In handwritten letters decorated with “happy faces,” a man awaiting a rape and murder trial is claiming responsibility for killing eight women across the country in the past five years.
Keith Jesperson, 40, says that in at least one case, innocent people are serving time for his crime.
The long-haul truck driver is being held at the Clark County jail in neighboring Vancouver, Wash., on charges he kidnapped, raped and strangled a Camas, Wash., woman last March. After several months in jail, Jesperson began a letter-writing campaign last week, saying his conscience was bothering him.
“I want this to end as soon as possible,” Jesperson wrote in a letter he asked to be delivered to The Associated Press. “Unlike O.J. Simpson, I do not want this to drag on.”
Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert L. Harris finally ordered Jesperson to stop confessing to the media, or end up in solitary confinement.
The judge also threatened to strip Jesperson of his phone, mail and television privileges in order to prevent him from jeopardizing his pending trial on charges of murdering Julie Ann Winningham, 41, of Camas.
Winningham apparently had been his girlfriend for a time, and friends who knew she was dating a tall trucker named “Keith” eventually led detectives to the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Jesperson.
He confessed in a long-distance phone call to a Clark County sheriff’s detective from a diner in Cochise County, Ariz., a day after he learned investigators were tracking him for the March 23 killing of Winningham.
His lawyer, Thomas Phelan, said Jesperson has pleaded innocent to the slaying despite the confession. When asked about the contradictory plea, Phelan said only that, “I can’t comment on that.”
Jesperson also claims to have sent an anonymous letter last year to The Oregonian that described five slayings and included some details that had not been made public. The Portland newspaper dubbed the author the “happy face killer” because a smiley face symbol was drawn atop the letter.
The big question now facing investigators from several states is whether Jesperson, who drew happy face symbols on his signed letters sent from jail, is telling the truth.
“We cannot discuss aspects of real or potential confessions,” said Undersheriff Paul Pastor of Clark County.
“But I can tell you some good old shoe-leather, roll-up-your-sleeve, stick-to-it detective work led us to Mr. Jesperson,” Pastor said. “If there have been other crimes committed by Mr. Jesperson, at least he is not able to commit any more crimes right now.”
Robert Peschka, a retired Portland Police Bureau handwriting expert, said he examined copies of the anonymous letter sent to The Oregonian and a confession letter Jesperson wrote to his brother in Selah, Wash., that later was obtained by Clark County detectives.
The handwriting appeared identical.
“The only thing that kept me from giving a 100 percent verdict was that I didn’t have original copies,” said Peschka, who made his unofficial analysis for a Portland television station.
Pastor said police were analyzing handwriting samples but he could not comment. Meanwhile, he said, the media attention has brought a flood of calls to Clark County from detectives in other states.
“When you have a suspect who is highly mobile, it has to occur to you that the individual may have engaged in the same activity in other locations,” Pastor said.
In Portland, a senior Multnomah County prosecutor and a detective have been assigned to check Jesperson’s claims that he murdered his first victim, Taunja Bennett of Portland, in January 1990.
The anonymous “happy face” letter to The Oregonian that Jesperson now claims to have written last year said that Bennett “was my first and I thought I would not do it again. But I was wrong.”
“I went to truck driving school and learned to drive. While driving I learned a lot and heard of people that have gotten away with such a crime because of our nomad way of life.”
District Attorney Michael Schrunk says he is skeptical but any new leads in a murder case deserve investigation, especially the Bennett case, because two other people were convicted of that murder and sent to prison.
“It would be premature to say it’s a reopening of the case,” Schrunk said, “but it would be wrong to say we’re not paying attention to what he (Jesperson) is saying.”