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"Happy Face Killer" Keith Hunter Jesperson Racks Up More Victims

By Denise Grollmus in cold cases, homicide, serial killers
Tuesday, December 22, 2009 at 10:00 am

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Since 1995, Keith Hunter Jesperson, known as the "Happy Face Killer," has racked up seven murder convictions. Last month, the total came to eight, when he confessed to the murder of a woman whose identity remains unknown...

Police think that Jesperson's career as a serial killer first began in 1990. At the time, he was working as a truck driver, passing through small towns all throughout the country, where he picked up women, had sex with them, and then murdered them before dumping their bodies in other small towns far away. 


His first victim was Taunja Bennett. She was 23-years-old and mildly retarded. Jesperson picked her up in a Portland, Oregan bar. They went back to his place and had sex before he beat and strangled her to death. He then drove east, just far enough away from town, where he dumped her body in an embankment. He then drove even further out, where he disposed of her purse and walkman in a river before stopping for a cup of coffee. 

In an odd twist of events, a woman named Laverne Pavlinac read about Bennett's murder in a local paper and then falsely confessed to the crime. She later said that she hoped to pin the crime on her abusive boyfriend, John Sosnovske, in an attempt to get out of the relationship. She told police that he'd murdered Bennett and forced her to help him dispose of the body. Sosnovske was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. Pavlinac also received 10 years for alleged participation. 

Thanks to Pavlinac's unintended cover, Jesperson continued his methodical murdering, which he chillingly described for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He left a trail of bodies throughout Washington, Wyoming, Nebraska, and even down through Florida. 

Finally, in 1995, he was picked up for the murder of his girlfriend, Julie Ann Winningham. 

Jesperson had no trouble confessing to the murder. Apparently, he'd been boasting about his homicidal exploits since Bennett, when he left a confession on the wall of a truck stop bathroom along with his infamous tag line -- a happy face. However, the cryptic message didn't elicit the sort of police chase or media frenzy Jesperson had hoped for. That's when Jesperson decided to up the stakes and began sending confessions to news outlets as well as police departments across the country. He always signed his letters with a happy face, thus becoming the "happy face killer." 

After admitting to the murder of Winningham, Jesperson confessed yet again to killing Bennett. Pavlinac and her boyfriend were released after serving four years and Jesperson found himself serving three consecutive life sentences. 

Since then, Jesperson has claimed responsibility for up to 160 murders. However, police have only been able to verify eight, including a 1992 homicide case that was solved only earlier this month. 

On August 30, 1992, police dogs dragged a body from the desert in Riverside, California. Unfortunately, it was decomposed beyond recognition. The coroner's office could conclude only that it belonged to a blonde woman, between the ages of 20 and 30, who stood at little more than 5 feet, 3 inches. 

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Police still don't know the identity of Jesperson's most recently discovered victim.
‚ÄčThe body was never identified and the case remained cold until recently, when Riverside County detectives finally made a link between their Jane Doe and a "happy face" letter that Jesperson had sent into Salem, Oregon's Statesman Journal in 1996. 

In that letter, Jesperson described in detail how he'd met the Riverside girl, whom he referred to as "Claudia." He claimed that they went back to his hotel room, where they had sex several times before she demanded payment. "I wasn't going to start handing over money," he wrote. "She didn't like the answer she got mad and said we'll see about that. She died!"

Jesperson also detailed how he disposed of the body "at the bottom of a canyon with a lot of brush," matching the description of where Jane Doe's body was found by police. 

Earlier this month, Jesperson was extradited from Oregon -- where he was serving his life sentences -- to Riverside, where he awaits yet another murder indictment. 

But while police think they have the right killer, they still have no clues as to who "Jane Doe" really is. They are asking any one with information to contact Senior Investigator Robert Masson of the Central Homicide Unit at 951-955-2777, or the Colorado River Sheriff's Sation at 760-921-7900.

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