My friend the happy face killer

Real Crime - - Contents - Words Seth Fer­ranti

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

the vic­tim

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

Lav­erne Pavlinac,

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.

In Septem­ber

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

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