Keith Hunter Jesperson is a Canadian-American serial killer also known as the Happy Faced Killer. Over a five year period (1990-1995) he murdered eight known women. Though, Jesperson himself claims to have killed 160 women. Victims of the long-haul truck driver tended to be truck-stop prostitutes and drifters.
When someone else took credit for one of Jesperson’s victims, he decided to set the story straight, leaving confessionals in public places; he also sent letter about his crimes to the media. Jesperson signed his anonymous admissions with smiley faces, giving him the nickname, the Happy Face Killer.
This Happy Face Killer wiki takes an in-depth look at the cunning and devious mind of Keith Hunter Jesperson.
Who Is Keith Hunter Jesperson, the Happy Face Killer?
Keith Jesperson was born on April 6, 1955 in Chilliwack, British Columbia, a then small farming community one hour east of Vancouver. He is a middle child with two sisters and two brothers. He was remembered as being a big kid and sometimes a little slow.
His family’s rural home on five acres in the woods was a paradise for the young Jesperson. On the property was a barn with a hayloft, a wooden bridge over a creek, and a water wheel to trap fish. In a tree was a rope swing.
But life wasn’t all that idyllic. Jesperson said that his father was an abusive alcoholic, and his grandfather was also abusive. His father also treated him differently, charging him $30 a week for room and board; his brothers and sisters paid nothing.
In later years, Jesperson blamed his father for turning him into an emotionless cold-blooded serial killer. His father, Les denied being an abusive parent, but many of the stories of alleged abuse were verified by other family members.
Tortured Animals at a Young Age
At around the age of five, he started to abuse animals, torturing and killing gophers, crows, and cats. The eventual serial killer also claims to have started small fires.
He attended Unsworth Elementary School and said that, during those years, he was teased by other kids. Jesperson recalled swimming in nearby Cultus Lake with a classmate who tried to drown him by holding his head underwater.
The abuse he suffered at the hands of his father and grandfather may have been responsible for his desire to hurt others. When Jesperson was around 10, he had a close friend by the name of Martin. The two would often get into trouble, but Jesperson ended up getting punished for things Martin did but blamed on Jesperson.
This led Jesperson to violently attack Martin; the beating only stopped when his father pulled him away. Jesperson later said he was trying to kill the boy.
He attempted his second murder some time later. At a public pool, he tried to drown the boy who held his head under water in Cultus Lake. A lifeguard intervened and pulled Jesperson off the boy.
Move to Washington
The family moved from Chilliwack to Selah, Washington; even there, though, Jesperson had trouble fitting in and making friends. His two brothers also made life difficult for him, giving him the high school nickname “Igor” and “Ig.”
It was in high school, at age 14, that Jesperson claims to have lost his virginity during an act of rape. Though none of this has been verified.
Despite getting into trouble, Jesperson graduated from high school in 1973. He did not attend college because his father didn’t think he was smart or determined enough. Jesperson always dreamed of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but because of a high school injury, this dream died. Instead, he helped run a state trailer park with his father.
It was around this time that Jesperson, who was not exactly known as a ladies man in high school (having never gone to a dance or his prom), met Rose Pernick at a hamburger drive-thru. They married on August 2, 1975, in Moxee, Washinton, when Jesperson was 20.
He later recalled that for their honeymoon, they stayed at the Starlite Motel on the Trans-Canada Highway, just outside Chilliwack. They argued all night.
“It was nice to have regular sex, but I knew the thrill would wear off. I also knew I needed more than what Rose offered, but I wasn’t exactly sure what. I wasn’t experienced about pleasing women. That first night I pulled out to avoid getting her pregnant. She appreciated that. A baby was the last thing we needed!”
The couple eventually went on to have three kids: Two daughters and a son.
Financial troubles forced the family to sell the trailer park. Jesperson then decided to move his family to Elkford, British Columbia (130 miles north of Montana) to work at a coal company.
Trouble always seemed to follow Jesperson; he was fired from the mining company for theft. He fell into trucking, making direct runs between Lethbridge, Alberta, and Calgary. That particular job didn’t last long, but he loved what he did, and stuck with it.
In 1983, Jesperson moved his family back to Washington where he continued to drive long-haul. This started to cause a strain in their marriage. After a few years, Pernick began to suspect Jesperson was having affairs after strange women started calling the house.
After 14 years, Pernick had had enough; while Jesperson was on the road, she packed up her things and left with her children, driving 200 miles to live with her parents in Spokane, Washington.
Jesperson would drop by and spend time with his kids when he was in town. The couple divorced in 1990.
Melissa Jesperson Moore with her husband
It was then that the newly single, 35-year-old, hulking, 6’6,” 240-lbs Jesperson began to kill.
Happy Face Killer Murders First Victim, Taunja Bennett
On January 21, 1990, Jesperson visited a tavern not far from Portland to shoot pool. Outside the bar he met Taunja Bennet, 32, and invited her back to his place. They had, he claims, consensual sex.
But something that night angered Jesperson and he lashed out, beating and strangling her to death. He punched her in the head so many times she was no longer recognizable. Jesperson later said the fact she was intellectually slow excited him.
Establishing an alibi, Jesperson went back out for drinks, chatting up the locals. He returned to his rented home, picked up Bennett’s lifeless body, and drove to the Columbia River Gorge, dumping the body into a ravine.
Her body was discovered just days later by a cyclist, but by then, Jesperson was back out on the road. Police had a body but no suspects, and no leads.
Woman Takes Credit for Bennett Murder, Gets Jailed
Laverne Pavlinac, 57, read about the January 21 murder of 23-year old Taunja Bennett with great interest and decided to use it to her advantage. She was looking for a way to end her 10-year abusive relationship with her 39-year-old boyfriend, John Sosnovske. Pinning the murder on him seemed like her best option. Things didn’t go according to plans though.
First, she made anonymous tips to police that Sosnovske had bragged about committing the murder. But when she didn’t get the response she wanted, she decided to ramp up her efforts. She called the detectives working on the case, and told them about her abusive relationship with Sosnovske, and that he murdered Bennett.
She radically changed her story, though, saying that it was the two of them who met Bennet at a bar in Portland and that Sosnovke forced her to help him rape Bennett and dispose of the body.
Police interviewed the surprised Sosnovske who denied any knowledge of the murder. A search of Sosnovke’s residence failed to turn up any incriminating evidence. Undeterred, Pavlinac told police she found items in the trunk of her car that matched those in a search warrant. Police, however, determined that these items were planted.
Detectives were not sure exactly what to make of Pavlinac’s tale and continued to interview her. They took her to the Columbia River Gorge to see if she could find the locations only police and the killer would know.
She did surprisingly well, identifying where the body had been found, but was less than accurate when it came to identifying places where Bennet’s personal items were located.
The case was eventually turned over to prosecutors and, in February 1990, just weeks after the murder, both Pavlinac and Sosnovske were arrested. Both proclaimed their innocence.
Pavlinac, who was tried first, recanted her confession and said that she made it up to escape from Sosnovske. In January 1991, Pavlinac, who was only looking to escape an abusive relationship, was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of 10 years.
Sosnovske’s trial came second. He was afraid of getting the death penalty and pleaded “no contest” to murder and kidnapping charges in March 1991. He was sentenced to life in prison.
With Paclinac and Sosnovske arrested for the murder of Taunja Bennett, Jesperson was free to go on his murderous ways with impunity. On the evening of Thursday, April 12, 1990, he was approached by an intoxicated woman carrying her six-month-old baby in a shopping mall parking lot in Mt. Shasta, California.
Though, according to Jean, whose real name is Daun Richert-Slagle, then 21, she left home with her youngest child after a fight with her husband, and it was Jesperson who approached her in the parking lot of the shopping center.
According to Jesperson, she got into his 1974 Chevy Nova and introduced herself as Jean; the discussion soon turned to sex. They drove to a remote area where she started to perform oral sex on Jesperson; the infant was placed in the back seat.
Jean changed her mind, stopped, and asked to be driven home. An angry and frustrated Jesperson grabbed her by the head and forced her to finish. After Jean completed the act, Jesperson assaulted her for three hours and tried to break her neck. Failing that, and not wanting to kill her child, he took them back to the shopping center and drove off.
Jesperson was arrested not long after at gunpoint in Corning, California. The personal details he revealed to Jean when they first met led police straight to him. He was interrogated and claimed she only twisted her neck because of what they were doing and the cramped space in the car.
Jesperson also took police to the spot where she performed oral sex and showed them an empty liquor bottle, explaining it was Jean’s. Police liked his version better and he was released.
He was, however, charged with sexual assault. A felony warrant was issued when he failed to show up in court. He was eventually arrested in Iowa after his name was run in the National Crime Information Center database while at a weight check station.
It was claimed that the warrant issued for Jesperson in Shasta County was too weak and the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor. Even then, the cost of extradition wasn’t worth it, and he was exonerated of all charges.
Daun Richert-Slagle is the only known person to escape Jesperson.
The Happy Face Killer Is Born
Jesperson did not like the media attention that followed Pavlinac and her boyfriend, Sosnovske. Upset that he wasn’t being credited for Bennett’s murder, Jesperson wrote a letter with proof of his killing, and drew a smiley face on the wall of the men’s bathroom at a bus station in Livingston, Montana.
It read, “I killed Tanya [sic] Bennett Jan. 21, 1990 in Portland, Oregon. I beat her to death, raped her and loved it. Yes, I’m sick, but I enjoy myself too. People took the blame and I’m free.”
A few days later, Keith Jesperson wrote another confessional on a bathroom wall in Umatilla, Oregon. “Jan 21 90… Killed Tanya [sic] Bennett in Portland… Two people got the blame… So I can kill again.”
He signed the message with a smiley face.
When this didn’t result in any attention he turned to writing letters to the media and prosecutors. Oregon journalist Phil Stanford, who wrote a number of articles on the then unidentified killer, called him the “Happy Face Killer.”
Happy Face Killer Met His Victims along Long-Haul Routes
California, Nebraska, Oregon, Florida, Washington, Wyoming. The Happy Face Killer met all of his victims, who were sex workers, hitchhikers, and transients, while working as a long-haul trucker all over the U.S. He had no connection to any of his victims, making it difficult to track him down.
Two years after Bennett’s death, Jesperson killed his second victim. On August 30, 1992 the body of a woman was discovered near Blythe, California. Jesperson raped and strangled her. He later said the woman’s name was Claudia, but she remains a Jane Doe.
One month later, the body of Cynthia Lyn Rose was found in Turlock, California. Keith Jesperson chocked her because she snuck into his truck while sleeping. He wrote letters to The Oregonian claiming Rose was a prostitute he picked up, raped and murdered. He signed the note with a happy face.
Two months later, in November 1992, the Happy Face Killer murdered Lauri Ann Pentland, 26; her body was found in Salem, Oregon. Jesperson said Pentland wanted to charge him double the normal rate for the sex they just had; she also threatened to contact police when he refused to pay. He snapped and strangled her.
Fast forward to June 1993, and Jesperson claimed his fifth victim, a woman he remembered as Cindy or Carla. It was estimated that she died as early as May 1993. Her body was found in Santa Clara County, California but was not recognizable due to the state of decomposition and putrefaction. At the time, California Highway Patrol listed her as an OD street person.
The Happy Face Killer claims he met her at a truck stop, bought her something to eat, and, as per usual, they had consensual sex. He then strangled her to death in his truck and drove for several miles before dumping her body.
Jesperson’s sixth murder took place a year later. On September 14, 1994, the body of an unidentified woman was found west of Crestview, Florida. Keith Jesperson later claimed her name was Susanne, Suzy, or Suzette.
Jesperson said he picked her up at a truck stop in Tampa, Florida; 420 miles away from the swampy forest where he dumped her body.
Strapped 7th Victim to Bottom of His Truck
In January 1995, the Happy Face Killer gave Angela Surbrize, 21, a lift from Spokane, Washington to Indiana, where her boyfriend lived. During the trip, they got into an argument; she wanted him to drive faster so she could be with her boyfriend. Jesperson responded by raping and strangling her.
This murder had a different component, though. He let Subrize use his credit card to call her boyfriend and father. Jesperson feared police would be able to track him down and link him to her murder.
To avoid this, Jesperson theorized that he needed to make her body unrecognizeable. He strapped Surbrize’s body to the undercarriage of his truck and dragged her face-down, to “grind off her face and prints.”
Happy Face Killer Caught after Murdering Fiancée
In March 10, 1995, the Happy Face Killer murdered his last victim; fiancée Julie Ann Winningham, 41. Jesperson apparently really liked Winningham, but became upset when he thought she was only after him for his money. He strangled her and dumped her body at a scenic outlook near Washougal, Washington.
Jesperson quickly became the prime suspect in her death. Police learned that Winningham, a former resident of Salt Lake City, left Utah with Keith Jesperson, a truck driver working for Systems Transport out of Cheney, Washington.
On March 22, Jesperson was arrested and questioned on Winningham’s death. He denied any involvement, was released by police, and headed off to Arizona.
Perhaps feeling guilty or afraid of what he was facing, Jesperson tried to commit suicide later that day by overdosing on sleeping pills. He tried to commit suicide again on March 23.
The Happy Face Killer also wrote a letter to his brother Brad, confessing to all the murders. After writing the letter, he confessed to detectives about killing his fiancée, Julie Ann Winningham and was returned to Washington State.
Around this time, Brad turned over the letter he received from Jesperson to authorities, who then linked the Happy Face Killer to unsolved murders in several states.
Happy Face Killer Confesses to Murdering 160 Women
After turning himself in, the Happy Face Killer boasted of killing as many as 160 women, that he likened to “piles of garbage” he dumped by the side of the road. Despite these claims, investigators have only been able to confirm that the Happy Faced Killer murdered eight women in California, Wyoming, Nebraska, Florida, Washington, and Oregon.
Jesperson eventually admitted that he hadn’t in fact, murdered more than 100. The real number of women he did murder remains a mystery.
The Happy Face Killer did admit though to killing Taunja Bennet. As proof, he gave officers the location of the victim’s purse which was not released to the press.
On November 27, 1995, after serving more than four years in prison, Laverne Pavlinac and John Sosnovske were released. Initially though, the judge refused to vacate Pavlinac’s conviction, and chastised her for abusing the judicial system.
Conviction of the Happy Face Killer
In October 1995, Jesperson pleaded guilty to murdering Julie Ann Winningham. One month later, on November 2, he entered a plea of “no contest” for the murder of Taunja Bennett. He also confessed to the murders of Laurie Ann Pentland and Angela Subrise.
In 2010, the 55-year old Happy Face Killer pleaded guilty to murdering “Jane Doe,” a.k.a. Claudia, in California. He was handed his fourth life sentence. Jesperson will be over 125 when he’s eligible for parole.
After the sentence hearing, Jesperson returned to Oregon where he will spend the rest of his life.
Life Behind Bars for the Happy Face Killer
The Happy Face Killer spends some of his time in prison painting and updating his Facebook page, which is monitored by a friend.
On July 26, 2013, Jesperson, who also refers to himself as “the Happy Face Killer,” sent out greetings to his fellow high school graduates.
“my 40th high school reunion is upon us. post a note to Selah high school.
HI CLASSMATES OF 1973 SELAH HIGH SCHOOL, SELAH WASHINGTON, 98942!
Prison sucks!! But im still alive! 40 years has gone by and i miss those days the most.
Ive met a lot of good people in prison, some even from Yakima. Several have known some of you. Small world.
murder solves nothing. creates problems. Crime doesnt pay, stay out of here. i wish you all the best. stay safe.
In July 2015, page took a prison painting from Jesperson hoping to make a composite of what his sixth victim (Susan) looked like. The colorful painting helped the Florida Division of Law Enforcement create an accurate face of the badly decomposed body of a woman found beside Interstate 10 in 1994.
The painting, which depicts the Jane Doe as having frizzled sandy-colored blonde hair, and her remains were enough to reconstruct the victims face. It was sent back to Jesperson for confirmation.
“When I opened up the package,” the Happy Face Killer wrote, “it was like a rush of emotion running through me. I saw her again in your picture.”
“Happy Face Killer,” Riveting Made for TV Movie
In March 2014, the made for TV movie, Happy Face Killer was released, starring David Arquette. The Lifetime original movie traces the troubled life of Keith Jesperson. Technically, the movie was “inspired by” the Jesperson story; aside from him, all of the other names were fictional.
Not fictional enough, though.
Daun Richert-Slagle, lone survivor of the Happy Face Killer, filed a lawsuit against Lifetime and A&E Television, after being portrayed as a prostitute, Candy, who willingly has sex with clients in front of her child.
Richert-Slagle, who is now a registered page, said that “Some of these things could literally destroy my career.”
She added that the page movie left viewers “with the sense that [she] somewhat provoked and/or deserved the attack due to her low character, criminal behavior and taunting of Jesperson, creating a certain sympathy for the killer.”
Richert-Slagle says the portrayal is “false, egregious and disgusting.”
Her attorney, Tre Lovell noted, “In this particular case, Lifetime took somebody who had an innocent involvement with a serial killer and turned her, for whatever creative license or entertainment value, into a prostitute, into somebody trying to extort money, into being an unfit mother, which is completely deplorable.”