Crime Life

Keith Hunter Jesperson
(The Happy Face Killer)

Keith Hunter Jesperson

Keith Hunter Jesperson

Keith Hunter Jesperson began his slayings on January 23, 1990, when he picked up 23-year-old Taunja Bennett in a Portland, Oregon, bar. Taking her home, he beat and strangled her and dumped the body in a ditch north of the city. When she was eventually found by a bycylist Bennett still had the rope used to throttle her wrapped around her neck. A man named John Sosnovski and his girlfriend Laverne Pavlinek would be sent to prison for the Bennett murder and remained there until five years later when Jesperson's confession cleared their names and freed them.

Soon after killing Bennett, Jesperson got a job as a long-haul truck driver. It was late summer in 1992 before he killed again, killing a Jane Doe and dumping her body outside Blythe, California. In September Jesperson strangled Cynthia Rose, 32. Her body would be found near Turlock, California, and she was originally believed to have died from a drug overdose. Next came 26-year-old Laurie Pentland, found choked to death in November in Salem, Oregon. Two more Jane Doe's followed, one murdered in 1994 and the other in 1995.

Apparently tired of a lack of publicity for his "accomplishments", Jesperson had begun a letter writing campaign in 1994. Directing his efforts mostly toward the newspaper The Oregonian the traveling serial murderer was alternately arrogant and remorseful in his anonymous correspondences. Also, he always signed the letters with a smiling happy face. At the very least Jesperson had earned himself a nickname, the "Happy Face Killer". Unfortunately, the communications led police no closer to the killer.

Victim number seven was 21-year-old Angela Subrize, killed in January of 1995 but not discovered until September along a Nebraska freeway. Jesperson would claim his final kill on March 10 when he took the life of Julie Winningham, 41. Like all the others Winningham had been strangled and dumped along a roadside, this time in the state of Washington. One major difference was that she had been seeing Jesperson on a regular basis just prior to her death. Her killer had made the mistake of killing somebody that he knew. Jesperson was arrested for Winningham's murder and it wasn't long before authorities got their act together and began tentatively linking the towering strangler to other homicides.

Once in custody it wasn't a question of getting Jesperson to confess, it was a matter of getting him to stop confessing. The truck driving killer would confess to some of the murders, then recant his confession. Then he would confess to a few more, then recant again. At one point he gave Henry Lee Lucas a run for his money and laid claim to an astronomical 160 slayings. He also was exposed for working out a deal with a convicted wife-killer in which he confessed to the murder in an attempt to free the man as he had Sosnovski and Pavlinek. In short, Jesperson was a person who absolutely loved screwing with the authorities.

In the end it appears that Jesperson killed at least eight women, though there are probably more, as he travelled the country as a truck driver. He eventually pled guilty to murdering Bennett, Pentland, Subrize, and Winningham. "Happy Face" was sentenced to life in each murder, two in the state of Oregon, and one each in Washington and Wyoming.