My friend the happy face killer
William Phelps began writing to Keith Hunter Jesperson for research, but the bond he formed with the convicted killer would prove hard to break
When M. William Phelps began writing to a notorious serial killer serving three life sentences for eight murders, little
did he know that it would lead to an unusual friendship
Everybody wants to know what makes a serial killer tick. But if you get close enough to find out, you might not like the consequences. It’s not an everyday thing to form a friendship with a known serial killer, and not many have the fortitude to see it through. Being assailed, even on a mental level, by a diabolical creature that views you as his outlet to the world must be unnerving on multiple levels.
But when you’re drawn to investigating the dark side like M. William Phelps, then you form relationships with people like the Happy Face Killer Keith Hunter Jesperson – going so far as to feature the Canadian serial killer on his Investigation Discovery show. Phelps made Jesperson a consultant on his show, allowing viewers a glimpse into the mind of a serial killer in the hope that that Jesperson’s input would help him better understand cold cases, while at the same time bringing viewers into the world of a serial killer, if only for a few minutes at a time.
The Happy Face Killer
Jesperson started killing in January 1990. He engaged in a multi- state murder spree that began in Oregon, just south of his Canadian roots. As a long- haul trucker he had both time and opportunity. His movements covered his tracks, enabling him to kill eight women over five years, flying under the radar until he turned himself in. This was after he’d confessed to a murder and drawn a smiley face on the wall at a truck stop bathroom – a signature announcing himself to the public as the ‘ Happy Face Killer’.
He was also writing letters to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office and The Oregonian newspaper, admitting his crimes anonymously. He was begging for attention. He must have loved it when the press came up with the Happy Face Killer name, an ominous moniker for a deranged human being. Convicted of multiple murders, Jesperson is now serving three life sentences for his heinous crimes in the Oregon state system.
“His philosophy about life is based in the simple fact that he’s a psychopath,” M. William Phelps, the author of Dangerous Ground: My Friendship With A Serial Killer, told Real Crime. “The way that he looks at things is to dehumanise and devalue life, so his philosophy of life was that karma and the universe always balances things out. That karma played a role in everything he did. He believed that every single one of his victims was supposed to die.”
Jesperson told Phelps, “If it wasn’t her it wouldn’t have happened. She was near me at that time. We both came in contact with each other at a specific time, on a specific day, and I was meant to be there to kill her.”
“That’s how Happy Face viewed life,” Phelps explained. “His big thing was, don’t try to use him. If you try to use him, especially if you’re a female, that flips a switch, a volcanic rage switch inside of him and watch out – you’re dead.”
A Professional Overture
Many years ago Phelps created a show called Dark Minds. It focused on revisiting and investigating cold cases for new information. He needed a serial killer to appear on the show, someone who was incarcerated and was willing to talk about cases, analyse them and profile them. Phelps started writing to different serial killers, and Jesperson was the one who wrote back the most vigorously. He just started writing to Phelps, and he didn’t stop.
“In the beginning I wrote him back,” Phelps told Real Crime. “But after a couple of months he was just writing me, and then we’d talk about the letters on the phone. The biggest thing about the letters is the overwhelming amount of material that he sent me and continues to send me. I have about ten to 12 letters I’m staring at right now [ from] over the past couple weeks I have yet to open, just because it’s too consuming. I would drive to my PO box, I’d open it up and grab the mail. I’d pull out all his letters and within five days there’d be 60, 80, 100 pages of material from him.”
After visiting his PO box Phelps just sat in his car, shook his head and asked himself, “What am I supposed to do with all this, it’s too much.” Over the years Phelps received more than 7,000 pages of letters, including artwork and recorded hundreds of hours of audio interviews, three hours of Skype interviews, and even visited the serial killer in prison. The relationship grew, and the Happy Face Killer became a regular part of Phelps’s professional life.
“When I started dealing with Jesperson he was an anonymous voice on the phone on my TV show Dark Minds,” Phelps said. “The relationship was based on him profiling cases for me on television using the anonymous name ‘ Raven’. We began communicating three or four times a week in 2011, and over the years it just grew. The interviews I was doing with him were just incredible. He was being so open and honest.”
When Phelps first reached out to Jesperson in 2011, a psychologist friend had a warning: “Phelps, you’re a big guy, you lift weights, you’re a spiritual guy, a tough guy, but let me give you some advice. If the devil knocks at your door and you invite him in, you better be fucking ready to dance with him or he’s going to get in your head.” Phelps laughed and told his friend, “Come on, I’ve been doing this for years, I’ve been writing these books for years, nothing can break me.” But in the end Phelps wasn’t laughing anymore, because the psychologist was right.
“When you pick up the phone, when you go visit him, always let him see you as M. William Phelps,” the psychologist told Phelps. “Never allow him to see you as Matthew. That’s your personal side.” Phelps later recalled how difficult it was to separate his professional and personal lives when it came to Jesperson, who was slowly trying to worm his way into Phelps’s psyche.
“It was very difficult because I interviewed him over five years,” Phelps told Real Crime. “At some point through that five years, you’re going to slip, and sure enough I did slip a couple of times, and it was very shocking. It was very alarming really, because I’d be on the phone and say, ‘ Listen, I’ve got to go, my daughter’s got a volleyball game, I’ll talk to you again some other time’ and hang up.”
But the next time Jesperson would call he’d say, “How did that volleyball game turn out?” Phelps would tell him,
If the devil knocks at your door and you invite
him in, you better be... ready to dance with him
“Listen man, you don’t go there, you cannot go there, that’s not a space for you to enter, we don’t have a personal relationship.” But Jesperson could be charming, and Phelps didn’t even realise it. “You’ve got to really be in touch with what’s going on all the time,” Phelps explained. “It was very difficult to keep up that persona of M. Williams Phelps.”
He talked to Phelps about everything – from the moments, hours, and days before he stalked a woman up to the point where he picked her up. He talked about what he was thinking and feeling before he decided to kill her, what he was thinking and feeling as he was killing and after he had killed a woman. Generally speaking, he held nothing back.
“One of the things he told me was as a killer you have to put some distance between you and the body,” Phelps told Real Crime. “The more time you spend next to that body the higher the chance you’re caught. The further you are away from the body, the less your chances are of getting caught.
For example, one of his victims he picked up in Tampa. They drove up the I- 10 to Pensacola. He’d killed her somewhere in between at a rest stop and dumped her right off the highway near an exit in Pensacola.”
Slipping Inside His Head
The first time Phelps went and visited the Happy Face Killer he sat down in front of him, and they sat facing each other. The serial killer – all six feet seven inches and 300 pounds of him – was a massive man. He sat with his hands on his knees, and his hands were one and a half feet from Phelps’s throat. The only thing Phelps could think about while looking at those big hands was how they had killed eight women – squeezed the life right out of them. It was one of the more sobering moments of Phelps’s life. Sitting there and pondering that, a question came into Phelps’s mind and he was never afraid to ask the killer anything.
“The question was, ‘ Could you kill me?’” Phelps said. “And his answer was, ‘ If I had to I certainly can kill you. I’d have no trouble with that.’ That set the tone of our relationship really. I wanted to see if a psychopath, if someone who’s born that way and develops into this monstrous serial killer, if that person had any humanity left in them. I figured I could ask the right questions and maybe I’d get the right answers.”
One day Phelps asked Jesperson about his thoughts on the show Dark Minds that they both worked on. “Tell me what you think the show is about, tell me how you’re feeling about it, tell me what you see as dark. What is a dark mind to you inside your head?” After that the Happy Face Killer sent him a painting of a man. “There’s tropical trees in his head, there’s
If I had to i certainly can kill you. I’d have no trouble with that
blood, and that’s how he imagined Dark Minds,” Phelps said. “The other thing that struck me was a painting of Charles Manson he sent me. The swastika on the man’s head is bleeding. He knows what people want him to do. He knows what people expect from him, but another part of that is just the way his mind works.”
Phelps knows that Jesperson’s mind works in a very dark way, which comes out through his art. He has sent Phelps paintings of everything – from parakeets, donkeys and elephants, to some of the most gruesome things you could imagine, like the shower stabbing scene in Psycho. Happy Face is a dark person, and his art certainly reflects that.
“It was torture,” Phelps told Real Crime. “It didn’t start out as that, but it turned into psychological torture for me. It started to deteriorate my soul, my physical health, my mind. It just kind of grew as Happy Face took over my life spiritually, emotionally, and physically. What happened over that time period, the six years that I communicated with him, was that he began to slowly get inside of my head. What I started to do, as a compassionate human being, was to search for answers and any form of humanity in this individual.” So much so that Jesperson started to look at Phelps as a surrogate father figure. “He’s older than me, so the surrogate
father thing was strange,” Phelps said. “Because he made me feel like I was the only person he could trust, 100 per cent. To this day he trusts me 100 per cent, and that felt strange, because that puts a lot of pressure on you. Because now I have this serial killer who looks to me as his everything – his conduit to the outside, his voice. He looks to me as his storyteller, as someone who he can run things by and ask advice on, and I don’t want to be all those things. I just want to be a journalist. But on a project like this there’s no such fucking thing as objectivity; throw that out, because you can’t be objective all the time and be that journalist all the time. Inherently you just become involved in the story, and that’s what happened with me.”
Severing the Cord
Before Phelps started corresponding with Jesperson he’d written 32 books – seven of those about serial killers – and believed that he was hardened and that nothing could get inside his head. Phelps thought that he’d seen everything, heard everything and that nothing could break him, but Jesprerson proved him wrong. His relationship with the Happy Face Killer taught him that you always have to keep your guard up against the devil, because the devil is always looking to get inside your head and possess you.
“I asked Jesperson, ‘ If you were let out of jail tomorrow would you kill again?’ and his response was, ‘ I’d tell you no, Phelps, because that’s what you want to hear, you want to hear that I’ve been rehabilitated. So I’d tell you no. But in reality the truth is I probably would.’ I could take the word ‘ probably’ out of there and say he definitely would, because he’s a born psychopath, and he developed into this really violent killer, and he can’t change. He can’t change who he is, even if he wanted to. Serial killers cannot stop killing. They will not stop killing.
“What surprised me the most was his honesty over certain things. Cynthia Rose was victim number eight. But he told me he found out in 2009, when he saw a picture of her, that she wasn’t the girl he killed. They found Cynthia Rose close to where he dumped this other girl, so they attributed Cynthia Rose to him. At first I didn’t believe him. I’m thinking he’s just a fucking lying serial killer piece- of- shit psychopath who’s trying to play me.”
But when Jesperson kept coming back to that point Phelps decided to investigate the case. He got Jesperson’s trucker logbook, the autopsy report and all the police reports connected to Cynthia Rose. Phelps started questioning him, without Jesperson knowing Phelps already had the information. He questioned the serial killer for a year and a half regarding that case and found out that Happy Face was
almost certainly telling the truth. “One of the victims he’s on the books for, he didn’t murder,” Phelps said. “He murdered a different girl. [ I hoped] he could possibly identify a Jane Doe that I could bring home to a family.”
This is the main reason Phelps initiated the relationship, but he learned a lot about himself through his correspondence with the Happy Face Killer. “It taught me that what you have as memories of your life, of who you are, your family, the things you’ve been through, the trauma that you’ve been through, what you have in your mind is different than when you put it out on paper and you really allow it to stare back at you. I learned things about my life that I thought I had been through, that I had thought I had gotten over. I learned things about myself that I didn’t know, through the process of writing about all of it. When you write about yourself it forces you to look at yourself, and I didn’t like what I saw a lot of the time. It scared me.”
Phelps knows what the families go through when a loved one is murdered – because his own sister- in- law was murdered in 1996, in a case that remains unsolved to this day. He admits that his relationship with Happy Face could have been a subconscious attempt by him to come to grips with and deal with the tragedy and loss he has experienced in his own life. But Phelps didn’t go for the bait that Happy Face threw to him.
“Jesperson kept telling me, ‘ I want to help you understand the person who killed your sister.’ But I kept pushing him back saying, ‘ let’s not make this personal between us, this is about you, and this is about the questions I ask you. This is not about you trying to help me, this is about me asking you questions and you answering them.’ In the end he really does reveal some information to me that helped me understand – not only the person who killed my sister- in- law, but the kind of person that she is seen as in the public.”
As of 4 September 2017 Phelps was still in contact with the Happy Face Killer but more sparingly these days – once a week, or every ten to 12 days. “I pick up the phone and the only reason I’m doing that is because the book’s out and I’m doing some media. I’m actually heading out to LA to start shooting a documentary about the book. I kind of need him in that respect, but come October, I would say the middle of October when I don’t need him anymore, I’m cutting the cord and just saying, ‘ Listen, I can’t talk to you no more. If you want to write letters that’s up to you, but I can’t talk to you anymore. I have to move on from this, I can’t be your friend’. The word ‘ friend’ should always be in quotes, because that’s a slippery slope for me, because we were never friends. We were acquaintances I guess you could say, but yeah, I’m going to cut that cord,” and end his ‘ friendship’ with the Happy Face Killer once and for all.
he killed eight, he wants to be now
Jane Doe’ s skull
w as ma pped and combined with J
esperson’s sk etch try and identify to
below The Happy Face Killer as a younger man when he went on his killing spree. The long- haul trucker might have never been caught if he didn’t turn himself in
wrongl y con victed for the murder
of Taunja Bennett, was released in
to The Ha ppy F ace Killer conf essed
and the murder of Taunja Bennett
he did promised to kill a gain, whic h
Taunja was killed on 30 January 1990 near Portland, Oregon. Jesperson brought her home to have sex with her, but she refused and he beat her to death. A woman claimed to have committed the murder with her boyfriend, stealing Jesperson’s thunder.
In June 1993 a
Jane Doe was found dead in Santa Nella, California. Police thought she died of a drug overdose, but Jesperson confessed to the murder of the woman he called Cindy. He said she was a street person that he took in for the night and killed.
In 1990 Daun survived an attack by the Happy Face Killer. On 12 April she got into an argument with her husband and left their Mount Shasta home with her four- year- old son. Happy Face approached her and they started talking. After trying to sexually assault her for hours Happy Face, maybe due to her son’s crying, took the woman back and dropped her off in town. Claudia is a Jane
Doe that hasn’t been identified. She was killed on 30 August 1992. She was raped, strangled and dumped near Blythe, California. Jesperson liked to kill women with his bare hands after violating them. That was the pattern he followed.
1994 another Jane Doe was found in Crestview, Florida in the Panhandle, murdered and badly decomposed. Jesperson said her name was Suzanne. Happy Face not only wanted to have sex with these women, he wanted to kill them. In September 1992 Cynthia was found murdered in Turlock, California. Jesperson thought she was a prostitute that he picked up at a truck stop. With his job as a trucker he could kill women in different areas and be gone before the investigation started.
She hitched a ride with Jesperson in January 1995 from Spokane, Washington to Indiana. When she complained about how long it was taking to get there he raped and strangled her. He strapped her to the undercarriage of his truck to grind off her face and fingerprints.
fr aud. His gentle a ppearance w as a
The Ha ppy F ace Killer murdered numerous w omen with his bare
th hands – str angling them to dea after he r aped them Laurie was a prostitute from Salem, Oregon who had the misfortune of running into Jesperson when he was in the thick of his killing spree. Her body was found in November 1992. Jesperson said he killed her after she tried to double her fee after they had sex.
The only victim that Happy Face actually knew. She was his girlfriend before he murdered her. He strangled her to death on 30 March 1995 in Washougal, Washington. Her murder set the police on his trail as she was the only victim that he had a link to.
Above The drawing displays Jesperson’s obsessivecompulsive fixation on the Taunja Bennett murder investigation. The circles represent the matrix of cop corruption that exists only in Happy Face’s twisted mind
Above Phelps understands the pain the victims’ families go through. His sister- in- law Diane was murdered in 1996 when she was five months pregnant. The case has never been solved
far Right M. William Phelps with the Happy Face Killer in the prison visiting room. Phelps is not a small guy, but he is dwarfed by the Happy Face Killer’s huge frame
caught The Ha ppy F ace Killer w asn’t by la w enf orcement, he turned
caught himself in. He w anted to get and cr aved the a ttention