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Crime News Snapped

Who Is The Happy Face Killer, A Murderer Who Signed His Disturbing Confessions With A Smiley Face?

"I beat her to death, raped her, and loved it. Yes, I’m sick but I enjoy myself, too," serial killer Keith Hunter Jesperson wrote in one chilling bathroom wall message.

By Becca van Sambeck
Keith Jeperson Happy Face Killer

A smiley face is usually a universal symbol of joy and laughter, an image basically anyone can recreate to visually demonstrate their happiness. That made the horrific confession written on a bathroom wall in a Greyhound bus terminal in Montana all the more eerie.

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The author's missive confessed to raping and killing a woman named Taunja Bennett. "Yes, I’m sick but I enjoy myself, too," he wrote, signing it off with a simple smiley face, according to a 2020 New York Daily News report.

The man behind the bathroom wall note was eventually revealed to be Keith Hunter Jesperson, who is the subject of the upcoming special "Snapped Notorious: The Happy Face Killer," airing Sunday, October 10 at 8/7c on Oxygen. Jesperson, who murdered eight women in the 1990s, earned his moniker "The Happy Face Killer" after he sent multiple missives to news outlets about his crimes, signing them all with a smiley face.

Here's what to know about the disturbing serial killer.

Who is the Happy Face Killer?

Keith Jeperson 1 Happy Face Killer Spotlight

Keith Hunter Jesperson was born in 1955 in British Columbia, Canada. His childhood was not an easy one: His father was abusive, and he was often bullied by other kids, according to the New York Daily News. He soon started acting out in disturbing ways, including torturing animals and attacking other children, the BBC reported in 2014.

Jesperson eventually settled in Selah, Washington with his wife and three children. He stood at a hulking six feet, six inches tall, and worked as a long-haul trucker, which helped him prowl for victims.

"I loved my dad, but I didn't really enjoy being around him. He made me anxious. He never molested or beat any of us, it was just a feeling that something was building, seething beneath the surface. I had once tried to articulate it to a school counsellor, but it didn't come out right," his daughter Melissa Moore told the BBC, adding, "He would leer at women in public, make lewd remarks about them, and harass them."

He split from his wife in 1990 after 15 years of marriage, the same year he killed his first victim, according to The New York Daily News.

Who Were The Happy Face Killer's Victims?

Aeriel View Of Crime Scene Happy Face Killer Spotlight

In 1990, Jesperson met with a young woman named Taunja Bennett at an Oregon bar. The two had a sexual encounter, but it soon turned violent: Jesperson strangled her with a rope and killed her, eventually dumping her body by the Columbia River, the Associated Press reported in 1995. Her body was later found by a passing cyclist, according to The New York Daily News.

Jesperson went on to kill at least seven more women, mostly sex workers, although at one point he claimed to have killed over 150 women, according to the BBC.. In August 1992, he raped and strangled a woman in California. She has never been identified. In the next few months, he killed two sex workers, Cynthia Lyn Rose in California and Laurie Ann Pentland in Oregon, according to "Snapped Notorious: The Happy Face Killer." In June 1993, he murdered another unidentified woman in California, and in September 1994, another unidentified victim of his was found in Florida. He later claimed her name was Suzanne or Suzy, CBS12 reported in 2021. In January 1995, he raped and strangled Angela Subriz in Wyoming.

Julie Winningham Happy Face Killer Spotlight

His final victim was an ex-girlfriend of his: Julie Winningham, a 41-year-old woman who was found dead by a Washington road in March 1995, the New York Daily News reported.

A False Confession

Laverne Pavlinac Happy Face Killer Spotlight

Jesperson almost got away with the murder of Bennett, after someone else took credit for the crime: a 57-year-old hospital worker named Laverne Pavlinac. She claimed she and her boyfriend, John Sosnovske, had raped and beaten the young woman, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Pavlinac later recanted her confession, claiming she had only told the story in an attempt to get out of an abusive relationship with Sosnovske. But the damage was done: In 1991, a jury convicted her of murder and sentenced her to life in prison. Sosnovske, in order to avoid the death penalty, pleaded no contest to murder that same year and was also sentenced to life in prison, according to the Los Angeles Times.

But a series of strange letters and another body would soon alert authorities they had the wrong people behind bars.

Disturbing Letters

Keith Jeperson Letter 1 Happy Face Killer Spotlight

The first missive from The Happy Face Killer popped up before Pavlinac and Sosnovske went to trial, but it wasn't deemed credible. It was scrawled upon a bus station bathroom wall in Montana, and read, “I killed Tanya Bennet [sic] January 21, 1990 in Portland, Ore. I beat her to death, raped her, and loved it. Yes, I’m sick but I enjoy myself, too. People took the blame and I’m free.” It was signed with a happy face, the New York Daily News reported.

More notes followed, as Jesperson, in what seemed to be a bid for attention, sent letters to several news outlets and police stations bragging about his murders, all marked with a happy face. One lengthy, six-page letter to The Oregonian, for example, described the murder of five women and the location of their bodies. A columnist for the outlet, Phil Stanford, eventually gave him the nickname The Happy Face Killer, The Oregonian reported in 2014.

Keith Jeperson Letter 2 Happy Face Killer Spotlight

But it wasn't the notes that would lead to his capture.

Capture and Aftermath

After the murder of Winningham, investigators eventually arrived to talk to one of her romantic partners — Jesperson. He readily confessed to her murder, as well as the murders of many others, according to The New York Daily News.

Jesperson also revealed he was the one behind Bennett's murder, insisting he had never even met Pavlinac and Sosnovske, the Los Angeles Times reported. He was able to lead police to Bennett's purse, near where her body was found, and provide other details that had them certain they finally had the right man. Pavlinac and Sosnovske were subsequently released from prison.

Keith Jeperson Happy Face Killer Spotlight

Police also uncovered a letter he had written to his brother before he was arrested, where he said, “I am sorry that I turned out this way. I have been a killer for five years and have killed eight people. Assaulted more," the New York Daily News reported.

Jesperson was found guilty of murdering Bennett in 1995, the Los Angeles Times reported. Over the following years, he was found guilty of seven other murders and has been sentenced to life in prison for four consecutive terms, according to "Snapped Notorious: The Happy Face Killer."

Jesperson remains in the Oregon State Penitentiary to this day. His daughter, Melissa Moore, told the BBC she cut off contact with him entirely after her grandfather revealed Jesperson said he thought about killing her children sometimes.

Keith Jeperson In Jail Happy Face Killer Spotlight

To learn more about Jesperson's crimes, what was in his notes, and how he was captured, watch "Snapped Notorious: The Happy Face Killer," airing Sunday, October 10 at 7/6c on Oxygen.

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