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10 Twisted and Unbelievable Facts About the Happy Face Killer

by Joe Duncan
fact checked by Jamie Frater

When it comes to serial killers, some become famous, while others slip through the cracks, forgotten murderers who seem to have simply been overlooked by history. For example, Karl Denke, the Forgotten Cannibal himself, was lost to the dustbin of history almost instantly. Even today, with the advent of the Internet, some people who’ve done remarkable, twisted, and downright shocking things seem to have been glossed over, missed by our collective minds, and bypassed by those who generate our media. It simply happens.

One such man who slipped through the cracks was Keith Jesperson, a Canadian-born man who would eventually become a serial killer. Jesperson killed in the early to mid-1990s, the final days of the golden age of the serial killer, though neither his name nor even his moniker, the Happy Face Killer, ever gained much traction. Here are ten twisted, unbelievable facts about Keith Jesperson, the Happy Face Killer.

Featured image credit: Don Ryan/AP

10 Troubled Childhood

Like all too many other serial killers in this world, as well as people who suffer from a variety of other behavioral and lifestyle problems, Keith Jesperson had it rough as a kid growing up. His family life was less than pleasant, with an alcoholic father who was physically and verbally abusive and ruled his household with an iron fist. His school life didn’t fare much better—he was picked on, cast out, and ostracized by his peers.

Born in British Columbia on April 6, 1955, Keith Jesperson spent part of his childhood in Canada before his family later moved to the United States.[1] Neglect from his father had a particularly pronounced effect on the young Jesperson, who was set apart from the rest of his siblings in how his father never really paid any attention to him—unless it was negative. Jesperson was unhappy about being forced to move to Washington with his family.

9 The Triad Of Evil

Keith Jesperson was a little weird from the beginning, like many who go on to kill or otherwise become violent later in life. It wasn’t long before Jesperson began to take out his violent, pent-up rage on creatures that were weaker than him, beginning with animals, which would set the stage for later events to come. He also set several fires.

Killing animals and setting fires are two of the three parts of the MacDonald triad, a group of behaviors believed to be predictive of later violent offenses. The triad consists of starting fires, bed-wetting past the age of five years old, and harming or killing animals. While it’s erroneous to say that these behaviors in childhood guarantee future criminality, the Macdonald triad is often linked to serial killers.

When he was just a young boy, Jesperson would also have violent outbursts toward human beings. On one occasion, he beat another boy brutally, later claiming that he meant to kill him. He also tried to drown a boy. (This boy had previously held Jesperson’s head underwater until he blacked out.) A lifeguard stopped Jesperson.[2] This is reminiscent of another brutal serial killer, Peter Kurten, who successfully drowned two boys at once at age nine.

8 Normal Life

Photo credit: Murderpedia

It’s safe to say that all Keith Jesperson really wanted was a normal life, and largely, he ended up getting one. After graduating high school, he would seek work as a truck driver and become gainfully employed in a respectable profession. Jesperson would also meet a woman named Rose Hucke, whom he married in 1975. The couple eventually had three children.[3] Jesperson was previously pretty unlucky with girls in general, but he managed to win Rose’s heart and start a family. He was only 20 years old, but Jesperson was set to go on to live a normal, happy life, and that’s largely what he did.

But Keith Jesperson’s normal, seemingly picture-perfect life had an expiration date and would come crashing down in 1989 when Rose left him. They officially divorced in 1990. This was when everything in his life began to radically change. The whole time he was driving trucks and living the family life, he had long dreamed of becoming a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer. However, that dream was cut short when he was injured during training, which rendered him incapable of service.

7 Murders Begin

Photo credit: Murderpedia

Keith Jesperson’s work as an interstate truck driver would prove a perfect platform for him to start carrying out murders in faraway places and get away with them.[4] His first murder took place in January 1990, with the killing of a woman named Taunja Bennett.

Jesperson later described in detail how he met her at a bar. He brought her home, and the two began a sexual encounter which was cut short abruptly by an argument, after which Keith strangled Taunja. This was exactly what he used to do to animals as a boy—he would strangle them. And now Jesperson had graduated to strangling human beings.

First, he beat her, and then he grabbed a rope, which he subsequently wrapped around her neck and began to pull tight until she lost consciousness and died. He disposed of her body in a secluded area of Oregon near the Columbia River, which borders his home state of Washington.

6 False Confession

It was here that the tale of the Happy Face Killer would take a strange turn and end up giving Jesperson the moniker. A couple named Laverne Pavlinac and John Sosnovske lived in the area at the time, and Pavlinac would make a surprise false confession to the murder of Taunja Bennett, saying that she and Sosnovske had raped and murdered Bennett together. The police and courts believed her, and she received ten years in prison, while Sosnovske was sentenced to life.[5] Laverne Pavlinac later admitted that she made up the story entirely to get out of her relationship with Sosnovske, who was abusive.

Pavlinac and Sosnovske’s arrests for the murder thoroughly angered Keith Jesperson. He then wrote a confession on the wall of a truck stop he was passing through, but to no avail. No one really paid attention to this, even though he’d signed the confession with a hand-drawn happy face. Jesperson decided to take it up a notch and wrote more confessions to the police, the prosecutor in the Pavlinac and Sosnovske cases, and the media, signing each of them with a personalized happy face, of course. And thus, the Happy Face Killer was born.

5 Eight Bodies

Ultimately, Keith Jesperson would kill at least seven more times, leaving more bodies in his wake—and that’s only counting what’s been confirmed, what Keith stood trial for. Jesperson himself ended up saying that he had murdered as many as 160 people in his days as a truck driver, driving around and killing poor, unsuspecting women whenever he felt like it. After murdering Bennett, Jesperson took to killing prostitutes, who would frequent the roads he would travel as well as the establishments where he would stop to buy what he needed or rest from his drives. In total, eight bodies were linked to him from Florida to California, Oregon, Washington, and more. There was also an instance in which Jesperson actually let his would-be victim go.

In April 1990, Jesperson met a woman in a parking lot in California who was quite drunk and introduced herself as Jean.[6] The woman had a small infant with her at the time. The two got to talking, one thing led to another, and soon, the woman and Jesperson decided to travel to an undisclosed location for some spontaneous sex. At some point, yet again, during the act, the two got into a serious argument, and she asked that he take her and the infant home—but Jesperson refused, demanding that she finish performing oral sex on him. When she refused, he attacked her, assaulting her for hours. But not wanting to kill the infant, Keith Jesperson ultimately let the two of them go, driving her back to where he’d found her.

The woman’s real name was Daun Slagle, and she would sue the television network Lifetime for portraying her as a prostitute in a made-for-TV movie, adamantly claiming that she was not.

4 Fatherhood

Photo credit: Murderpedia

Let’s not forget: The entire time that Keith Jesperson was killing women, he was also a father who was raising children from his previous marriage. Unlike Dennis Rader and a few others, Jesperson wasn’t exactly the best at keeping his dark, violent nature under control. His daughter, Melissa Moore, would later come out and tell the story of what it was like growing up in the household of a convicted serial killer and even meet with the families of some of the victims. Some instances from her childhood seemed harmless at the time, and she would only later come to realize the creepy nature of them, like finding duct tape and other rape items in Jesperson’s truck.

Others were very much more overtly disturbing. On one occasion, when Melissa was only five years old, Jesperson took some kittens she’d found and killed them.[7] He tortured them, strangled them, and hung them from a clothing line behind their house. This was definitely a twisted individual who seemingly had low impulse control when it came to hiding his anger and his darker side.

3 Betrayal

Photo credit: Murderpedia

The Happy Face Killer’s eighth and final victim that would be his downfall. Jesperson got away easily so long as he was killing women he did not know, but his impulsivity got the best of him, and eventually, he murdered someone he did know—his own girlfriend.

Angela Surbrize was the name of Jesperson’s second-to-last victim. In 1995, she asked him for a ride in his rig from Washington state to Indiana, and he obliged. Yet another fight with another woman broke out, and Jesperson ended up killing her, but only after raping her, and then he did something truly horrifying: He parked his truck and strapped her body facedown to the undercarriage and proceeded to drive, dragging her lifeless body beneath the underbelly of his truck.[8]

The last straw was when he finally murdered his girlfriend, Julie Ann Winningham (pictured above), believing that she had only been dating him because he had money. The authorities believed that Jesperson was the murderer, but he had a plan to get out of ever doing any hard time for the murder: to commit suicide. After two failed suicide attempts, however, Keith Jesperson had had enough. He turned himself in to the police, confessing to all of the murders and claiming there were more bodies out there.

2 Conviction

Photo credit: Murderpedia

Jesperson’s conviction came about unusually, and there was one thing he did that helped the investigators piece together all of the murders that had taken place over the years. Not long before his arrest, he wrote a letter to his brother confessing to the murders. It was with this that the authorities were able to pin him to the locations of the crimes.[9]

Keith Jesperson pleaded no contest to the charges against him and resigned himself to his fate and would receive two life sentences, at first. A third was later added. Jesperson was locked away for life in the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP). Then, in 2009, he was extradited to California to face another murder charge. He returned to OSP with a fourth life sentence.

1 Aftermath

Photo credit: Murderpedia

Melissa Moore would become a popular spokesperson, basically making an entire career out of being the child of a serial killer. She has written several books and hosts a podcast. Even though she has not visited her father since 2005, she still acknowledges the connection. Jesperson is still serving his four life sentences for his crimes. Still, behind bars, he’s become a bit of an artist, as many serial killers do, passing his time by creating works of art, some of which can be found online.[10]

So, whatever happened to Laverne Pavlinac and John Sosnovske, the man who got wrapped up in his girlfriend’s false confession to Keith Jesperson’s first murder? Shortly after confessing, Pavlinac wanted to retract it, but the police didn’t care, and nobody listened. It wasn’t until 1996 after the two had served nearly five years of their sentences for the murder they didn’t commit, that Jesperson’s confession would clear their name, and they would be released from prison. Pavlinac died in 2003 at the age of 70.

I like to write about dark stuff and history.

fact checked by Jamie Frater