This is the first in TrueCrime365’s Zodiac Killers Series for the sign of Aries. In this series, we will be looking at a serial killer for each zodiac sign, which they belong to. This is the story of the Happy Face Killer.
B & I Tavern. Portland, Oregon, United States. January 23, 1990.
23-year-old Taunja Bennett heads to a local bar, B & I Tavern, hoping to meet with some friends. It’s a rainy cold night, so she grabs an umbrella and heads out alone. When she arrives, she grabs a drink at the bar. She switches between beer and wine coolers as the night goes on. she meets a group of men and plays a game of pool with them. One of the men strikes up a conversation with her and asks her to go get some dinner with him. He’s tall, burly and loud-mouthed. In his mid-thirties and standing at 6 foot 7, he was an intimating figure. Taunja is described by her family to be mentally slow. She agrees to go home with the stranger, under the impression they were stopping off to get some money for dinner.
Upon arrival at the man’s home, he attempts to initiate sex with her, but she refuses. The man becomes irate, abusing her with cruel words and taunts before striking and beating her. His anger overpowered him as he grabbed a rope and swiftly wrapped it around Taunja’s neck, choking her. Her body remained in the man’s rented home as he returned to the bar to cement an alibi. A few days later, Taunja’s body is found near Crown Point. She’s half-dressed, badly beaten and strangled, one of her teeth had gone through her bottom lip. There were no leads as to who could do this to her, and her killer was already long gone.
An Unlikely Confession. 1990.
It seemed that the murder wasn’t long for the open case files as Laverne Pavlinac, a woman in a physically abusive relationship, calls the police to report that her boyfriend committed the murders. Laverne meets with police and gives a confession, stating that her longtime live-in boyfriend, John Sosnovske, forced her to help cover the murder. However, the confession was false. Pavlinac saw the murder as an opportunity to rid herself of her abusive relationship. The confession she gave contained details of the murder she read in the paper. In February 1991, both Pavlinac and Sosnovske are convicted of murder. Sosnovske pleads guilty to avoid the death penalty. Pavlinac gets no less than 10 years and soon recants, claiming her confession was fake. But no one listens, and the real killer still remains at large.
The real killer was frustrated someone else had taken the credit for his crimes. So much so he wrote a confession on a truck-stop wall, signing it with a smiley face, but no attention was paid to the writing on the wall. He carried on, leaving the truck stop to his next victim.
Washougal, Washington, United States. March 10, 1995.
Five years after the murder of Taunja Bennett, Julie Ann Winningham is strangled to death by her boyfriend, Keith Hunter Jesperson. The investigation into Jesperson reveals more than investigators could have ever anticipated.
Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. April 6, 1955.
Les and Gladys Jesperson welcome their son, Keith Hunter Jesperson, into the world. Jesperson is the middle child of two brothers and two sisters. Les was a violent alcoholic who abused his family. Jesperson was a big kid and was teased due to his size. He was abused at home and bullied at school. He felt like an outcast his entire life. Jesperson took to torturing and abusing animals at a young age, a common characteristic of future violent offenders. At some point, his family made the move to Selah, Washington, but his troubles didn’t stop there. Jesperson still struggled to fit in due to his size. His brothers didn’t help, they gave him the nickname “Igor”, which stuck throughout high school.
Throughout his youth, his violent behaviour got him into strife, having attempting to kill two kids who crossed him. At 10-years-old, Jesperson attempted to beat his friend, a boy called Martin, to death but was stopped by the boy’s father. The other attempt came after one of his intended victims held his head underwater at the local lake. Sometime later, Jesperson saw the same boy at the public pool. He held the boys head underwater, waiting for him to drown. He would’ve succeeded if the Life Guard didn’t pull him away. He was 11-years-old. Whenever Jesperson would misbehave, his father would beat him with a belt and on one occasion, his father gave him an electric shock. Despite this, Jesperson went on to graduate from high school and in 1974 he secured a job as a truck driver. The year after, he was married to Rose Hucke. They went on to have three children, two girls and a boy. It seemed Jesperson had turned his life around, he even had a dream to join the Royal Canadian Mounted Policemen.
Although Jesperson wasn’t exactly a great husband to Rose, he was never violent or abusive. In saying that, they had their issues and Jesperson did cheat on her multiple times, leading to their divorce in 1990. Around the same time, Jesperson suffered an injury during his training that ended his chances of joining the police. He returned to truck driving, his was marriage over and his dreams squashed. It was in January 1990, that he met a drunk Taunja Bennett at B & I Tavern in Portland, Oregon.
In Washougal, Washington, on March 10, 1995, Jesperson comes to the conclusion that his girlfriend, Julie Winningham is only interested in him for his money. He strangles her in a fit of rage. Of course, he’s the prime suspect in his girlfriend’s murder but the police have no grounds on which to arrest him as he refused to talk to the police. Jesperson wrote his brother a letter, confessing to eight murders as well as the murder he was already suspected for. Jesperson knew his time as a free man was running out, attempting suicide twice before deciding to turn himself in for Julie’s murder. On March 30, he was arrested, confessing to the murder of his girlfriend and revealing to police a series of unsolved slayings.
A Trail of Corpses. 1992-1995.
In Blythe, California, August 30, 1992, Two years after the Jesperson’s first murder, a woman was found raped and murdered. The woman is still unidentified. Later accounts from Jesperson would refer to her as Claudia, but this confession is the only link they have to the other murders, as she is still a Jane Doe.
A month later in Turlock, California the body of 32-year-old Cynthia Lyn Rose, a sex worker, is discovered.
November 1992, the body of Laurie Ann Pentland, another sex worker from Salem, Oregon is found.
In June 1993, another unidentified victim is discovered in Santa Nella, California. Her death was originally believed to be from a drug overdose, but Jesperson confesses she is his third victim. He claims her name was Carla or Cindy.
In September 1994, yet another Jane Doe is found in Crestview, Florida. Jesperson said her name is Susanne.
In January 1995, Jesperson meets a woman named Angela Surbrize and agrees to give her a lift in his truck from Spokane to Indiana. She travelled with him for a week before she began to get agitated, she was desperate to get home to her boyfriend. Frustrated with her nagging, Jesperson rapes and kills Angela. He then ties her body face down to the back of his truck and drags it behind the vehicle, grinding her skin on the roads to remove her face and fingerprints. Two months later, he strangles Julie Winningham.
Put on a Happy Face.
Like many serial killers, Keith Hunter Jesperson liked to toy with the police and wanted attention and notoriety for his crimes. The moniker of “The Happy Face Killer” was given to him by Phil Stanford of The Oregonian, after Jesperson sent letters to media and the police detailing his crimes. He signed each letter with a happy face.
Jesperson’s Sentencing. Oregon, United States. June 3, 1998.
Keith Hunter Jesperson is sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. He is then extradited to California to face charges for the murders there, he is given the fourth life sentence in January 2010.
Monster In My Family.
In 2008 Jesperson’s eldest daughter, Melissa G. Moore, goes on The Dr Phil Show to speak about her father’s crimes. In 2009, she is featured on Oprah and publishes a book called Shattered Silence: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer’s Daughter detailing her life with her father. The book includes descriptions of Jesperson’s slaughter of stray cats in front of his children. Moore is also featured in the first episode of Lifetime show Monster in My Family, in which she speaks with the families of her father’s victims. She has also appeared on other true crime shows. Melissa continues to work in victim advocacy, hoping to bring the spotlight away from offenders.
All in all, Keith Hunter Jesperson confessed to killing over 160 women, but only the eight mentioned could be attributed to him. His work as a truck driver allowed him to travel the country undetected and unsuspected. His crimes spanned across the United States, with murders committed in California, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Florida, and Nebraska. His victims were usually sex workers or “street people”. Women who weren’t connected to him, and wouldn’t be missed. Some of the women are still unidentified, unaccounted for. Their families will never know what happened to their daughters.
Monster in My Family, S1Ep1.