B.C.-born man was the 'Happy Face Killer'
Keith Hunter Jesperson, 54, grew up in Chilliwack; he says he'd like to come back but for four life prison terms
By Glenda Luymes, Canwest News ServiceMarch 14, 2010
He is serving four consecutive life sentences for killing women he met at truck stops and blue-collar bars on roads across the United States.
But if Keith Hunter Jesperson ever gets out of prison, he plans to come home to Canada.
Many troubled years separate the boy who grew up on an acreage near Chilliwack from the man who lured women to his plum-coloured Peterbilt truck and murdered them.
It was Jan. 21, 1990 -- a dismal, grey day in Portland, Ore., according to prison interviews with Jesperson by journalist and true-crime author Jack Olsen.
The 35-year-old divorced father of three was taking a break from his job as a long-haul trucker after getting too many driving tickets. He was frustrated, broke and bored. He visited a tavern to shoot pool.
Outside, he met 23-year-old Taunja Bennett and invited her home. They had sex. Something enraged him, and he beat her before strangling her to death.
That night Jesperson drove to the Columbia River Gorge where he dumped her body into a ravine. No one saw him.
Bennett's body was found by a cyclist the next morning.
A 57-year-old grandmother named Laverne Pavlinac confessed, saying she held Bennett while her boyfriend John Sosnovske killed her.
The woman, who hoped to get out of an abusive relationship with her confession, led investigators to the place the body was found -- she later said she had read newspaper accounts of where the body was found and said she peeked at the odometer in the police car to lead them to it.
The couple went to jail. Two years after Bennett's death, Jesperson killed again.
He seemed to enjoy getting away with murder, taunting police with notes scribbled in bathroom stalls at rest stops in Montana and Oregon.
He wrote letters to newspapers and courthouses. All were signed with a happy face, earning him the nickname The Happy Face Killer.
In interviews with Olsen, Jesperson described a total of eight murders. The confessions are contained in the author's 2002 book I: The Creation of a Serial Killer.
He would eventually receive four life sentences -- the last one coming just two months ago in California.
The killer has shown he feels remorse only for himself.
"My night times in prison are spent dreaming of seeing my kids one more time," he told Olsen. "Would I escape if I was let out by accident? Damn right I would. Back to Canada, to Chilliwack. I should have gone there 30 years ago."
Jesperson was born on April 6, 1955, a middle child with two sisters and two brothers. He was a big kid, quiet, sometimes a little slow.
In interviews with Olsen, Jesperson talked about being teased by other kids. He recalled swimming in nearby Cultus Lake with a classmate who tried to drown him by holding his head underwater.
He described finding excitement in animal abuse -- torturing and killing gophers, crows and cats. He claimed to have started small fires.
The killer claimed his relationship with his father was also twisted.
In a telephone interview last week from Yakima, Wash., the now-elderly Jesperson said his son blames him for being a tough father.
"Keith is a different person. I'm ashamed of what he did, but he's paying the price," he said.
The elder Jesperson was a popular figure in Chilliwack. At 28, he became an alderman.
In Olsen's book, Jesperson characterized his father as an abusive alcoholic and blamed him for turning him into a cold-blooded killer.
He was 12 when the family moved to Washington.
"I didn't want to leave Canada," he told Olsen. "I knew every tree in our woods, every ripple in our creek . . . Chilliwack was the greenest place on earth."
Melissa Moore's family life was marked by fear. When she was six years old, she found kittens in the family's cellar.
"I pretended I was their mom," she recalled. "My dad asked if he could see them. I knew he had bad intentions, but I had no control. He hung them by their tails on the clothesline."
Keith Jesperson had met Moore's mother, Rose Pernick, 10 years earlier at a hamburger drive-thru. He was running a Washington state trailer park with his father after a bad fall in high-school gym class ended his dream of becoming an RCMP officer.
They married and had three kids, including Melissa.
It's unclear if police in B.C. have investigated Jesperson in connection with any unsolved homicides. RCMP Cpl. Annie Linteau said police on both sides of the border share information, but could not comment on specific cases.
Jesperson was finally arrested in 1995 for killing his girlfriend, Julie Winningham -- his only victim who was not a stranger.
After discovering he was under investigation, he confessed to a sheriff. He also wrote a letter to his brother, admitting a total of eight murders, including the murder of Taunja Bennett.
That confession led to the release of Laverne Pavlinac and John Sosnovske, who had recanted their confessions. They spent four years in prison for Bennett's murder.
Jesperson received his fourth life sentence in a California courtroom two months ago. The case was straightforward.
Jesperson, his hair now grey, pleaded guilty to murder.
The judge handed him a life sentence, his fourth, meaning Jesperson will be over 125 years old before he's eligible for parole. The 54-year-old convict returned to the Oregon prison where he will someday die.
The woman he was killed was identified in court documents as "Jane Doe aka Claudia."
Her body was found on August 30, 1992 in the California desert. Most of what is known about her -- even her name -- comes from Jesperson himself in a letter to an Oregon newspaper.
Those who might remember Claudia do not know she received justice, or that she deserved it.
Her childhood, her history -- even her identity -- remain a mystery.
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