Many adults in Tricorner don’t have jobs. They get relief; Social Security checks; lawsuit settlement money. Many supplement this income by selling drugs. Enterprising residents work their way up into more challenging forms of criminal activity.
Many in Tricorner live in the “hollers” — ravines and narrow, long valleys largely hidden from the view of urban eyes.
Susan Daniels was very pretty for a hollers girl. In fact, she was a cheerleader in junior high.
But she never made it to high school. Like many in the hollers, Susan didn’t make school a priority.
Even though Susan was just 15, she’d used her good looks to snag a 22-year-old boyfriend: handsome Kenneth Smith, one of the most successful meth dealers in Tricorner. While some of Susan’s old friends went to high school, Susan and Kenneth just lay around and had sex and smoked meth all day.
At first, Kenneth stayed with Susan because it was very easy sex. Susan demanded nothing of him but a certain amount of meth, regular junk food and an occasional shopping spree.
But by the time she reached the age of 19, Susan had developed into a beautiful woman. Kenneth got more serious about her. He proposed and the two were married. It was a romantic gesture for a young man from the hollers.
Then a federal warrant for Kenneth’s arrest was issued. After a bit of running around, he figured he’d better surrender and try to work a deal. When he got out of jail, he got a legitimate job as a construction worker.
One day he took a fall and landed on his back. Kenneth felt he was so badly injured he’d never be able to work again. The doctor disagreed, saying that after a few days’ rest, Kenneth would be fine.
That was the end of Kenneth’s legitimate work experience. He and Susan went back to slinging meth. And it goes without saying that they both kept using.
Money was real tight and Susan and Kenneth tried to figure out how to get more. By the mid-1980s, Susan and Kenneth had produced two children. Sure, the marriage had been a romantic gesture. But Kenneth and Susan got divorced anyway so that Susan could get relief checks for the two children. Both ex-husband and wife would use the money.
Kenneth regularly cheated on Susan; he stole her stuff; he beat her. Folks wondered why she stayed with him. She couldn’t come up with a good explanation.
It seemed almost miraculous when the two managed to buy a house in a hick dump named Vulcan. It’s true that the house was small and rickety. It was so close to the railroad that the passing trains threw rocks against the windows. But it was a house.
Many in little Tricorner places like Vulcan and Pikeville couldn’t afford a room or an apartment or even a car, much less a house. It was customary in the hollers for relatives to take in other relatives and friends who didn’t have enough money to pay for something to live in.
Thus it was that Susan’s tiny house was the place where two of her adult brothers slept at night. Also bedding down was West Virginia’s most successful bank robber — “Cat Eyes.” Cat Eyes was pretty good at robbing banks. He was better at blowing $100,000 of stolen money in a month.
It was the presence of Cat Eyes that brought Susan Daniels Smith to the attention of FBI agent Mark Putnam. Putnam wanted to shut down a West Virginia bank-robbing operation. To do that, he needed to get Susan Daniels Smith to inform on Cat Eyes.
You might think that snitching would be a dangerous enterprise in a place as rife with criminal activity as Tricorner. But things are different in the hollers. Since almost no one held a legitimate job, getting paid for being an informant was considered a valid way to get money. Many people in Tricorner were paid informants. The secret was not to snitch on that one guy who wouldn’t understand — that one guy who would kill you.
Besides, Susan told everybody that the FBI was “protecting” her.
People were skeptical. Everybody knew Susan loved to tell tall tales. She was always talking about having an affair with this or that rich, powerful man in Tricorner. Nobody believed it.
And when Susan started telling people she was having an affair with the dashing FBI agent Mark Putnam, people really didn’t believe that. The FBI wasn’t held in especially high esteem in Tricorner. But nobody thought that FBI agents had affairs with holler tramps like Susan Daniels Smith.
Nevertheless, at least a few locals eventually figured out that there was ample opportunity for Mark and Susan to get together. Mark’s attractive wife Kathy was super-rich and had been educated in fancy East Coast schools. She couldn’t stand the tiny hick town of Pikeville, Ken., where the FBI had stationed Mark. Kathy spent almost all her time in her family’s home in Connecticut. For months at a time, she was gone and Mark was free to do as he pleased.
Susan was awestruck by Mark Putnam. He was movie star handsome and all muscle.
He too had gone to the fancy East Coast schools. He made fun of Susan’s hick way of talking. She’d have to work on that.
Mark had been the captain of the No. 1 NCAA soccer team in Tampa. With no law enforcement background, he’d aggressively sought and obtained a job as an FBI agent. Mark was a self-starter and then some.
For hours and hours, Susan talked to her friends in Pikeville and Vulcan about Mark; about how handsome he was; how wonderful his body was; what an athlete he was in bed.
Most people still didn’t buy it. But after it went on a while, a few began to wonder. Could a holler hick like Susan really have snagged someone like Mark Putnam? Ex-husband Kenneth wasn’t sure; he gave Susan a few beatings just for good measure. Once, he pushed her out of the moving car when she bent his ear once again on the subject of Mark.
Susan’s early days with Mark had been romantic; at least, that’s what Susan had thought. But Mark had grown cold and distant and barely spoke. He never took her out; never bought her any presents.
Still, she pursued him. Kenneth tried to lure Susan away from Mark by talking about her children. Susan told him she didn’t care about her children as long as she could have Mark. Perhaps Susan figured her children would just grow up to be two more garden variety holler rats exactly as she and Kenneth and everyone she knew had. Or perhaps she was just too obsessed with Mark to think as the traditional mother does.
At any rate, Kenneth went to court to get sole possession of the children, and succeeded in doing so.
Susan didn’t know it, but Mark had no intention of getting stuck in a place like Pikeville, Ken. He and his wife had been working hard to get Mark an FBI post in Miami. Finally, the transfer came through.
Mark left Pikeville without saying a word to Susan. There wasn’t a phone call or a card. Nothing. One day, he was just gone.
Susan, who was pregnant by now, was devastated. Day after day, she sat in her sister Shelby’s house, just staring out the front door.
When she got Mark’s new number in Miami, Susan called it several times a day. He never returned her calls.
Then, after weeks of miserable waiting, there came the call. Mark had to come back to Pikeville to wrap up a chop shop case. He’d work everything out with Susan when he got there.
When Mark arrived in Pikeville, another FBI agent checked Susan into the same hotel Mark was staying in.
No one ever heard from Susan again.
It wasn’t as if shock waves spread through Tricorner. Everybody knew Susan’s reputation. Most people assumed she’d just headed out and opened up a new line of meth slinging — maybe in Chicago or Milwaukee.
But Susan’s sister Shelby was convinced something was wrong. She called both the police and the FBI repeatedly. They never had anything to report. She threatened to go to the media. But really, what would somebody like Shelby know about going to the media?
Shelby became just as heartbroken over her sister as her sister had been over Mark. Shelby closed her beauty shop and started taking antidepressants.
Months went by. Then something changed. A Kentucky detective figured out the FBI paid all Susan’s bills at the hotel where she was last seen. That changed everything. The detective went straight to Shelby. He told her the case was “top priority … Everybody’s a suspect as far as I’m concerned.”
That may have been. But Susan’s violent ex-husband Kenneth was the top suspect. Hadn’t Susan told people she was afraid Kenneth would shoot her to death for what she was doing with Mark? It didn’t help when Kenneth failed three polygraph tests in a row.
But something didn’t fit. Kenneth wasn’t a nice guy. But he didn’t appear to be the killer of Susan Daniels Smith. The Kentucky police got the feeling that Kenneth didn’t know anything about what had happened to his ex-wife.
It turned out it was Mark Putnam who had finally grown too weary of Susan’s repeated claims that he must leave his rich, fancy, attractive wife and live with Susan as the father of their child. Mark strangled her, drove her body deep into the Appalachian Mountains and dumped it. When the Kentucky police finally found Susan, she was just bones. The FBI agent who looked like a Greek god was a killer.
The FBI saw the affair as a terrible black eye for the agency. As one FBI agent working on the case put it, “Who’s going to believe an FBI agent killed an informant? I was astounded when I heard that.”
After serving 10 years for his manslaughter conviction for the death of Susan Daniels Smith, Mark Putnam was released from prison. By the time he walked free in 2000, his fancy wife Kathy had drunk herself to death.
Susan Daniels Smith must have seen Mark Putnam as the one good thing she’d always wanted and could never have. When she finally got him, she’d have a good thing that was all hers. It would be a special thing that Kenneth and the horde of holler thugs could never steal from her. It would be a thing she could always admire for its beauty, purity, strength and goodness. She’d have something that could never be ruined by the grime and poverty and duplicity of Tricorner.
She’d finally be happy.
She’d be the only person in the hollers who’d been clever enough to obtain happiness solely by means of her beauty. She’d no longer have to make up fantastic stories to prove she was a cut above the other holler hoodlums and meth heads. The evidence would be right there on her arm.
Perhaps one day she’d even make a brief visit to all her old hick friends in Vulcan and tell them glorious stories — true stories — about her beautiful good clean new life.
Susan Daniels Smith was born in 1961 and died in 1989. The Smith case remains one of the dark spots in FBI history. Most of the information in this essay comes from Aphrodite Jones’ The FBI Killer, which is one of several books that document the controversial case. Additional info comes from the New York Times and other newspapers.