Keith Hunter Jesperson (born April 6, 1955) is a Canadian serial killer known as the “Happy Face Killer” for the smiley face he drew on his many letters to the media and prosecutors, who embarked on a murderous spree in the United States during the early 1990s. He had a violent and troubled childhood under a domineering, alcoholic father. Treated like an outcast by his own family and teased by other children for his large size at a young age, Jesperson was a lonely child who showed a propensity for torturing and killing animals. Despite consistently getting into trouble in his youth, including twice attempting to kill children who had crossed him, Jesperson graduated from high school, secured a job as a truck driver, got married, and had three children. In 1990, after 15 years of marriage, Jesperson was divorced and saw his dream to become a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman dashed following an injury. It was that year, after returning to truck driving, that Jesperson began to kill.
Jesperson is known to have killed eight women over the course of five years. Strangulation was his preferred method, the same method he often used to kill animals as a child. After the body of his first victim, Taunja Bennett, was found, media attention surrounded Laverne Pavlinac, a woman who falsely confessed to having killed Bennett with her abusive boyfriend. Jesperson was upset that he was not getting the attention, and first drew the smiley face on the bathroom wall where he wrote an anonymous confession for the murder, hundreds of miles away from the scene of the crime. When that did not elicit a response, he began writing the letters to media and prosecutors. Many of his victims were prostitutes and transients with no connection to him; however, his final victim was his long-time girlfriend. That connection is ultimately what led to his capture. While Jesperson has claimed to have killed as many as 160 people, only eight murders have been confirmed.
Keith Hunter Jesperson was born on April 6, 1955, to Leslie (Les) and Gladys Jesperson in Chilliwack, British Columbia, the middle child with two brothers and two sisters. His father was a domineering alcoholic and Jesperson claimed that his paternal grandfather was also violent. Les Jesperson denied being an abusive parent; however, while investigating for his book on Jesperson, author Jack Olsen was able to confirm much of the claimed abuse with other family members.
In his younger years, Jesperson was given less attention than his siblings and treated differently by the rest of his family. After moving to Selah, Washington, Jesperson had trouble fitting in and making friends because of his large size. His brothers didn’t help him, instead they nicknamed him “Igor” or “Ig”, a name that stuck throughout his school years. Because of this, he was a shy child, content to play by himself much of the time. He would often get into trouble for behaving badly, sometimes violently, and would be severely punished by his father. This included beatings (sometimes with a belt in front of others) and, in one case, he received an electric shock from his father.
At a very early age—as young as five—Jesperson would capture and torture animals. He enjoyed watching animals kill each other as well as the feeling he got from taking their lives. This continued as he got older. He would capture birds and stray cats and dogs around the trailer park where he lived with his family, severely beating the animals and then strangling them to death, something he claims his father was proud of him for. In the years following, Jesperson said he often thought about what it would be like to do the same to a human.
That desire manifested in two attempted murders. The first happened when Jesperson was around 10 years old. He was friends with a boy named Martin, and the two would often get into trouble together. Jesperson claimed he was punished many times for things Martin had done and blamed on Jesperson. This led Jesperson to attack Martin, violently beating him until his father pulled him away. He later claimed his intention was to kill the boy. Approximately a year later, Jesperson was swimming in a lake when another boy held him under water until he blacked out. Some time later, at a public pool, Jesperson attempted to drown the boy, holding his head under water until the lifeguard pulled him away.
Jesperson claims that he lost his virginity in high school, at the age of 14, during an act of rape. He graduated high school in 1973, but did not attend college because his father did not believe he could do it. Although he was not successful with girls in high school, having never even attended a school dance or his prom, he did enter into a relationship after high school. In 1975, when Jesperson was 20, he married Rose Hucke, and the couple had three children—two daughters and one son. Jesperson worked as a truck driver to support the family.
Several years later, Hucke began to suspect Jesperson was having affairs. Tension in the marriage increased and, after 14 years, Jesperson decided to file for divorce and told Hucke to move out. She packed up her and her children’s belongings and drove 200 miles away to live with her parents in Spokane, Washington. The oldest child, Melissa, was 10 years old. Jesperson continued to spend time with his children when he was in town. The couple divorced in 1990.
At the age of 35, standing 6’6″ and weighing approximately 240 pounds, Jesperson began working toward the goal of being a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman, but an injury suffered while training ended his dream. He then sought work again as an interstate truck driver after relocating to Cheney, Washington. Jesperson soon realized that this job afforded him the opportunity to kill without being suspected.
His first known victim was Taunja Bennett on January 23, 1990, near Portland, Oregon. He introduced himself to Bennett at a bar and invited her to the house he was renting. The two were intimate before an argument that ended with him brutally beating and then strangling her to death. He established an alibi by going back out for some drinks, being sure to converse with others, before returning to retrieve Bennett’s body and belongings to dispose of them. He was back on the road the next day. The body was found a few days later, but there were no suspects and no leads.
It was two and a half years after his first kill when Jesperson killed again. On August 30, 1992, the body of a woman he raped and strangled was found near Blythe, California. He says the Jane Doe’s name was Claudia. A month later, in Turlock, California, the body of Cynthia Lyn Rose was discovered. He claims she was a prostitute who entered his truck at a truck stop while he slept. His fourth victim was another prostitute, Laurie Ann Pentland of Salem, Oregon. Her body was found in November of that year. According to Jesperson, she attempted to double the fee she charged for the sex he had been engaged in with her. She threatened to call the police, and he strangled her. It was more than six months before his next victim was found in July 1993, a Jane Doe “street person” in Santa Nella, California. Police originally considered her death a drug overdose. More than a year later, in September 1994, another Jane Doe was found in Crestview, Florida. Jesperson claims her name was Susanne.
In January 1995, Jesperson agreed to give a young woman, Angela Surbrize, a lift from Spokane, Washington, to Indiana. Approximately a week into the trip, Surbrize became impatient and began to nag Jesperson to hurry up, as she wanted to see her boyfriend. In response, Jesperson raped and strangled her. He then strapped her to the undercarriage of his truck and dragged her, face down, “to grind off her face and prints.” Her body was not found for several months—and then only after Jesperson gave details to police. Two months after murdering Surbrize, Jesperson decided that his long-time girlfriend, Julie Ann Winningham, was interested in him only for money. On March 10, 1995, in Washougal, Washington, Jesperson strangled her. She was the only victim he had a link to, which ultimately set police on his trail.
Jesperson was arrested on 30 March 1995, for the murder of Winningham. He had been questioned by police a week before, but they had no grounds to arrest him after he refused to talk. In the days following, Jesperson decided that he was certainly going to be arrested, and after two failed suicide attempts, he turned himself in hoping it would result in leniency during his sentencing. While in custody, Jesperson began revealing details of his killings and making claims of many others, most of which he later recanted. Also, a few days before his arrest, he wrote a letter to his brother. In it, he confessed to having killed eight people over the course of five years. This led police agencies in several states across the country to reopen old cases, many of which were found to be possible victims of Jesperson.
Although Jesperson at one point claimed to have had as many as 160 victims, only the eight women killed in California, Florida, Nebraska, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming have been confirmed. He is serving three consecutive life sentences at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. In September 2009, he was indicted for murder in Riverside County, California, and was extradited to California to face the charges in December.
Early in the investigation of Taunja Bennett’s murder, Laverne Pavlinac read the news reports surrounding Taunja Bennett’s death and saw it as an opportunity to force an end to the long-term abusive relationship she had been in with her live-in boyfriend, John Sosnovske. She set up a meeting with the investigating detectives and gave a false confession, using the details she had read in reports to give a detailed story of how Sosnovske forced her to help him rape, murder, and dispose of Bennett’s body. Pavlinac and Sosnovske were convicted of the murder in February 1991. To avoid the possibility of facing the death penalty, Sosnovske pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison, while Pavlinac was sentenced to no less than 10 years, much more than she had anticipated. She soon admitted to making it all up, but her claims were ignored.
On November 27, 1995, more than four years since their conviction, Pavlinac and Sosnovske were released from prison after Jesperson and his attorney offered his confession with convincing evidence of his guilt. He had given police officers the location of the victim’s purse. The purse had not been found, and its location was considered information only the killer would know.
“The Happy Face Killer”
Following Taunja Bennett’s murder, as all the attention was going to Pavlinac and Sosnovske, Jesperson wrote a confession on the bathroom wall of a truck stop and signed it with a smiley face. When that did not create the attention he desired, he wrote letters to media outlets and police dts confessing to his murders, starting with a six-page letter to The Oregonian in which he revealed the details of his killings. He signed each letter with a smiley face. This led Phil Stanford, the journalist working the story for The Oregonian, to dub Jesperson ‘The Happy Face Killer’.
In November 2008, Jesperson’s daughter, Melissa G. Moore, appeared on the Dr. Phil Show to talk about her father. She was also featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show on September 17, 2009, and a 20/20 special on August 20, 2010. In 2009 Melissa published a book titled, Shattered Silence: The Untold story of a Serial Killer’s Daughter. Moore lived with her father until her parents’ divorce in 1990. Moore noticed her father was different when she was in elementary school. Their house bordered an apple orchard, and her dad killed stray cats and gophers that wandered nearby. One day she watched, horrified, as he hung stray kittens from the family’s clothesline. She ran to get her mother, and when they returned, the kittens lay on the ground dead. He had watched and laughed as the kittens clawed each other to escape, then he killed them.