Three movie producers were talking on the front steps of the Bourbon County Courthouse one day last week as a crew shot scenes inside the historical building for a film about an FBI agent who killed a pregnant informant in Eastern Kentucky.
A crew member approached, but he wasn’t after the brass. The director of Above Suspicion wanted Jim Huggins, a former FBI supervisor in Kentucky working as a technical adviser on the film.
It was an indication of Huggins’ value to the project, producer Colleen Camp said.
“You’ve got three producers standing here, and Jim Huggins is standing next to the director on the set,” Camp said.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
The movie is based on a 1989 case in which FBI agent Mark Putnam strangled his informant, Susan Daniels Smith, in a fit of rage in Pike County in June 1989.
Huggins, who is 77 and retired, is an expert on the case.
He was head of the Lexington FBI office at the time and led the agency’s piece of the investigation that ended in Putnam pleading guilty to manslaughter in June 1990 — the first agent ever convicted of a homicide.
The filmmakers brought Huggins on to coach actors playing FBI agents on the right look, language and attitude — everything from the words an agent would use and the correct way to carry a handgun while chasing a suspect, to tactics for surrounding a house during a raid.
One of his first assignments from director Phillip Noyce, who has run films starring some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, was to work with Jack Huston, the actor playing Putnam. Huston’s credits include Boardwalk Empire, and he is filming the new movie version of Ben-Hur.
“He said, ‘I’d like you to turn him into an FBI agent. You’ve got eight hours,” Huggins said with a laugh.
He said Huston has been a quick study.
Noyce and Camp also had Huggins go over the script and incorporated many of his suggestions.
For instance, the original script had a scene in which Putnam tries to intimidate a local officer, threatening to make trouble with the officer’s boss if he doesn’t cooperate.
Huggins told the filmmakers that’s not how an agent would approach a local officer whose help he wanted.
“That makes no sense to come in on your high horse,” Huggins said. “They wrote that totally out.”
Huggins said he has seen no evidence of stereotypical Hollywood egos among the actors or others involved with the film
“The ones I’ve met so far have been unbelievably nice,” he said.
Noyce wants Huggins close by when filming FBI scenes and often asks him questions. Huggins said he has gotten used to hearing the Australian director call, “Jimmy, where are you, mate?” throughout the day.
Once, Noyce wanted to check whether an actor’s badge was in the right place on his belt. Whle filming a chase scene, Noyce wondered whether it was plausible that Putnam would look under the suspect’s vehicle after he jumped out and ran.
For one scene, Noyce had Huggins put notes describing an FBI assignment on a chalkboard in the background. In another, Noyce asked him to come up with a chart describing a drug organization for use as a prop.
The woman in charge of hair on the film, Colleen Labaff, even wanted to know what length state police officers would have worn their hair in 1990. Huggins took a look at two extras playing troopers and suggested a trim, which was done in short order.
Huggins said he has been impressed by the crew’s efforts to get details right.
“He’s trying to be as accurate as he can be,” Huggins said of Noyce.
Camp, a high-energy veteran of more than 100 film and television appearances with a growing list of credits as a producer, said Huggins has a great way with people and that his knowledge has been crucial to the authenticity of the movie.
“I can tell you it’s invaluable,” said Camp.
Huggins, an Estill County native, returned to Kentucky in 1977 from FBI assignments elsewhere. From then until he retired from the bureau in 1995, he conducted or supervised many of the state’s biggest corruption cases.
Those included a case in the late 1970s in which Sonny Hunt, former head of the state Democratic Party, went to prison in a scheme involving kickbacks for state contracts; an investigation in which three sheriffs, a deputy and a police chief in Eastern Kentucky went to prison for taking payoffs; and a case in the early 1990s in which 15 sitting or former lawmakers, and a top aide to ex-Gov. Wallace Wilkinson and one of the state’s most influential legislative lobbyists, were convicted on corruption charges.
The Putnam case was unlike any other in FBI history, however.
Putnam was fresh out of the FBI academy when he and his wife, Kathy, moved to Pikeville for his first assignment in early 1987.
Smith became an informant for him a few months later on a bank robbery she knew about, and the two ultimately began an affair. Smith’s brother said Smith and Putnam had sex in his car while parked on strip-mine roads.
Just before Putnam transferred to Miami in early 1989, Smith told him she was pregnant with his child. When he returned to Kentucky in June 1989 to prepare for a trial, the two went in his rental car to a secluded mountain road to talk.
Putnam said that after Smith threatened to jeopardize his career and marriage by telling the FBI and his wife about the pregnancy, then got mad and started slapping him, he snapped and choked her to death.
He hid her body in a ravine the next day.
State police didn’t focus on Putnam as a possible suspect for months as they ruled out what they saw as more likely candidates in Smith’s disappearance, including drug dealers with whom she’d been involved and her abusive ex-husband.
Ultimately, however, police began to focus on Putnam, and the FBI joined the case.
Huggins and state police officers went to Miami in May 1990 to question Putnam. He denied any knowledge of Smith’s disappearance, but there were indications he was lying.
At one point, for instance, Huggins asked Putnam about Smith’s age and he said, “She was 28.”
“Was — right out of the box,” Huggins said.
Putnam readily agreed to Huggins’ request for him to take a polygraph test, saying he wanted to cooperate and get the inquiry behind him.
The next day, the examiner stopped the test after just a few questions because Putnam showed “major deception” when he said he didn’t cause Smith’s death, Huggins said.
It would have been hard to make a case against Putnam without Smith’s body. But Putnam agreed to show police where Smith was and plead guilty to manslaughter in return for a 16-year sentence.
Putnam said his conscience had bothered him so badly that he was plagued by nightmares and bouts of diarrhea, and he had scratched his chest until it was raw.
Putnam, whose wife died while he was in prison, was released in 2000 after serving 10 years and has kept a low profile since. Huggins said some Internet research he did indicates that Putnam is working as a personal trainer in Georgia.
Huggins said it has been fascinating to watch the complex process of turning the sad story into a movie. The time required to set up scenes and shoot multiple takes has made for days that stretch on for 12 hours or more, but Huggins said he’s having fun.
“It’s really been interesting. I’ve enjoyed it,” he said.
It’s probably his last involvement with Hollywood, however, Huggins said with a laugh.
At 77, he said, he’s “too old to start making my move in the movie business.”