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By the time Keith Jesperson was given the nickname the Happy Face Killer by a newspaper reporter, he was four years into a chilling series of murders that began in 1990.
Jesperson, who’d grown up amid physical violence and abuse in British Columbia, got work as a long-haul trucker. Over five years he strangled eight women, discarding their bodies along the side of the road in several states. Most of his victims were strangers who’d climbed into his cab for a ride or sex or both and ended up dead.
“Snapped Notorious: The Happy Face Killer,'' now streaming on Oxygen, provides a deep dive into this disturbing serial killer. The gripping two-hour special is built around revealing interviews between the killer and crime novelist M. William Phelps, author of “Dangerous Ground: My Friendship with a Serial Killer.”
Over a decade, Phelps cultivated a relationship with Jesperson, who talked about his multiple murders, vicious acts that he repeatedly describes in the TV special as a way of putting a victim “out of her misery.”
Framing homicides in this way allows Jesperson to deny culpability, forensic psychologist Joni Johnston told producers. “It just shows how much he wants and needs to minimize his responsibility in what he’s done,” she said.
In a bizarre twist in the case, Laverne Pavlinac falsely claimed that she and her boyfriend, John Sosnovske, killed Bennett. They were convicted and sent to prison.
Jesperson told Phelps that the inexplicable turn of events was both elating and puzzling. Jesperson figured that he’d been handed, Phelps explained, “a license to continue to kill.”
And Jesperson did continue. He killed seven more women in three years, reported the New York Daily News. Some of his victims have never been identified.
During his murder spree, Jesperson taunted authorities with anonymous confessions that let him brag about his depraved slayings without giving himself away. Jesperson scribbled his first confession in a bathroom in a bus terminal in Montana after the couple was taken in for Bennett’s murder. “I beat her to death, raped her, and loved it,” Jesperson wrote. “People took the blame and I’m free.”
He signed the note with a happy face. Authorities ultimately couldn’t do much with the confession — it could have been written by anyone.
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 bus station bathroom, caught the eye of reporter Phil Stanford. He came up with the moniker the Happy Face Killer. A serial killer’s brand name was born.
Jesperson was finally caught in 1995, following his last known murder: his 41-year-old girlfriend, Julie Ann Winningham.
Killing Winningham, who, unlike his other victims, had a relationship with him, proved to be Jesperson’s undoing. It led police right to him. Jesperson denied guilt when interviewed by police in March 1995, but later wrote a letter to his brother confessing his atrocities to his brother. His sibling turned over the incriminating written confession to police.
Eight different murders were linked to Jesperson in Florida, California, Oregon, Wyoming, and in the state of Washington. After Jesperson confessed to all these murders, he cut a deal to avoid the death penalty.
“He didn't want to die,” Phelps said. “He was scared of dying.”
In November 1995, Pavlinac and Sosnovske were released from prison.
As part of the plea deal, Jesperson, 40, was convicted of three murders — Bennett, Winningham and Laurie Ann Pentland — and went directly to prison without a trial.
Jesperson was eventually sentenced to six consecutive and concurrent sentences adding up to 120 years, according to “Snapped Notorious.” He is behind bars at the Oregon State Prison.
To learn more about the case, watch “Snapped Notorious: The Happy Face Killer,” now streaming on Oxygen.
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