Keith Hunter JESPERSON
A.K.A.: "The Happy Face Killer"
Classification: Serial killer
Characteristics: Rape - Truck driver
Number of victims: 8 +
Date of murders: 1990 - 1995
Date of arrest: March 30, 1995
Date of birth: April 6, 1955
Victims profile: Women
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: Nebraska/California/Florida/Washington/Oregon/Wyoming, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison in Oregon on June 3, 1998
Keith Hunter Jesperson (born April 6, 1955 Chilliwack, British Columbia) is a Canadian born American serial killer known as the "Happy Face Killer" for the smiley face he drew on his many letters to the media. Keith Hunter Jesperson was first arrested in 1995 for the murder of his girlfriend, Julie Ann Winningham, 41, of Camas, Washington.
In addition to his conviction for Winningham’s murder, Jesperson has been convicted of murdering four women in Oregon, California and Wyoming. While Jesperson sat in the Clark County Jail for the murder of Julie Winningham, he began talking to his attorney, Thomas Phelan, about other crimes that he had committed starting with Taunja Bennett.
By the age of thirty-five, he was a tall hulking man who stood at 6'6 and weighed 240 pounds. He had dreams of working for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. During his training as a policeman he sustaining a fall during a training exercise he was permanently dismissed. He later sought work as an interstate truck driver in Cheney, Washington. During the homicide investigation of Winningham, witnesses who gave their information to the police described Jesperson as having a "Baby Huey" appearance. His first known victim was Taunja Bennett on January 23, 1990 near Portland, Oregon.
Overall, Jesperson murdered 8 people in Nebraska, California, Florida, Washington, Oregon, and Wyoming as he was a truck driver at the time he committed these murders. He is serving three consecutive life sentences at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. In prison he took up painting as a hobby and sells his artwork over the internet.
Laverne Pavlinac read the news reports surrounding Taunja Bennett's death and gave a false confession to police.Laverne Pavlinac and live in boyfriend Sosnovske and were convicted of the murder of Jesperson's first victim in February 1991.
On November 27, 1995, after serving more than four years in prison for a crime they didn't commit, Laverne Pavlinac and John 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, which was a detail not released to the press.
As a child, Jesperson was the middle child of 2 brothers, Bruce and Brad, and 2 sisters, Sharon and Jill. Keith was segregated and treated differently by the rest of his family. His father, Leslie (Les) Jesperson, charged Keith room and board, 30 dollars a week, while his brothers and sisters paid nothing. Keith tortured animals and set fire to houses and wooded areas. The Jespersons moved from British Columbia to the United States. In Selah, Washington, Jesperson had trouble fitting in and making friends. His brothers didn't help him, instead they nicknamed him "Igor" or "Ig" and the name stuck throughout high school.
Keith is quoted, as saying...
" It was their fate to die by my hands, like a car accident or illness. "
In November, 2008 Jesperson's daughter, Melissa G. Moore appeared on the Dr. Phil Show to talk about her father. Moore is the author of "Shattered Silence: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer's Daughter". Melissa Moore lived with her father until the divorce in 1990 between Keith Jesperson and her mother Rose. Melissa noticed her dad 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. But one day she watched, horrified, as he hanged her pet kittens from the family's clothes line and beat them. Melissa Moore is the eldest of three children born to Jesperson. She now resides in Spokane, Washington with her husband and two young children.
Keith Hunter Jesperson (born April 6, 1955) is a Canadian-born American serial killer known as the "Happy Face Killer" for the smiley face he drew on his many letters to the media and prosecutors.
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 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 downfall. 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, Hucke decided she had had enough. While Jesperson, a truck driver, was on the road, 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 at 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 later invited her to the house he was renting. The two were intimate before he started 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.
Around 10 pm on Thursday, April 12, 1990, in a shopping center parking lot in Mt. Shasta, California next to the I-5 corridor, Jesperson was approached by an intoxicated woman carrying an infant. Both the woman and child ended up in Jesperson's car where a conversation started. She introduced herself as Jean and the child as her six month old son. Jesperson told her his full name and information about where he worked and where he was headed. The conversation soon turned sexual and they drove to a remote location. During an act of oral sex (while the infant lay in the back seat), Jean stopped and asked to be driven home. Jesperson forced her to finish the act and then attempted to break her neck when she became angry. Failing to break her neck and not wanting to kill the child, Jesperson returned the woman and her child to the shopping center.
Jesperson was arrested at gunpoint in Corning, California soon after; the personal details he revealed had led police straight to him. He was questioned at the scene and then un-cuffed and told to go speak to a detective with the Shasta Police Department, which he immediately did. He was interrogated and claimed her neck getting twisted was simply an accident from the cramped space of the car. He also led them to evidence that supported his version of events, including showing them an empty liquor bottle near the parking lot that he claimed was Jean's. His version was apparently more believable than Jean's and he was released.
Despite that, a charge was filed against him for sexual assault. When he failed to appear in court, a felony warrant was issued. He was later arrested in Iowa, at a weight check station, after they ran his name in the National Crime Information Center database, finding the outstanding warrant from California. However, Shasta County's warrant was too weak, so the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor. After that, "the cost of extradition wasn't worth it", and he was eventually exonerated of all charges.
It was a year and a half 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 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 take a young woman, Angela Surbrize, from Spokane, Washington to Indiana in his truck. 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 longtime girlfriend, Julie Ann Winningham, was only interested in him for money. On March 10, 1995, in Washougal, Washington, Jesperson strangled her. She was the only victim he had a link to, which ultimately led police to his trail.
Jesperson was arrested on March 30, 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"
In the weeks 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 departments 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. 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
JESPERSON, Keith Hunter
The convoluted case of Keith Jesperson, nicknamed the "Happy Face Killer," officially began in Oregon en January 22, 1990. A student from Mt. Hood Community College was bicycling along the Old Scenic Highway, north of Portland, when she spied a woman's corpse lying off to one side.
The victim had been strangled with a rope, still tied around her neck; her bra was pulled up to expose her breasts, pants bunched around her ankles. An autopsy revealed the woman had been sexually assaulted. The victim was identified, through sketches broadcast in the media, as 23-year-old Taunja Bennett, last seen alive by her parents a week before her body was found.
Detectives scoured the bars and truckstops where Bennett was known to spend much of her time. In one café, employees recalled frequent customer john Sosnovske boasting that he had murdered a woman he met in a bar. "He was laughing," a waitress told police. "He thought ¡t was a big joke." Already on probation for drunk driving and driving with a suspended license, Sosnovske was a notorious drinker whose girlfriend Laverne Pavlinac-had a habit of reporting him to the police on phony charges every time they quarreled. Eight months before the murder, in the spring of 1989, she had telephoned the FBI and falsely accused John of robbing banks. When the G-men cleared him, she repeated the accusation to local police.
Pulled in for questioning, Pavllnac accused her husband of Taunja Bennett's murder, and police obtained a search warrant for the couple's home. None of Bennett's missing personal effects were found, as searchers hoped, but they did turn up an envelope addressed to Sosnovske, with "T. Bennett-a Good Piece" written on the back. Sosnovske, for his part, denied killing Taunja or writing the message.
Laverne Pavlinac, meanwhile had radically changed her story. In the first version, john had merely boasted of the murder, spilling enough details that she was convinced of his guilt. In the new tale, Pavlinac admitted watching him rape and kill Tauni a on the night of January 21. It was enough for the authorities; Sosnovske was promptly charged with murder, and Laverne was indicted for aiding him in the crime.
There were problems with the story, even so. Most critically, police had several witnesses who reported seeing Taunja Bennett at a bar in Gresham the night she died, 25 miles from the restaurant where Sosnovske allegedly met her. Taunia had been playing pool, the witnesses said, with two unidentified men-neither of them John Sosnovske.
It made no difference to the jurors who tried Laverne Pavlinac in early 1991: she was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for her alleged role in the crime. Sosnovske still maintained his innocence, but Lavernes conviction unnerved him, and he soon cut a deal with the state, pleading "no contest" to felony murder and kidnapping, accepting a life sentence with parole eligibility after 15 years.
Case closed ... or was it? By the time Sosnovske copped his plea, investigators had already hit another snag. In January, while Laverne Pavllnac was on trial, a message was found written on a men's room wall at the Greyhound bus depot in Livingston, Montana. lt read: "I killed Taunia Bennett January 21, 1990, in Portland, Oregon. 1 beat her to death, raped her and loved ¡t. I'm sick but 1 enjoy myself too. Two people took the blame and I'm free." A few days later, in a truckstop mens room in Umatilla, Oregon, a second message was found: "l killed Taunia Bennett in Portland. Two people got the blame so I can kill again."
Both messages were signed with a "happy face"-a circle with two dots for eyes and a broad crescent smile.
Detectives in Portland theorized that some unknown friend of Sosnovske's wrote the graffiti in an effort to spring john from prison, but the author was untraceable. Then, in 1994, the Portland Oregonian received a letter in the same awkward handwriting, signed with the same smiling face. This time, the author claimed a total of six victims, including five more in Oregon and one in California. "l feel bad," he wrote, " but I will not turn myself in. I am not stupid." The letter went on:
In a lot of opinions I should be killed and I feel I deserve ¡t. My resposiblity [sic] is mine and God will be my judge wben I die. I am telling you this because I will be responsibil [sic] for these crimes and no one else. It all started when I wondered what ¡t would be like to kill someone. And I found out. What a nightmare ¡t has been.
Despite that indication of remorse, the letter closed on an ominous note: "Look over your shoulder. I'm closer than you think."
The apparent author of the "Happy Face" notes was identified in March 1995, shortly after the remains of 41-year-old Julia Ann Winningham were found at a scenic outlook near Washougal, Washington. A former resident of Salt Lake City, Winningham had lately resided in nearby Camas, Washington, before she dropped out of sight; her body was found on March 11. Homicide investigators learned that she had left Utah in the company of 39-year-old Keith Jesperson, a truck driver employed by Systems Transport out of Cheney, Washington.
Picked up for questioning, Jesperson soon confessed his role in a series of murders around the Pacific Northwest-including Taunja Bennett's. Authorities were skeptical until jesperson led them to Bennett's missing purse.
On November 3, 1995, he pled guilty to Bennett's murder and two other Oregon slayings and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment. Media reports claim Jesperson wept with joy when john Sosnovske and Laverne Pavlinac were released from custody on November 27.
By that time, however, Jesperson-or "Face," as he liked to sign his letters from prison-had more pressing matters to worry about. His string of confessions had a price tag attached in the form of subsequent indictments and convictions. A new case had also been opened since his arrest with the September 1995 discovery of a woman's badly decomposed remains along Interstate Highway 80 in Nebraska.
A tattoo and X rays identified the woman as 21-year-old Angela Subrize, an Oklahoma City native last seen alive in Wyoming with Jesperson in January 1995. The trucker, for his part, admitted killing Subrize in Wyoming, afterward tying her corpse beneath his truck and dragging ¡t for "10 or 12 miles" before he finally dumped ¡t after crossing into Nebraska.
Part of the problem for investigators was the ever changing list of Jesperson's confessions. At one point, he allegedly confessed 160 murders, describing his victims as "piles of garbage" dumped on the roadside, but he soon recanted most of the stories. One case he backtracked on was that of Angela Subrize, doubtless influenced by Wyomings expressed intent to indict him on capital charges. He still admitted knowing Angela, even sharing her bed on occasion, but now insisted they had parted company while on the road, Subrize continuing castward on her own to meet her fate at someone else's hands.
Wyoming prosecutors didn't buy the revised version, filing extradition papers with the governor of Oregon in 1997. Jesperson's next ploy was a new confession, this time to the slaying of a fourth Oregon woman, Bend resident Bobbi Crescenzi, killed in 1992. Jack Crescenzi was already serving time for his wifes murder, but jesperson seemed bent on springing him from custody, as he had done with Sosnovske and Pavlinac in the Bennett case.
He hit a snag this time, however, when police tracking his movements were able to rule out any contact between "Face" and the victim. In fact, they charged, a former cellmate had been running interference between jesperson and jack Crescenzi, supplying Keith with details of the crime, Crescenzi offering $10,000 (payable to Jesperson's children) for a confession that would lead to his release.
Exposure of the jailhouse plot led some authorities to question Jesperson's confession in the Bennett case, but his real problem lay in Wyoming. Extradite in December 1997, Jesperson initially boasted of his plan to demolish the prosecution's case by exposing his own prior lies, then switched to yet another angle of attack, confessing once again to the Subrize homicide.
One difference: he had actually killed Subrize in Nebraska, Jesperson now claimed, contesting Wyomings right to try the case at all. When all else failed, he copped another plea on June 3, 1998, admitting the Subrize murder in exchange for another life sentence.
Ever the manipulator, "Face" had barely filed that plea before telling the press he had lied about killing Taunja Bennett. It was good for filler in the papers, but if Jesperson believed ¡t would reverse the Oregon sentence, he was destined for grave disappointment.
Formally sentenced in four cases, he is suspected by authorities of at least four more slayings, including one from 1994 in Okaloosa County, Florida. Closer to home, prosecutors in Riverside County, California, have announced their intent to try Jesperson for a 1992 murder near Blythe, if he ever seems likely to win parole.
Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers
Pacific Northwest serial killer charged in California case
June 15, 2006
SAN JOSE -- A serial killer who stalked the Pacific Northwest was charged with strangling a woman in California in 1993 and dumping her body near a highway overpass.
Keith Hunter Jesperson, 55, was known as the "Happy Face Killer" for drawing happy faces in letters to an Oregon newspaper in which he boasted of his crimes. He is serving two life terms for murders in Oregon and Wyoming.
Santa Clara County prosecutors said Jesperson boasted of the slaying in a 1997 letter, but they withheld filing charges as they tried to determine the victim's identity.
"We knew he wasn't going anywhere," prosecutor David Tomkins said.
Prosecutors said Tuesday they haven't decided whether to pursue the death penalty, adding the decision partially depends on Jesperson's willingness to name the victim, who remains unidentified.
Jesperson claimed he met her at a truck stop, had sex with her and strangled her before driving off.
The body was so badly decomposed that authorities could only determine she was a white woman in her 20s or 30s.
"We're hoping someone out there knows her," Tomkins said. "She deserves a name."
Keith Hunter Jesperson: The Happy Face Killer
by Gary C. King
The First Known Murder
On Tuesday evening, January 23, 1990, pretty 23-year-old Taunja Bennett decided to go out for a few drinks and to hopefully meet up with a few of her friends. It was a cold, damp night, typical weather for that time of year in Portland, Oregon, which could arguably be placed among the top ten rain capitals of the world, and Taunja dressed appropriately.
After grabbing her purse and umbrella, she climbed into her car and drove toward the B & I Tavern, one of her favorite haunts, on Portland, Oregon’s southeast side. Upon her arrival at the tavern, Taunja, unable to make up her mind what she wanted to drink, settled on a beer and then a wine cooler, and continued to switch back and forth between the two drinks as the evening wore on. Before long Taunja, who has been described by family members and friends as mentally slow and slightly retarded, became visibly intoxicated.
At first Taunja never paid much attention to the tall, burly-looking, loud-mouthed man sitting at the bar and, judging from all of his outward appearances, bar patrons would later say that he hadn’t paid much attention to Taunja until later in the evening, after it had become apparent that Taunja was feeling the effect of the alcohol. But he had been watching her all right, mentally making plans for the remainder of the evening.
A little later the man casually walked over to the pool tables area, where Taunja had been watching the players, with a glass of beer in his hand. He introduced himself to her and offered to buy her a drink. She accepted and, unbeknownst to her, had set into motion a series of events that would ultimately end her young life.
The man’s name was Keith Hunter Jesperson, but Taunja may have known him only as Keith or perhaps even by some other name. Jesperson was known to use a number of aliases, often a variation of his real name, and in all likelihood he had used an alias on this particular night. Whatever he had called himself that night, the 35-five-year-old, 6-feet 6-inches tall hulk of a man who weighed in at 240 pounds had made quite an imprint on young impressionable Taunja. She had been easy to befriend. She trusted everyone, and hadn’t yet really learned just how horrible some people can be.
At one point Jesperson excused himself and left the tavern for a while without explaining to Taunja where he was going. When he returned a short time later, he met Taunja outside and offered to buy her dinner. However, when he checked his wallet to see how much money he had left he realized that he didn’t have enough cash to buy himself dinner, much less himself and Taunja.
He told Taunja that he had more money at home, and invited her to accompany him there to get it. Taunja willingly agreed to accompany Jesperson to his residence, located nearby, and when they arrived she followed him inside, unaware that the quest for cash had been merely a ruse to separate her from the tavern and the patrons inside it. Instead of retrieving money to buy dinner, he coaxed her into having sex.
Later, as would become his custom, the pent-up anger that had been seething inside Jesperson for so long made its way to the surface. Even before getting dressed after their sexual tryst, he began taunting Taunja, and before long was making mean, cruel remarks to her, and soon they were into a full-blown argument during which Jesperson, by his own later admission, began striking her.
When Taunja attempted to fight back and defend herself against this giant of a man, Jesperson began to viciously beat her about the face and head. In one swift movement he placed one of his massive hands around her frail neck, and with the other he grabbed a rope. Without even taking the time to think about his actions, Jesperson wrapped the rope around Taunja’s neck and pulled it taught as he strangled her and watched the life slowly leave her body. When she ceased to struggle and her body became limp, he let her partially nude body slump to the floor.
Jesperson didn’t panic after killing Taunja. Leaving her inside the rented house, he drove back to the B&I Tavern and sat around drinking and talking to anyone who would listen to him, presumably to establish an alibi for himself.
After a few more beers, Jesperson drove back to the house and calmly loaded Taunja’s body into the front seat of a friend’s car. Knowing that he had to dispose of the body he drove eastward, past Portland’s city limits, the airport, past Gresham and Troutdale toward the Columbia River Gorge. Sticking to the old highway, which was much darker, far less traveled, and consisted of a series of curves and switchbacks, Jesperson found a suitable place near Crown Point where it was secluded and dark, just the right place to dump a body. He pulled the car over to the side and stopped. It was quiet, and there were no sounds of traffic in the distance. Confident that he was alone, Jesperson pulled Taunja’s body out of the car and tossed it over an embankment of one of the switchbacks, discarding her corpse as if it were a piece of unwanted rubbish.
After discarding Taunja’s body, Jesperson exited the highway and tossed the Walkman she had left inside the car out of the window. He then drove to a truck stop near Troutdale and drank coffee the remainder of the night, yet another attempt to establish an alibi for himself if it turned out that one was needed. Afterward, just after dawn and now wide awake on a caffeine high, Jesperson drove up the Sandy River Highway and flung the contents of Taunja’s purse, which included her Oregon identification, as well as the purse itself, into a brushy area near the river.
Days later a passer-by found Taunja’s body where it had landed in a ditch after tumbling down the embankment. Horrified by the grisly discovery, the passerby notified the police. Photos were taken, the crime scene was processed in the usual manner, and the body was taken to the morgue where it was initially identified only as a Jane Doe.
Taunja’s death didn’t make much news at first in the local newspapers. The articles that first appeared consisted of only a few short paragraphs outlining the discovery of her body and police statements that she was found half-dressed, beaten and strangled to death, that one of her teeth had punctured her lower lip, and the fact that she had a rope around her neck. A description of her physical appearance was also published, and it didn’t take long for her body to be positively identified. The police had no suspects in the case, and for the time being Keith Jesperson was free to roam in his quest for other victims.
A Battered Woman
Meanwhile, armchair detective Laverne Pavlinac, 57, read the news reports surrounding Taunja Bennett’s death with great interest. An avid reader of mysteries and true crime books, as well as a devoted fan of television’s Matlock, Laverne was familiar with police procedures.
As more information became available about Taunja’s murder, Laverne continued to read the newspapers and watch the television news reports, taking in as much information about the case as possible. She eventually decided that Taunja’s case could serve as the perfect vehicle to end her abusive 10-year relationship with her live-in boyfriend, 43-year-old John Sosnovske.
Before she put her plan in motion, Laverne first did her homework and learned that Oregon State Police Detective Alan Corson and Multnomah County Sheriff’s Detective John Ingram were conducting the Taunja Bennett murder investigation. After working out a scenario in her mind, she called the detectives and told them that she had important information about the case. Corson and Ingram, both eager to solve the Bennett case, promptly went to Laverne’s home to hear what she had to say.
By the time the detectives arrived, Laverne thought she had it all figured out, a foolproof way to get Sosnovske out of her life for good even if it meant that she might have to spend some time behind bars too. She told Corson and Ingram of her stormy relationship with Sosnovske, and how she had been roughed up at his hands for years. She also said that she was turning him in for the rape and murder of Taunja Bennett.
The detectives, interested, listened as Laverne told them that she had been forced by Sosnovske to help him rape Taunja Bennett. She explained in seemingly intricate detail about the rape, right down to the placement of the rope around Taunja’s neck and her subsequent strangulation at, she claimed, Sosnovske’s hands. She also told the detectives that Sosnovske had forced her to assist him in disposing of the body and covering up the crime.
Corson and Ingram didn’t know quite what to make of Laverne’s statement. Although eager to close the books on this case, they left Laverne’s home that day without making any arrests, as they needed time to digest what they had been told. They also needed to talk to Sosnovske, and when they did he denied what Laverne had told them and claimed that he was innocent.
Over the next several weeks Corson and Ingram continued to interview Laverne about the case, sometimes of their own initiative and sometimes due to calls that Laverne had made to their offices claiming to have additional information.
On still other occasions the detectives took Laverne out to the Columbia River Gorge to see if she could point out specific locations that only the police and the killer would know about. She did very well and passed the test with regard to where Taunja’s body had been dumped, but she was unable to point out other important things, such as where Taunja’s personal belongings, purse, and so forth might be located.
As the investigation continued, with Laverne and Sosnovske clearly the prime suspects in the case, Corson and Ingram conferred with Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Jim McIntyre and turned over copies of their case materials to the prosecutor. As a result, Laverne and Sosnovske were eventually arrested and charged with Taunja’s death. Although he had originally claimed that he was innocent Sosnovske, facing a possible death penalty, pleaded guilty.
Using Laverne’s detailed confession, McIntyre was instrumental in getting both Laverne and Sosnovske sentenced to prison in February 1991, life for Sosnovske and a minimum of 10 years for Laverne. It turned out to be more than she had bargained for, and before long Laverne began claiming that she had made up the entire story to end her relationship with Sosnovske. However, no one believed her now that she was behind bars.
A Trail of Bodies
Meanwhile, with two people put away for a murder that they didn’t commit, Keith Jesperson remained free to roam the country, trolling for new victims. Born in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Jesperson’s primary ambition in life was to become a policeman; specifically, he wanted more than anything else to become a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
After being accepted into the RCMP program, Jesperson felt that he was well on his way to achieving his dream. However, after sustaining a fall from a rope climbing exercise during RCMP training that severely injured him, he quickly found that his hopes were dashed. Unable to complete his training due to the injury, he was permanently dismissed from the RCMP.
He suddenly felt spurned and deprived, and vowed to himself to get even with a society whose rules barred him from fulfilling his goals. Although he probably didn’t realize it at the time, there was a monster hiding deep inside his psyche, just waiting to be unleashed. At some point after his injury he decided, either consciously or unconsciously, that he would release the monster, ultimately leaving a trail of dead female bodies in its wake.
Keith and his family eventually moved to Washington State and took up residence in a trailer park. Lacking any significant job skills, Keith would later take up truck driving and soon realized that he could do the job and that it would become one that he liked. As it turned out, a long-haul trucking outfit in Cheney, Washington, near Spokane, hired him, and before long he was zigzagging across the U.S., from Washington to Oregon, California, Montana, Nebraska, even New York and Florida and all of the states in between.
After getting his first taste of blood, so to speak, by murdering Taunja Bennett, Jesperson soon found that he had become addicted to killing. Depending on whose account of Jesperson’s activities one chooses to believe, either his own account or official accounts, it appears that Jesperson waited nearly a year and a half before committing his second murder, after which the others appeared to come in rapid succession.
According to Jesperson’s account, the next murder attributed to him occurred sometime in late July or early August 1992. An unidentified woman’s body was found on August 30 that year approximately ten miles north of Blythe, California, and investigators determined that she had been dead for a number of weeks. Labeled a Jane Doe by the police, Jesperson would later tell authorities that her name was “Claudia.”
The following month, the body of Cynthia Lynn Rose, 32, was found along U.S. Highway 99 near Turlock, California. She, too, had been dead for some time, and her death was originally listed as a drug overdose. However, it was about this time that Jesperson began writing letters to the media, particularly to a columnist for The Oregonian newspaper in Portland, Oregon, claiming responsibility for Rose’s murder as well as others.
In one letter he had claimed that Rose was a prostitute he had picked up and murdered. He signed his letters with a smiling “happy face,” and the columnist for The Oregonian quickly dubbed him, for lack of any other name, the “Happy Face Killer.” Although the letters were turned over to the police, there was little for investigators to go on with regard to identifying the letter writer, and Jesperson would maintain his anonymity until 1995.
Laurie Ann Pentland, 26, became the next victim. Laurie’s body was found in November 1992 behind a G.I. Joe’s store in Salem, Oregon, the state’s capitol, about 50 miles south of Portland. Detectives determined that she had been strangled, but were left with no leads as to who her killer might be. However, they would eventually learn that strangulation appeared to be the Happy Face Killer’s preferred method of murder.
The following July, another Jane Doe was found west of Santa Nella, California, on a state highway near a truck turn-out. The woman had been dead for only a couple of days when her body was found, and a county coroner listed her death as a drug overdose. Her case would eventually be reopened and looked at as a homicide after the Happy Face Killer wrote another letter and referred to her as a “street person.”
The remains of what would be known as victim number six on the Happy Face Killer’s list, another Jane Doe, was found more than a year later on September 14, 1994 west of Crestview, Florida along Interstate 10, by a road crew working in the Florida panhandle. The remains consisted of mostly bones of a woman that investigators believe had been approximately 40-years-old at the time of her death.
The following year a detective would begin focusing on Jesperson as a possible suspect, but only after Jesperson claimed victim number eight and following his apprehension. Although homicide detectives had made several attempts at identifying the woman through facial reconstructions, for the time being, as with all of the other as yet unconnected cases, investigators had little to work with aside from the bones. Jesperson, however, would eventually claim that this victim’s name was “Susanne.”
“Somewhere, somebody is missing a daughter, a wife or a sister,” one of the Florida investigators said.
Although her corpse would not be found until September 1995, 21-year-old Angela Subrize of Oklahoma City would become Jesperson’s seventh victim. Until then, few people would realize that Angela was even missing, much less dead, due to the transient lifestyle that she led.
It wasn’t until victim number eight that Jesperson became careless by murdering someone he knew instead of a complete stranger. Julie Ann Winningham, 41, of Camas, Washington, was believed to have been murdered on March 10, 1995, in Washougal, Washington, just a few miles east of Vancouver, Washington.
Like the others, she had been strangled and her nude body had been dumped over an embankment alongside state Highway 14 just east of the Clark and Skamania County line. Unlike the others, Julie’s friends and relatives knew that she had been seeing Jesperson and provided the first valuable link, his name, that would aid investigators in apprehending one of the most notorious serial killers of the past decade.
Detective Rick Buckner Enters the Case
Seasoned Clark County, Washington Sheriff’s Department Detective Rick Buckner, well known for his role in the Westley Allan Dodd child murders investigation a few years earlier, caught the Julie Ann Winningham case assignment. Buckner initially learned that Winningham was a Camas resident who had relocated to Utah for a while after breaking up with her truck driver husband. According to those he interviewed, she returned to Camas in February 1995 with a man named Keith Jesperson, who she referred to as her fiancé.
According to the information that Buckner uncovered, Winningham apparently met Jesperson at a truck stop in Utah and had hitched a ride with him back to Washington. A number of her acquaintances told Buckner that Jesperson was a “big guy,” and some described him as a “giant” and a “Baby Huey type” person.
Buckner also learned that Jesperson had no criminal record in the State of Washington. He learned that Jesperson had married a woman named Rose in 1986, and they had three children. The only records that turned up in his search for information about Jesperson were court records from Yakima County that showed that he and Rose had divorced in 1990.
It didn’t take long for Buckner to learn of the Cheney trucking company for which Jesperson worked. Company officials told Buckner that he traveled all over the country, and in the days immediately following Winningham’s death he was on the road to Pennsylvania. The company officials provided Buckner with Jesperson’s travel itinerary back toward the West Coast, a route that would take him through Texas, New Mexico and eventually to Arizona.
By Wednesday, March 22, 1995, Buckner had traced Jesperson to Las Cruces, New Mexico, a city located in the southern part of the state near the Mexican border. With the help of sheriff’s deputies in Las Cruces, Buckner and another detective detained Jesperson for more than six hours and questioned him about the murder of Julie Winningham.
By Jesperson’s own account, Buckner and the other detective tried to get Jesperson to confess to Winningham’s murder, but he wouldn’t talk. Jesperson would later say that they kept asking him if he wanted to talk about it or if he desired an attorney present during the questioning, and when he said that he did in fact want an attorney they asked him why he needed one, whether he had done something that required a lawyer’s assistance. Since he wouldn’t talk and lacking any concrete evidence to arrest him, the detectives had no choice but to release him. Afterward, Jesperson immediately headed for Arizona and Buckner returned to Washington.
While in southern Arizona, Jesperson attempted to assign some kind of reason to the murders of the women he had killed, or so he claimed. Unable to do so, he claims that he made two attempts at suicide, the first on the evening of March 22 and the second attempt the following evening, each time overdosing himself on over-the-counter sleeping pills. Each time, he said, his body had rejected the sleep aids.
On March 24, after apparently deciding that the cops would nail him for Julie Winningham’s murder and that he might fare considerably better with the judicial system if he turned himself in, Jesperson wrote two letters, one to his children and one to his brother. The letter to his brother, in part, read:
“Seems like my luck has run out. I will never be able to enjoy life on the outside again. I got into a bad situation and got caught up with emotion. I killed a woman in my truck during an argument. With all the evidence against me it looks like I truly am a black sheep. The court will appoint me a lawyer and there will be a trial. I am sure they will kill me for this.
“I am sorry that I turned out this way. I have been a killer for five years and have killed eight people, assaulted more. I guess I haven’t learned anything.
“Dad always has worried about me because of what I have gone through in the divorce, finances, etc. I have been taking it out on different people…As I saw it, I was hoping they would catch me. I took forty-eight sleeping pills last night, and I woke up well rested. The night before, I took two bottles of pills to no avail. They will arrest me today.”
Later that same night after dropping the letters he had written into the mail, Jesperson called Detective Buckner from Cochise County, Arizona and confessed to the murder of Julie Ann Winningham. According to Jesperson, he confessed to Winningham’s murder because he knew that he would either be sentenced to life in prison or executed, and in either case he would no longer be in a position where he could kill another woman.
Six days later, Rick Buckner flew to Arizona to take Jesperson into his custody and return him to Washington State where he would be formally charged with Winningham’s murder. According to what Jesperson would later write, Buckner purportedly told him: “Westley Allan Dodd once wore those same cuffs.” Jesperson said in his writings that he thought to himself after Buckner’s purported remarks: “If he only knew what was in them now, he would faint.”
When he arrived in Washington, Jesperson called his brother and instructed him to destroy the letter that he had sent him. However, on the advice of a lawyer and Jesperson’s father, his brother decided to turn the letter over to the police because they felt it was unlawful to hold onto or destroy evidence. Shortly after it was turned over to the police, the letter was published by a number of newspapers.
Meanwhile, Buckner began transmitting information about Jesperson to law enforcement agencies around the nation. He provided information about Jesperson’s confession and the letter that he had written to his brother, and inquired whether there were any jurisdictions that had any unsolved homicides that might fit into Jesperson’s travel itineraries. Within days Buckner’s office received 16 responses from law enforcement agencies as far away as New York and Florida, and the process of examining unsolved homicides in a number of states had begun.
In addition to Jesperson’s routes of travel, investigators took another look at the physical evidence that had been collected from a number of crime scenes involving murdered women, including bodily fluids for DNA analysis for a possible match to Jesperson.
Focusing on female homicide victims found along major roadways and near truck stops, authorities in Oregon, Nevada and Utah were among the first to begin reexamining their open cases. Of particular interest to investigators in Oregon was an unsolved case involving a woman who disappeared from the vicinity of a truck stop in the Wilsonville area in the northern part of the state in August 1994 and whose body was eventually found along a highway near Medford in southern Oregon in March 1995, shortly after Jesperson’s arrest.
Authorities in Utah and the Great Basin area of Northeastern Nevada also reexamined several unsolved homicides involving women to see if Jesperson somehow fit into the scheme of things. Although their gut instinct told them that Jesperson was probably their killer in a number of the cases they reexamined, they lacked sufficient evidence to bring any charges against him.
Bashing Gophers and Slaughtering Cats and Dogs
Buckner learned that by the time Keith Jesperson was six, he had gotten his first taste of killing living things by bashing in the heads of gophers while still in British Columbia. By the time he was twenty, while living with his parents in the Washington State trailer park, Keith got his first taste of killing larger animals when he began dragging stray dogs and cats into a field near the park where he would beat them to death with a shovel, strangle them with his bare hands, or shoot them with his BB gun. He discovered that he enjoyed it.
“I was Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Jesperson bragged to a reporter. “It was like I was playing war. When I looked at those dogs, they would squat and pee. They’d be so scared that they’d tremble.” By his own admission, Jesperson enjoyed the fear he instilled in these animals, and took great pleasure in watching and feeling the life literally drain out of the animals until they succumbed to death.
“You come to the point where killing something is nothing,” Jesperson said. “It’s the same feeling,” he said, whether he was strangling a human being or an animal. “You’ve already felt the pressure on the throat of them trying to grab air. You’re actually squeezing the life out of these animals and there isn’t much difference. They’re gonna fight for their lives just as much as a human being will.”
Nowadays, it’s no secret that those who have shown a propensity toward animal violence and abuse during their younger years sometimes move on to more violent crimes later on in life that are directed at human beings.
“It’s in the crime journals of all major law enforcement agencies,” Jesperson once wrote from his prison cell at Oregon State Penitentiary, where he eventually became a permanent resident. “Abusive behavior towards animals is one of the symptoms on the road to being a murderer.”
He wrote that it was in his early childhood that his aggression toward animals began, and explained that his father once witnessed him throw a cat against the pavement and finish it off by strangling it to death. Jesperson wrote that his father had appeared proud of how he had dealt with the cat, and bragged to others about how Keith had gotten rid of the stray cats and dogs in the mobile home park where they lived.
“All this did is spawn in me the urge to kill again,” Jesperson said. “I began to think of what it would be like to kill a human being. The thought stayed with me for years, until one night it happened. I killed a woman by beating her almost to death and finished her off by strangulation,” he said, explaining how he killed Taunja Bennett. “No longer did I search for animals to mistreat. I now looked for people to kill. And I did. I killed over and over until I was caught. Now I’m paying for it with the rest of my life behind bars. We should stop the cruelty to anything before it develops into a bigger problem, like me.”
Jesperson was clearly making an attempt to convince the public to buy into the idea that a compassionate side to him existed where, of course, none did. During his many letter-writing campaigns to reporters and writers with web sites, Jesperson ran the gamut of trying to present different sides to his personality.
In one letter he might write about his compassionate side, and in another he would refer to roadside victims as “piles of garbage” and attempt to place doubt in the public and law enforcement’s eyes that he was the killer but had, instead, merely only stumbled onto someone else’s “garbage” only to have a murder unfairly pinned on him after reporting finding the roadside bodies. In yet other letters he would write about offering a “Self-Start Serial Killer Kit,” such as the following, an obvious attempt at sick humor and sarcasm:
“This is the offer you all have been dying for! The Self-Start Serial Killer Kit. Now you can be the only serial killer on your block…learn from a professional serial killer! Get rid of that unwanted family member! Get that job you always wanted by opening up the slot…Everyone will be dying to meet you…You get a full life Julie Winningham Look-alike Doll with an extra tough spring-back neck, so you will soon have the strength to squeeze the shit out of anyone….”
“I enjoy screwing with the press and prosecutors, through the press,” Jesperson once told a reporter. “I do what has to be done to get results….” Often, as will be seen, the results that he often looked for was avoiding receiving a death sentence.
The Murder of Angela Subrize
While Jesperson sat in the Clark County Jail for the murder of Julie Winningham, he began talking to his attorney, Thomas Phelan, about other crimes that he had committed. The conversation began when Phelan asked Jesperson about the letter that he had sent to his brother, which had been turned over to the police.
In “an adrenaline scared rush,” Jesperson began telling his innermost secrets to the attorney when he realized that he would be labeled a serial killer after the police linked him to additional killings. One of those cases involved the murder of 21-year-old Angela Subrize. Against legal advice to keep his mouth shut, Jesperson decided to tell his account of Angela’s murder to other inmates who, in turn, reported what he had said to authorities.
Clark County investigators relayed the information to their counterparts in Wyoming and Nebraska. Later, Jesperson would also talk to investigators about Angela’s killing as well as others, and would detail his accounts in his letter writing campaign and Internet postings made possible through the help of people willing to post his writings on their websites.
According to Jesperson’s account, he picked up Angela Subrize near Spokane, Washington in January 1995 and had agreed to give her a ride to Fort Collins, Colorado, to see her father. At one point along the way they stopped so that she could call her dad who, Jesperson would later claim, told her that he didn’t want to see her and to stay away. Afterward, Angela changed her mind about going to Fort Collins and asked Jesperson to take her to Indiana instead to visit a friend.
“In a rage, I murdered her in Wyoming,” Jesperson said.
Jesperson went on to explain that he became enraged when Angela would not let him sleep when they had stopped at a truck stop just east of Cheyenne, Wyoming. She kept “bitching” at him to keep driving in bad weather, and he ended up strangling her by placing his fist tightly against her throat. Afterward, he went back to sleep.
When he awoke about three hours later, he drove on into Nebraska and pulled off into a rest area where he bound her body with black nylon rope and secured it face down beneath his rig. He dragged her body along the pavement for about ten to twelve miles, until it became loose. He then untied her body and threw it into a ditch situated about 75 feet off Interstate 80, some 250 miles east of the truck stop where he’d killed her. The nylon rope was still attached to her ankles.
Sergeant Terry Bohlig of the Laramie County, Wyoming Sheriff’s Department, caught the assignment in that jurisdiction since it was believed that Angela had been killed in Wyoming. Bohlig learned that Angela had led a transient lifestyle, and as such had not been reported missing by family members. Bohlig, however, eventually located her father by examining phone calls charged to a credit card believed to have belonged to Jesperson’s brother.
As spring slowly turned into summer and summer just as slowly made its way into autumn, Keith Jesperson sat in jail in Washington with little else to do except to think about his crimes and make plans on how he might manipulate the system to his benefit as prosecutors built their case against him for the murder of Julie Ann Winningham. Similarly, authorities from Wyoming confronted him with what little evidence and information they had regarding Angela Subrize.
At one point they showed him a photo of her in which he identified Angela as the person that he had picked up and killed. He also told the investigators about a significant detail that would leave little doubt in their minds that he was, for reasons known only to him, being truthful with them regarding Angela. He said that she had a tattoo of the cartoon character Tweety Bird on one of her ankles in which Tweety was making an obscene gesture with one of its hands.
In September 1995, based on “specific and accurate” information from Jesperson relayed by Clark County, Washington investigators to their counterparts in Nebraska, a Nebraska highway patrolman found Angela’s remains lying near the shoulder of Interstate 80 near Gothenberg, a small town of 3,200 residents located near the South Platte River, where it had been lying in tall grass for several months, probably since early January.
Badly decomposed, most of her skin had decayed and investigators were able to identify her only after examining pelvic x-rays and finding the tattoo of Tweety Bird that was still visible on one of her ankles, one of only a few identifying marks that remained on her body.
As the Wyoming investigators continued to systematically build their case against Jesperson, one in which they hoped would eventually bring him the death penalty, Jesperson continued making plans of his own on how to manipulate the system to his benefit. Nonetheless, Jesperson was soon charged with Angela’s murder, and Wyoming prosecutors promptly rejected an offer by his attorney for him to provide information in exchange for an agreement from Wyoming not to seek the death penalty.
Meanwhile, investigators in Washington, California and Oregon went to work examining Jesperson’s handwriting. Because of the comments that he had been making to other inmates and due to the letter that he had written to his brother, the investigators wanted to determine if Jesperson was the same person who had written the letters to The Oregonian columnist claiming to have killed three women in California and two in Oregon.
Using the letter that he wrote to his brother claiming to have killed eight women over a five year period, the investigators saw similarities, not only in the handwriting but in the crimes themselves. Regarding one of the California victims, the Happy Face Killer wrote that he had used duct tape to bind her hands and feet, a fact that was never released to the public. Investigators also found duct tape near her body.
Similarly, in statements he made to the police, Jesperson claimed to have taped Julie Winningham’s mouth shut with duct tape. But there were discrepancies in the letters as well. In one Happy Face Killer letter, the writer claimed to have quit long-haul truck driving and was instead employed as a driver “where I am in the public eye and out of harm’s way…I got away from what became easy. I do not want to kill again.”
Yet another similarity in the letter writing between Jesperson and the Happy Face Killer appeared when Jesperson wrote a letter to The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Washington, and had it smuggled out of the jail.
In that letter he again alluded to a desire to be caught so that he would not kill again, and stated: “I know what I’ve done has been wrong, and I feel sorry for all the families of my victims…I am in fact the Happy Face Killer…I created that man because I wanted to be stopped, but it is hard to just come out and say it…I have prayed many nights in this cold dark prison cell for the answer and God has told me to come clear with it all, tell the truth about everything. I will not be happy until I am replacing that man (Sosnovske) in the Oregon State Penitentiary for the crime I did and he goes free…Most people will say that I am a monster! I am not a monster! Just like the movie, Jurassic Park, I was created by people….”
Jesperson’s comments about Sosnovske and their obvious relevance to the Taunja Bennett case naturally shocked the investigators, especially detectives Corson and Ingram and prosecutor McIntyre who were responsible for putting Sosnovske and Pavlinac behind bars. His comments marked the first time that anyone had sown any seeds of doubt that the right suspects had been prosecuted.
Naturally, all those involved were inclined to believe that Jesperson was lying and that they had convicted the right people for Bennett’s murder.
“As soon as I feel we have the wrong people in jail, you’ll probably catch me going to Salem to get them out,” Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk said of Jesperson’s remarks. In the meantime, Jesperson’s attorney went to work setting up a plea-bargain agreement between the state of Oregon and Jesperson regarding Bennett’s murder.
In writing the letter to The Columbian Jesperson realized that he would need the help of public opinion if he were going to be able to convince the authorities that he had killed Taunja Bennett. When one looks at Keith Jesperson’s case as a whole, it becomes easier to see that his motivation for confessing to Taunja’s murder was not so much out of a desire to come clean, or that he was being sympathetic or empathic, but was in all likelihood motivated more out of his desire for self preservation. Jesperson knew that if extradited to Wyoming, he would face a potential death penalty for the murder of Angela Subrize.
However, if he were able to confess to Taunja Bennett’s murder and be sentenced to death in Oregon, a state where a death sentence hasn’t been carried out since the early 1960s, he knew that he could at the very least postpone any actions that Wyoming might be able to carry out against him. It was even likely that Oregon would not sentence him to death but would give him life in prison instead if his attorney was successful in working out a plea agreement. At any rate, he would later reveal that his reasoning had been that his confession and subsequent sentence in Oregon would make it ultimately more difficult for Wyoming to get its hands on him.
The press appeared more than eager to help out as reporters from a number of newspapers contacted Jesperson about the claims he was making. He told them that Laverne Pavlinac and John Sosnovske were innocent and had been sent to prison for a crime that he had committed.
According to Jesperson, the police did not believe him at first and insisted that they had the right people in jail for Bennett’s murder. It wasn’t until he insisted that he could lead them to the location of Taunja’s purse and Oregon identification card, something that Laverne Pavlinac had been unable to do, that they began to show interest.
It wasn’t until after Jesperson had led the detectives to those critical pieces of evidence lying behind a bush near the Sandy River that they began to believe him. When taken to the location where Bennett’s body was found, he provided them with information about the body and its position, details that no one other than the killer and the cops could know.
Adding credence to what Jesperson had provided them, Jesperson told the investigators to review his lawyer’s notes that had been compiled in May 1995 before the press or anyone else had any idea that Jesperson might be the Happy Face Killer, who had written intimate details about the case to The Oregonian. Jesperson, through his attorney, indicated that he was willing to plead no contest to the murder of Taunja Bennett.
In the meantime it was agreed that Laverne Pavlinac and Keith Jesperson would undergo polygraph examinations, which would be administered by the FBI. The results of the polygraph tests indicated that Pavlinac was being truthful in her denials that she had killed Bennett, and that Jesperson was being truthful in his claims of being the killer. The results of the tests also showed that Jesperson and Pavlinac did not know each other.
Based on the new information, Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk filed a motion in Marion County, where the Oregon State Penitentiary is located, asking for the immediate release of Pavlinac and Sosnovske. Schrunk told Presiding Marion County Circuit Judge Paul Lipscomb that Pavlinac and Sosnovske had served more than four years in prison for a crime that they didn’t commit.
He also outlined the evidence that Jesperson had provided. However, Lipscomb refused to immediately release the couple. Instead, the judge said that he would consider an evidentiary hearing after Jesperson entered his plea in which Jesperson could testify on behalf of Pavlinac and Sosnovske.
“It’s extraordinary,” Schrunk said afterward. “You don’t see prosecutors doing this all the time. It’s the appropriate thing to do under the appropriate circumstances.” He emphasized that there were no improprieties on the part of the judge, jury or lawyers when Pavlinac and Sosnovske were convicted. “The evidence they had at the time was ample evidence to convict.”
“There are a lot of dynamics to this case and you would have to have been there to understand,” Deputy District Attorney James McIntyre said. McIntyre, who prosecuted the case, said that he did not owe anyone an apology for having prosecuted a case that sent two innocent people to prison. “What I will say is that based upon the evidence we discovered in interviewing Jesperson, we couldn’t have obtained these convictions….”
Pavlinac’s family, meanwhile, remained hopeful that the judge would do the right thing and release Pavlinac and Sosnovske from prison.
“We’re happy, but not happy enough,” one of Pavlinac’s relatives said after Lipscomb’s decision. “We need the release order signed before we get real happy…the case should have never gone to trial. If the jury had heard the whole truth, they would have never been convicted…She (Laverne) always read mystery books and murder books. She read in the paper that this girl had been murdered and that the police didn’t have a suspect. So she gave them a suspect.”
In the meantime, while Jesperson waited to enter his plea for murdering Taunja Bennett and as the State of Wyoming continued building its case against him for the murder of Angela Subrize, Jesperson continued his many contacts with the news media, claiming responsibility for the murders of a number of other women.
After Bennett, Jesperson said: “There was Claudia, a girl wanting a ride to Phoenix, Arizona with me. She tried to extort my wallet from me and died trying. Then there was Cynthia Lynn Rose, a prostitute working the south bound rest area on Highway 99 near Turlock, California. Then Laurie Ann Pentland, a prostitute working the Burns Brothers truck stop in Wilsonville, Oregon. Then a Jane Doe prostitute working the Petro truck stop in Corning, California. Then a woman I gave a ride to in Florida going to Lake Tahoe, Nevada. She called herself Susanna….”
Jesperson also claimed that he was responsible for the murders of the following women: “Bobbie” in Oregon, October 27, 1992; “Lynn” in Nevada, January 1993; “Susan” in Oklahoma, January 1993; “Linda” in Washington, March 1993; “Sunny” in Arizona, April 1993; “Jane Doe” in Idaho, April 1993; “Jane Doe” in California, May 1993; “Jane Doe” in California, July 1993; “Jane Doe” in Arizona, September 1993; “Carrie” in Idaho, November 1993; “Karen” in Georgia, February 1994; “Carol” in Nevada, February 1994; “Jane Doe” in Nebraska, October 1994; “Jane Doe” in Iowa, February 1995; and “Jane Doe” in Indiana, February 1995.
There were others that he could not name or provide a location for. All in all, he said, he was responsible for at least 160 slayings across the United States. Jesperson told the media that he was admitting to all of these murders because he was bothered by his guilty conscience. However, like Henry Lee Lucas before him, Jesperson would later recant most of the confessions.
Jesperson the Liar
At one point, according to an account by the Happy Face Killer himself, Jesperson was visited by investigators from what was then left of the Green River Killer Task Force wanting to know if he was responsible for any of the still unsolved killings in their jurisdiction. Since many of Jesperson’s victims were known prostitutes and strangulation was his preferred method of murder, Jesperson naturally looked like a feasible candidate in at least some of the Green River killings.
The fact that he was trucking in and out of Seattle and the surrounding areas on an almost daily basis in the early-to-mid 1980s hauling flatbeds of scrap steel into the steel mills of Seattle and Tacoma made him look even more viable as a suspect. Jesperson, in his own words, claimed that he told the following story to an unnamed investigator from the Green River Task Force:
“One day they had me in a room and told me to tell them about Seattle. They have reason to believe that I am one of the killers that is responsible for some of the Green River murders. They still believe this but are waiting for more information to flow through my lips on the subject. Thinking for only five minutes, I thought up this story to tell them to throw them off. But it backfired instead. The story involved two sisters, and the police had never mentioned to the press that two sisters had become victims of the Green River Killer….
“It was about 8:00 p.m. as I drove north up the (Seattle-Tacoma) Strip…instead of taking Intersate 5…this roadway is full of hitchhikers and hookers at this time of night…I was eyeing two cute hookers as they talked at a bus stop. Both were good lookers but I wanted one by herself. About a quarter of a mile up the road I spotted a bitch walking fast up the sidewalk.
Her hips were swinging from side-to-side, and she had nice long legs that climbed up to her butt. Her body was slender and firm. She seemed to be in a hurry. As I was approaching her at 35 miles per hour, I thought for just a moment about her but knew I first had to get the rest of my steel on. Fun will come later.
“She reached the bus stop before I got there,” Jesperson continued, “and without looking out for traffic, she stepped right out in front of me. With a car passing me on my left, I could only brake to hope from hitting her. I heard the impact as her body struck my bumper and felt her tumble under my tires. I had managed to stop the truck quickly and with the emergency flashers going, I stepped out of the truck a little shaken. I had stopped the truck and her body was still under my trailer. She was dead, and I looked around for witnesses. But there were none and the traffic was little to none. No one had witnessed the accident. I felt I could get away with it, if only I could get her body away from there. So I dragged her body out from under the trailer and placed her in the cab of the 1964 Kenworth and got in and drove north up the Strip for a half-mile. On the right was an open field with tall trees and enough brush to hide behind to dig her a shallow grave.”
As he continued his tale, Jesperson told of how he had grabbed his shovel after throwing the dead woman over his shoulder. He carried her back into the field, tossed her body on the ground and removed all of her jewelry, placing it inside his pocket, he claimed. As he dug her grave, he explained that he heard something or someone coming toward him. Not wishing to be seen, he knelt down and watched.
The man, like Jesperson, was carrying a body, but his was inside a black plastic bag. He placed it on the ground and proceeded to dig a grave nearby as Jesperson watched. Jesperson said he decided to approach the man, and startled him as he did so.
“I was about done when I saw you walking towards me,” Jesperson said he told the man. “I couldn’t help but be amazed that two of us had to get rid of two bodies at the same time. Now that I know what you came out here for, I will get back to what I was doing….”
After they had both buried the bodies in the field, said Jesperson, the two of them decided to stop at a restaurant and have coffee together.
“I couldn’t help but notice that yours and mine looked a lot alike,” Jesperson said he told the man. “They had the same features. Only difference was the necklace I took off mine…I pulled the jewelry from my pocket and placed it on the table. He picked up the jewelry and studied it and…a tear came to his eyes.” Jesperson said he asked the man what was wrong.
“It seems we have a lot more in common than just burying two girls at the same time,” Jesperson said the man told him. “We both have killed identical twins. Yours is the sister to mine.”
The foregoing story was obviously a fabrication concocted by Jesperson’s imagination. It serves as a good example of his ability to lie easily and quickly, without giving much advance thought to the process. According to profiler and serial killer expert Dr. Maurice Godwin, who often works closely with law enforcement investigations to assist the police with his expertise, there were no sisters as victims in the Green River case.
In fact, Jesperson later proudly proclaimed that he had made it all up. Interestingly, in his “I Am A Liar” essay that was published widely on the Internet, he also denied most, if not all, of his prior admissions of guilt.
The Green River Task Force seemed to quickly lose interest in him after his telling of the tale of two sisters, but it remains interesting that he would choose to identify so closely with a case involving so many victims whose deaths, at least in some cases, closely parallel those of his own known victims.
When taking into consideration the outdoor locations of the Green River crime scenes, the nude bodies, strangulation as the cause of death, prostitutes and transient types as victims, and so forth, and when making a comparison to Jesperson’s victims and crime scenes, one can only wonder if Jesperson had in reality committed any of the murders attributed to the Green River Killer. So far, however, he has not been charged nor has he been listed as an official suspect in connection with any of those murders.
In October 1995, just before his trial was slated to begin, Keith Jesperson pleaded guilty to the murder of Julie Ann Winningham before Clark County, Washington Superior Court Judge Robert L. Harris. Harris, the same judge who presided over the Westley Allan Dodd case, would sentence Jesperson to life in prison in December following proceedings in Oregon.
Meanwhile, Jesperson waived extradition from Clark County and was transferred to Oregon. On Thursday, November 2, 1995, after waiving all of his rights, he entered a no contest plea before Multnomah County Presiding Judge Donald H. Londer for the murder of Taunja Bennett. Londer immediately sentenced Jesperson to life in prison, setting a minimum 30-year prison term before being eligible for parole.
Londer’s sentence, in effect, gave Jesperson what he wanted, namely prison time in Oregon. Proceedings elsewhere would require extradition, meaning considerable expense and a lot of red tape. The Oregon sentence made potential death penalties in other states less likely, and Jesperson knew it. The no contest plea and subsequent sentence also set the final wheels for Pavlinac and Sosnovske’s release from prison into motion.
However, there was another Oregon case involving Jesperson that had to be dealt with in the meantime, the murder of 23-year-old Laurie Ann Pentland. According to the Marion County District Attorney’s office, investigators linked Jesperson to Pentland’s murder through “DNA and other forensic evidence” after learning that Jesperson was the Happy Face Killer.
Jesperson had written letters as the Happy Face Killer after Pentland’s murder claiming responsibility for her death and had said that she was an acquaintance that he had contacted via citizens band radio while in the Salem area. In one of the letters he said that he’d had sex with her several times.
“I felt so much power,” he had written as the Happy Face Killer. “I then told her she was going to die and slowly strangled her.”
Jesperson was again sentenced to life in prison in Oregon, with a 30-year minimum term before parole eligibility. Following his sentencing in Washington he was transferred to the Oregon State Penitentiary to begin serving consecutive sentences. If he remains alive to complete his sentences in Oregon, he will be transferred to the Washington State Penitentiary to begin serving his life sentence there.
On November 27, 1995, after serving more than four years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, Laverne Pavlinac and John Sosnovske were released from prison. Jesperson purportedly cried when he learned of their release. It wasn’t known, however, whether his tears were tears of happiness for the couple or tears of regret for having confessed to a murder that he knew he could have gotten away with.
More than two years later and considerable legal wrangling, the State of Wyoming finally succeeded in extraditing Jesperson for trial for the murder of Angela Subrize. For the next few months as prosecutors prepared to go to trial, Jesperson taunted the authorities and threatened to force a costly trial by changing his story regarding the jurisdiction in which he had killed Angela. At one point he said that he had killed her in Wyoming, and at another point he claimed that he had killed her in Nebraska.
After going back and forth for some time surrounding Jesperson’s deliberate misleading statements in his attempt to confuse authorities on who had jurisdiction to prosecute him, a deal was worked out. Jesperson agreed to plead guilty to murdering Angela Subrize in Wyoming if Laramie County prosecutors would agree to not seek the death penalty against him.
As a result, on June 3, 1998, District Judge Nicholas Kalokathis sentenced Jesperson to life in prison and ordered that the sentence run consecutive to the two life sentences in Oregon and the life sentence in Washington, leaving little doubt that he would die in prison. Afterward, he was promptly returned to the Oregon State Penitentiary.
It remains to be seen whether any other jurisdictions, such as the states of Florida or California, will prosecute Jesperson for murders that he confessed to in those states.