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Crime News Snapped

There's A Happy Face Killer And A Smiley Face Killer — Are They Linked In Any Way?

Before Oxygen’s “Snapped Notorious: The Happy Face Killer," premieres, learn about the case and the loosely related Smiley Face Killer.

By Joe Dziemianowicz
Keith Hunter Jesperson mugshot next to smiley face graffiti

Whether you call it a happy face or a smiley face, the ubiquitous emoji — two dots and a curvy line tucked inside a circle — communicates a message that’s all about a happy vibe.

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The fact that this iconic symbol is associated with not one, but two serial killer cases is doubly disturbing. The goofy grin has been turned into a tool of terror in some cases.

“Snapped Notorious: The Happy Face Killer,” airing Sunday, October 10 at 7/6c on Oxygen, gives an in-depth look at the infamously nicknamed murderer, Keith Hunter Jesperson, who left a trail of bodies along the road in the 1990s. 

But who is The Smiley Face Killer? Well, that is an ongoing theory floated by retired law enforcement officials. They believe there could be a “nationwide network of killers” targeting college students, the Daily News reported.

Before the premiere of the Oxygen special, which features interviews between Jesperson and crime novelist M. William Phelps, author of “Dangerous Ground,” get up to speed on the similarities and the differences between the cases.

1: The case and the killer

Happy Face Killer: Between 1990 and 1995, a man eventually identified as Keith Jesperson, a divorced father and long-haul trucker, viciously strangled eight women and dumped their bodies along the road.

Jesperson’s killing spree began in 1990, and occurred mostly in California and Oregon, reported the New York Post.

Smiley Face Killer: According to the theory, since 1997, dozens — and possibly hundreds — of college-age men have died in undetermined or accidental drownings across 25 cities in 11 states. 

Former NYPD detectives Kevin Gannon, Michael Donovan, Anthony Duarte, and professor of criminal justice Dr. Lee Gilbertson believe most of these drownings were homicides committed by a gang of serial murderers, a theory explored in Oxygen’s “Smiley Face Killers: The Hunter for Justice.” 

Many in law enforcement, however, believe these deaths are accidental.

2. Victim profile

Happy Face Killer: Women were the targets. Jesperson didn’t know most of his victims, who included sex workers and ranged in age. He was caught after killing his 41-year-old girlfriend, Julie Ann Winningham, in 1995

Smiley Face Killer: The alleged victims are young men. Many of the suspected victims were promising college-age students and athletes. 

3. The smile symbol connection

Happy Face Killer: Jesperson, who was born in 1955 in British Columbia, shows signs of being a narcissist, according to a forensic psychologist interviewed in “Snapped Notorious.”

While remaining anonymous, he bragged about his crimes, including his first murder victim, Taunja Bennett, 23, who he killed on January 21, 1990.

He scribbled his first confession in a bathroom in a bus terminal in Montana after a woman falsely confessed to the crime. “I beat her to death, raped her, and loved it,” Jesperson wrote. “People took the blame and I’m free.”

He signed off with a happy face.

In 1994, Jesperson wrote anonymously to the Oregonian and described his murders and how he disposed of the bodies. A smiley face on the letter, like the one in the bathroom, caught the eye of Oregonian reporter Phil Stanford, who coined the moniker the Happy Face Killer.

Smiley Face Killer: Many suspected victims were found near water. At some of the sites where the victims' bodies were found, spray-painted smiley face graffiti had been left behind.

“Smiley faces, including some with horns, were scrawled on walls at 22 of the crime scenes in five states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa,” reported the New York Post.

While others have dismissed the theory of the smiley faces, which varied in paint, size and shape, Duarte told CNN in 2008 that the symbols are a “taunting” message to police.

4. Resolution

Happy Face Killer: Jesperson was convicted and is serving multiple life sentences at the Oregon State Prison.

Smiley Face Killer: The case is ongoing.

5. Movie depictions

Happy Face Killer: David Arquette played Keith Jesperson in the 2014 TV movie “Happy Face Killer.”

Smiley Face Killer: “Smiley Face Killers,” a 2020 horror movie loosely based on the murder theory, featured a screenplay by “American Psycho” author Bret Easton Ellis. 

For more on this case, watch “Snapped Notorious: The Happy Face Killer,” airing Sunday, October 10 at 7/6c on Oxygen.