Serial killer Keith Hunter Jesperson, also known as the “Happy Face Killer,” brutally murdered eight women between 1990 and 1995.
Who Is Keith Hunter Jesperson?
Keith Hunter Jesperson committed his first murder in 1990. His victims, who were often raped and strangled, included short-term acquaintances, sex workers and a girlfriend. He left bodies in Oregon, California, Florida, Nebraska and Washington while working as a long-haul truck driver. Before he was identified as a serial killer, he anonymously confessed to his crimes in messages that contained smiley faces, leading to his being nicknamed the “Happy Face Killer.” In addition to murder, Jesperson’s criminal history included animal cruelty, arson and sexual assault. He had a relationship with his final victim and became a suspect after her body was discovered in March 1995. He confessed to killing her and subsequently admitted to seven other murders.
Jesperson was born on April 6, 1955, in British Columbia, Canada. Jesperson was a middle child, with an older sister and brother and a younger sister and brother. His father often punished Jesperson by hitting him with a leather belt. Jesperson grew up in Chilliwack, Canada before moving to Selah, Washington with his family when he was 12.
At school, Jesperson was bigger than his classmates and was taunted with names like “Monster Man” and “Igor.” As a child, he was cruel to animals – he killed cats and snakes and, under the guise of hunting, inflicted pain on creatures like deer, rabbits, and coyotes.
Jesperson’s first victim, 23-year-old Taunja Bennett, was killed on January 21, 1990. He met the developmentally disabled Bennett while out drinking and convinced her to go to his house. There, he assaulted, beat and strangled her.
In the summer of 1992, Jesperson met “Claudia” at a truck checkpoint in California. Her body, which had been strangled and tied up with duct tape, was found on August 30, 1992. Her identity remains unknown.
Jesperson murdered another woman in August 1992 at a Turlock, California truck stop. This victim has been identified as Cynthia Lynn (Rose) Wilcox. However, Jesperson later said he actually killed another woman and did not recognize Wilcox’s photo.
In November 1992, Jesperson had an encounter with sex worker Laurie Anne Pentland at a truck stop. He strangled her and left her corpse in Oregon.
Remains found in Merced County, California on June 3, 1993, belonged to a Jesperson victim he has said was called “Cindy.” They met at a truck stop in Corning, California. Her real name remains a mystery.
In September 1994, the body of a woman was found in Florida. Her actual identity is unknown, but “Susanna” — which Jesperson has stated may have been her name — was confirmed to be one of his victims because he knew about the tie wraps found around her throat.
Soon after Angela Subrize ran into Jesperson at a bar in Spokane, Washington in January 1995, she traveled east with him in his truck. He has said he strangled her because she wouldn’t let him sleep. After the murder, Jesperson remembered they’d spent days together and he’d let her use a credit card. He decided to drag her body underneath his truck to impede identification. He left her remains in Nebraska, though Subrize was likely killed in Wyoming.
Jesperson’s last victim was Julie Winningham, who’d been his girlfriend. She was killed in Washington state on March 10, 1995, and her body was discovered the next day.
Jesperson has said that he took 166 lives, but only the above eight murders have been attributed to him. In April 1990, he sexually assaulted a woman who managed to escape. According to Jesperson, after he killed his fifth victim in 1993 he managed to stave off murderous urges for more than a year by committing arson while on the road as a trucker.
Becoming the Happy Face Killer
Following the discovery of Bennett’s body in January 1990, Laverne Pavlinac lied to police that she’d aided her boyfriend John Sosnovske in committing the crime. Pavlinac made this false statement because she wanted to escape her abusive relationship with Sosnovske. She later rescinded her confession, but in 1991 a jury still found her guilty. Sosnovske pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty.
These convictions meant Jesperson was unlikely to ever face charges for his crime. However, a part of him wanted to claim credit, so he wrote about murdering Bennett in a bus terminal bathroom. The message was signed with a smiley face. He would go on to share details of the crime on other restroom walls.
In later years, Jesperson also sent anonymous letters to The Oregonian newspaper about what had become his multiple murders. Smiley faces again served as his signature, prompting a journalist to dub Jesperson the “Happy Face Killer.”
After Jesperson was in custody, he provided the location of Bennett’s purse, which only the killer would know. Authorities came to believe they had convicted the wrong people. Pavlinac and Sosnovske were released from prison in November 1995.
Jesperson became a suspect after Winningham’s was found since he was known to be her boyfriend. Jesperson attempted suicide but ended up confessing to Winningham’s murder. Before his arrest, he also wrote a letter to his brother that admitted, “I am sorry that I turned out this way. I have been a killer for five years and have killed eight people.” His brother gave this letter to law enforcement.
While in custody, Jesperson shared details of his eight murders. He received multiple life sentences for several of these crimes but was spared the death penalty.
Jesperson resides in the Oregon State Penitentiary, where he spends much of his time making art. Pieces of his artwork have been seen on “murderabilia” sites.
Jesperson married Rose Hucke on August 2, 1975. They had three children, two girls and a boy. They divorced in 1989.
His older daughter has described witnessing acts of animal cruelty that included Jesperson killing kittens.
Movies and Books
A television movie, Happy Face Killer, starring David Arquette as Jesperson, aired in 2014.
The book I: the Creation of a Serial Killer (2002), by Jack Olsen, delved into Jesperson’s life. M. William Phelps penned a memoir about his interactions with Jesperson: Dangerous Ground: My Friendship with a Serial Killer (2017).
Melissa G. Moore, Jesperson’s older daughter, wrote Shattered Silence: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer’s Daughter (2009). She also examined her father’s actions in the podcast Happy Face.