a some red flags up for him, but I think he took it personally, as me butting in. We drifted apart over that.”
As so many others did, Bert blamed the FBI for lax supervision of a hard-charging, eager-to-succeed young agent who plunged into a situation he could not control. “I think they threw him to the wolves,” he said of the FBI’s sending a rookie to a place like this, where he was expected to crack criminal cases virtually unsupervised.
Across the river and seven miles up the road on the West Virginia side lies forlorn little Matewan, the coal town where Susan Daniels was born in 1961, the fifth of nine children of Sid and Tracy Daniels of Barrenshee Creek, a hollow in Freeburn, Kentucky, that some had once called “Lonesome Holler.” At the time, Matewan had the closest hospital to Freeburn. It was also the only place to shop.
When Susan was a child and into her adolescence, the two-block-long downtown in Matewan had good commerce, including Nenni’s Department Store, a family-owned emporium where coal miners and their families could buy clothes, shoes, appliances and frills from elsewhere, and even avail themselves of the services of a tailor and a cobbler. At Christmas and Easter times, miners’ families from all over the Tug Valley dressed in their Sunday finest — Susan’s family among them – and flocked to the festively decorated Nenni’s and to a competing store, Hope’s, both now closed.
Matewan has a terrible history in the violent struggles that accompanied efforts to unionize coal miners. In 1920, a bloody clash between miners seeking to unionize and submachinegun-toting detectives hired by coal companies became known as the Battle of Matewan – immortalized by the 1987 John Sayles movie Matewan.
Over the years Matwean hung on through the boom-and-bust cycles of coal, and through recurring devastating Tug Fork River floods. By the mid-1970s, though, Matewan was woebegone. It no longer had any appeal for young Susan, a teenage runaway who had shacked up in a small rented trailer there with the handsome, brash Kenneth Smith. Susan set her eyes on bright lights in far-off, fashionable places like Chicago. She got there once to run drugs but she never managed to stay.
On a breezy July afternoon in 2016, I wandered Matewan’s somnambulant Main Street, where the only discernable activity was two middle-aged couples, who appeared to be German tourists, wandering into the storefront West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, which opened in 2015 as part of the taxpayer-funded regional initiative to encourage tourism in the Tug Valley. Across the street, a shop that sold local historical souvenirs was shut even though it was a weekday. In the store window was a display of Hatfield-McCoy tchotchkes beside a wood-burned plaque that said
And yes, “feud” was misspelled.
I walked down to the river across from the main street. After a 1977 flood that wiped out most of the town, the Army Corps of Engineers had constructed a concrete floodwall, a marvel of engineering, twenty-five feet high, that runs a quarter-mile along the Tug. There are sculpted scenes from the Battle of Matewan on this wall, which has giant steel floodgate doors that open for access to a pedestrian path, where wide concrete steps lead down to the river bank. Inscriptions on the higher steps note where the worst of the historic floods had risen to.
At the base of the steps, mayflies swarmed around me as I parted my way through nettles and ferns and cattails to the river bank. I saw a boy, maybe thirteen years old, paddling on the Tug in a broken-down red wood canoe with splintered slats exposed at the bow. The boy waved as he swirled downriver along the Tug’s northbound tumble to the Ohio, the river access to the cities of the Midwest.
Where did this boy think he was going in that busted old canoe? Did he have a plan, not to mention a skill, to return against that swift current? Or was he, like Susan, simply adrift and going wherever the river would take him, to hell with any peril?
Finally, I realized there, my journey was finished after a quarter century. It was time for journalism to put its notes away while history pointedly cleared its throat in desolate little Matewan, framed through the aperture of those big steel floodgates, this sad place where Susan Smith first had her notions, where ghosts now drifted in smoky tendrils on the lonesome holler of the wind.