Keith Jesperson earned the nickname “The Happy Face Killer” by mailing anonymous confession letters adorned with happy faces to a newspaper columnist.
The convicted serial killer has been in the Oregon State Penitentiary since 1996; his daughter, Melissa Moore, has called Spokane home since she was a girl. She was a freshman when she arrived home from Shadle Park High School in 1995 and learned of her father’s arrest.
“All I remember from that point was being hysterical, crying and going to school the next day and just trying to get through,” Moore said. “I was kind of left to my own devices.”
She’s kept it secret for years, but the 29-year-old married mother of two will soon share her story with a national audience. Along with a memoir to be published next year, Moore will appear on a new segment of the daytime talk show “Dr. Phil” beginning Thursday.
“I’m not going to allow him to make me feel like I should carry this shame,” Moore said of her father.
Moore’s mother moved her three children from Yakima to Spokane in 1989 after Jesperson confessed to an affair and asked for a divorce, Moore said.
Jesperson, a truck driver, started killing shortly after his divorce was finalized in 1990, Moore said. He wasn’t arrested until 1995. In those five years, Moore and her younger sister and brother visited him at his Portland-area home.
After spending a week filming a series for “Dr. Phil” akin to a counseling boot camp, Moore decided to explore the case she’d tried so hard to ignore. She began contacting detectives with the case and asking questions about the women her father killed.
Moore now recognizes the strange stories her father told of hypothetical killings were no stories at all. And she realizes his frightening antics, like torturing kittens on a clothesline, were signs of crimes to come.
“As horrifying as it was, it was really what was needed for me to kind of shock myself into looking at my father objectively and clearly,” Moore said. Until then, “I was still looking at him as my father.”
Moore graduated from North Central High School in 1998. She studied dental studies and cosmetology at Spokane Community College and married her husband, Sam, eight years ago. They have two children, Jake, 4, and Aspen, 7. Sam Moore works for UPS. She stays home with Jake and Aspen.
Her children prompted her to explore her father’s crimes. Her daughter came home from school one day and asked about him, Moore said.
“I just said, ‘Oh, he lives in Salem.’ I didn’t tell her he’s in prison in Salem,” Moore said. “It occurred to me then that this is something that’s not going to be erased from our family tree.”
But she struggled with how to cope. What should she tell her kids about him? And should she respond to the letters he sends her?
A fan of Phil McGraw’s talk show, Moore wrote to the show and asked for help. A producer called and asked if she’d participate in a new segment: “The Get Real Retreat.” Television critics say the new segments are aimed at boosting the show’s ratings. Moore saw it as “a moment to look at my life and look at it in a new perspective.”
She spent a week in Los Angeles in June, living with 13 people “with problems ranging from racism to alcoholism” and attending group and individual therapy sessions daily. She sought advice from McGraw on how to deal with her father’s constant requests for her attention.
“I was feeling guilty that I wasn’t responding to the letters,” she said. McGraw didn’t directly answer her question.
“He let me figure it out through all the therapy on the show,” she said.
In the end, Moore decided not to contact her father again. She hasn’t seen him since a brief prison visit in the late 1990s.
The series will begin airing Thursday, said Louis DiCenzo, the show’s spokesman.
After a producer said her story would make a great book, Moore contacted a publishing company. She sent a 200-page manuscript to Cedar Fort Inc. in Utah. A ghostwriter is finishing it. The company expects to publish “Broken Paths” next year, said Cindy Bunce, an accountant with Cedar Fort. Moore’s manuscript was “kind of dark,” Bunce said. The published version will better describe how she made peace with her past, Bunce said.
Jesperson has confessed to at least eight murders in five states and is serving three life sentences for killings in Oregon and Wyoming. He earned a reputation as an attention-seeker through his confession letters to the media and authorities and for what police say are false confessions from prison long after his conviction in 1995.
Moore said she’s always feared being associated with her father’s personality traits. Sharing her story isn’t about attention, she said; it’s about coming to grips with it herself and inspiring others.
“It feels so liberating to be honest with people and not wonder if they’ll find out my secret,” Moore said.