Some murderers love the spotlight and love the nicknames the media invents to mark their crimes. It’s her or his chance for that macabre 15 minutes of fame. That and a few loose screws in the head. This tale deals with one such murderer who happens to be a serial killer, except with a slight twist. This murderer became upset when he did not get attention for his first killing, and wrote letters to media and prosecutors about the murder, always signing them with a happy face. He named himself the Happy Face Killer.
I don’t usually blog about serial killers because they become a bore after a while and the intimate details about the attacks are stomach-turning. Everyone wants to be the new Ted Bundy. However, this one spoke to me because the killer’s family was directly affected by his behaviours, and his own daughter offered interviews about her childhood with a serial killer father. Eventually she penned her autobiography. From such stories we can learn about the bizarre double life of a serial killer and a family man. Personally I’ve always wondered, how could anyone in a killer’s family not know something was terribly wrong long before they were caught?
Chilliwack, British Columbia – April 6, 1955 was one of the most unfortunate days to ever occur in B.C., Canada. It was the day Keith Hunter (irony) Jesperson was born to Leslie and Gladys Jesperson. Jesperson had two brothers and two sisters. He was, by all accounts, a shy boy, very polite with adults and teachers, and a quiet loner at school.His father was a domineering alcoholic and Jesperson claimed that his paternal grandfather was also violent. Les Jesperson denied being an abusive father, naturally, Don’t they all? But author Jack Olson, who wrote an autobiography with Keith Jesperson about his life, interviewed all family members who agreed Les abused and humiliated Keith in front of others. Well, they say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
In his younger years, Jesperson wasn’t given much attention and he was treated differently by the rest of his family. After moving to Selah, Washington, the city where his killing spree would begin, Jesperson had trouble fitting in and making friends because of his large size. His brothers nicknamed him “Igor” or “Ig“, a name that stuck throughout his school years. Over the years, he often got into trouble for behaving badly outside the home, sometimes violently, and would be severely punished by his father. This included beatings with a belt and, in one case, he received an electric shock. Talk about Tough Love. Why Gladys didn’t intervene is anyone’s guess. I suspect she was intimidated by Les and feared for her own physical well-being. Enablers often find themselves in this role.
When he was five Jesperson captured and tortured animals. He enjoyed watching animals kill each other as well. Jesperson later claimed that Les was proud of him for killing animals. Jesperson often thought about what it would be like to do the same to a human. That desire manifested in two attempted murders. The first attempt happened when Jesperson was 10 years old. He was friends with a boy named Martin, and the two would often get into trouble together. Jesperson was punished many times for things Martin had done and blamed on Jesperson. Not surprisingly, Jesperson was unaware of the difference in a “friend” and someone who used him for his own gain. This led Jesperson to attack Martin, violently beating him with the intention of beating him to death, until his father pulled him away. Whether or not Les was proud of this attempt on Martin’s life, Jesperson never said.
Jesperson lost his virginity in high school, at the age of 14, during an act of rape, most likely by a male. Jesperson had no high school girlfriends but he entered into a sexual relationship with a young woman after graduation in 1973. 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. He never attended college, since Les told him he wasn’t capable. Hucke began to suspect Jesperson was having affairs when strange women would call. Tension in the marriage increased and, after 14 years, while Jesperson was on the road Hucke packed up her and her children’s belongings and left to live with her parents. Jesperson continued to spend time with his children when he was in town. The couple divorced in 1990.
Jesperson’s first murder occurred in his own home. He picked up a mildly mentally handicapped girl named Taunja Bennett on 23 January 1990, near Portland, Oregon from a pool hall and brought her home for sex. Bennett wasn’t interested in sex and she told Jesperson she wanted to “hurry up and get it over with.” This enraged Jesperson and, standing 6’6″ and weighing approximately 240 pounds, he beat and strangled the hapless, petite girl to death. Jesperson disposed of the body and went back on the road the next day. Oddly, a character named Laverne Pavlinac convinced police that she and her live-in boyfriend, John Sosnovske, were responsible for the Bennett murder. She gave a false confession, using the details she had read in news reports to give a story about how Sosnovske forced her to help him rape, murder, and dispose of Bennett. After a few months in prison, Pavlinac wasn’t so sure she liked the new living quarters and she recanted her confession. Her pleas were ignored. On 27 November 1995, more than four years since their bizarre conviction, Pavlinac and Sosnovske were released from prison after Jesperson and his attorney offered his confession with convincing evidence of his guilt.
It was two and a half years after his first kill when Jesperson killed again. This isn’t unusual with serial killers. Actually, at this point Jesperson wasn’t a “serial.” A minimum of three killings are necessary to be considered a “serial” killer. The average number of murders for a serial killer is about six. They stop killing for a number of reasons:
- they have been killed or committed suicide
- they are in prison
- they burn out and don’t feel the need to kill anymore
- they live in fear of getting caught or have come close to being caught
It’s pretty pathetic there is such a thing as an average among these psychopaths, if you ask me. But I digress.
On 30 August 1992, the currently unidentified body of a woman he raped and strangled was found near Blythe, California. Jesperson identified the Jane Doe name only as Claudia. A month later, in Turlock, California, the body of Cynthia Lyn Rose was discovered. At first he claimed she was a prostitute who entered his truck at a truck stop while he slept. Later he confessed that he picked her up and she slept in his cab as he drove. After some hours, he became tired and pulled over to sleep. He woke Rose, who refused to have sex with him. She wanted him to continue driving, in spite of his fatigue. This annoyed Jesperson enough to kill her after he slept. Jesperson’s comment to Olson was, “she was already dead. She just didn’t know it yet.” (pictured right is Taunja Bennett).
Jesperson used strangulation to kill most of his victims. He disposed of some of the bodies in the most heinous manner possible. In January 1995, Jesperson agreed to give a very attractive young woman, Angela Surbrize, a lift from Spokane, Washington, to Indiana. One week into the trip, Surbrize became impatient and nagged Jesperson to hurry up, as she wanted to see her boyfriend. Jesperson raped and strangled her, then strapped her to the undercarriage of his truck and dragged her, face down, “to grind off her face and prints.” Afterward, Jesperson claimed when he went to dispose of the corpse in a woods, he met another truck driver who was doing the same thing with her sister: a sick fantasy, of course.
Before and during the years he was murdering women, Jesperson was father to beautiful-looking Melissa, his eldest daughter, with whom he remained in close contact after he went to prison. Melissa was 15 when she discovered her father had been convicted for murdering several women. Think of the repercussions she must have suffered at school. Jesperson himself advised her to change her name, which she did when she married at 21; to Melissa Moore, when she also severed ties with her father. Moore remembered growing up with Jesperson who didn’t physically or sexually abuse the children, but he behaved in frightening ways that were psychologically abusive. Jesperson occasionally killed a dog or cat in front of his family. Other adults looked the other way and said nothing, as if this was normal. As a result, Moore learned to overlook many sick behaviors she saw in her father. After she realized the truth, she had to deal with the grief of losing the father she had loved. Surprisingly, Moore had many happy memories of her childhood including playing games with her father and laughter filled meals. There was also the bitter divorce between her parents and remembering how he killed the family dog.
At night he tucked her into bed at night “like a burrito“, safely wrapped up in her blankets. “When I was growing up, my dad had put so much pride in my last name, and he gave me lessons on how to be a good citizen. My name was now known for these horrific murders, and it started to make me wonder if I was like my dad.” After her father’s arrest, Moore’s friends began to avoid her. She later discovered they had been told by their parents to avoid her.
Moore’s book about her life with her father is a tough read. She wrote that she made careful choices in her life so as not to be anything like her father, “but a sinister dark hole lurked. it refused to be filled, no matter what I did. Food didn’t fill it. Material goods couldn’t touch it… that raw, nagging darkness would intrude unbearably into everyday life.” Eventually her daughter, Aspen, asked, “Mommy where is your daddy?”
Moore remembered Jesperson killing four of her kittens when she was five years old, in spite of her cries and pleas to leave them alone: “his eyes were twisted in a sinister half smile. I knew that look, just as I knew that particular voice of his.” She watched as her father used clothespins to hang up the kittens onto a clothesline, one beside the other. Moore details many such nightmarish memories in her autobiography. Personally, I don’t intend to read it. Although Jesperson may never have laid a hand on his child, he certainly found other ways to abuse her. After he went to prison, he wrote to “Missy,” asking her if she had a boyfriend and whether or not they had sex. He wanted to know all the details. This is known as covert incest, where the actual, physical act of incest doesn’t take place, but highly inappropriate sexual topics are forced upon the child. Consider how confused this young woman must have felt. I suspect it will take a lifetime of healing to recover from her childhood, if she ever does.
A made-for-cable movie about Jesperson, The Happy Face Killer, starring David Arquette as the killer, was released on television in 2014.
Many of Jesperson’s victims were prostitutes and transients. Of course, that’s not including his own family. No one reported these women when they disappeared. His final victim was his long-time girlfriend, Julie Ann Winningham, and that is what led to his capture. Two months after murdering Surbrize, Jesperson decided that Winningham was interested in him only for money. On 10 March 1995, in Washougal, Washington, Jesperson strangled her.A stupid mistake. No surprise there. In spite of movie portrayals that would have us believe serial killers are brilliant, most are average or above average intelligence, but prodigies they aren’t. Jesperson’s killing spree ended after only four years, thankfully. In that time he murdered as many as 141 women – to hear him tell it. I doubt it. That’s a sick man bragging about the only accomplishment he will ever make – causing misery.