Touching Evil: Getting to know a serial killer

First of a three-part series

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There was no texting, no whispering, no staring into space by the 30 Duquesne University students seated around a black speaker phone in Room 607 of Fisher Hall.

On the line was the special guest lecturer for the forensic investigation class. He had mesmerized the mostly female class by answering their questions about killings and crime scenes, motives and modus operandi, crime and punishment.

Consistently responsive, often humorous, always respectful, Keith Hunter Jesperson spoke of his extensive experience in what the students were studying.

When women angered him, for example, "I got out the only way I knew, which was killing them."

Mr. Jesperson, the imprisoned serial killer of at least eight women in six states between 1990 and 1995, was matter-of-fact as he spoke from the Oregon State Penitentiary, providing details about his murders and his mind.

The college seniors were transfixed as they learned from the kind of person they will seek to imprison in their careers as crime-scene investigators, crime-lab scientists and forensic analysts.

The conference call Nov. 5 wasn't the students' first interaction with the murderer known as the "Happy Face Killer" -- a result of the smiley face on a handwritten letter he sent to an Oregon newspaper in the midst of his killing rampage. For the entire fall semester, Mr. Jesperson, 52, who is serving three life sentences, was the focus of a student-run project in which more than a dozen letters were exchanged.

Mr. Jesperson wrote at length about the prelude and aftermath of his murders, the evidence he destroyed or left behind, and the role forensics played in his capture.

This was one unusual college project, but by touching evil, the students leveraged lessons that no professor or textbook could provide.

Keith Hunter Jesperson was one of five children born in Chilliwack, British Columbia, to an alcoholic, abusive, work- and money-obsessed engineer father and an emotionally cold mother.

Mr. Jesperson felt unloved by his father, who moved his family to the state of Washington in 1967 when Keith was 12. As a child and as an adult, he set fires and tortured and killed dogs, cats and other animals. He married young, had three children and divorced. Eventually he found his niche as a cross-country trucker, but he also found himself fantasizing about taking women by force.

He confessed to killing eight women, mostly truck stop prostitutes, over slights real or perceived. At one point, he told authorities he actually had killed 166 women, but later recanted and said eight was the right number. The murders, by strangulation, occurred in Nebraska, California, Florida, Washington, Oregon and Wyoming. Some of his victims have never been identified.

Ron Freeman needed an easy read last summer for his return flight home from Seattle, where he had visited his daughter. What caught his eye in the airport bookstore was " 'I'--The Creation of a Serial Killer."

The choice made sense for Mr. Freeman, a retired Pittsburgh police officer with 371/2 years on the job, 34 as a homicide detective and commander.

The 2002 book by true-crime author Jack Olsen details Mr. Jesperson's life, his five-year murder spree, his confessions and his imprisonment. It is replete with first-person passages by the serial killer himself.

Mr. Freeman, who since retirement has taught at four area colleges, was intrigued by Mr. Jesperson's story, particularly by his knowledge of forensic evidence.

Mr. Freeman's course, "Forensic Investigation I," in which students study procedures employed by crime-scene investigators, was set for the fall semester at Duquesne. The students would work with DNA, fingerprints, blood-splatter patterns and other evidence just like that in the investigation of Mr. Jesperson's killings.

Why not have the students interact with "someone from the other side of the equation?" he said.

"In school, they talk to professors, scientists, and I'm an ex-cop. They get our perspective on the criminal justice system. I thought, 'Why not try to look at it from a different side?' "

On Aug. 27, the first day of class, he asked whether the students would be interested in contacting a serial killer as a class project. Participation was voluntary, but no one opted out. Sensitive to the unorthodox nature of the project, he required the students to get their parents' permission.

Next, Mr. Freeman got the approval of Dr. Frederick W. Fochtman , director of Forensic Science and Law, a five-year master's degree program that Duquesne has offered since 2001. They went to Dr. David W. Seybert, dean of the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, for his OK.

"My first reaction was, 'What?' " Dr. Seybert recalled with a laugh. "I was intrigued. It sounded just like a wonderful learning experience. Our students are really pretty mature and pretty professional. I didn't see any jeopardy or danger to students."

There was jeopardy and danger aplenty for women who encountered Mr. Jesperson in the 1990s. His first known victim was Taunja Bennett, 23, on Jan. 23, 1990, near Portland, Ore. Ms. Bennett, who was mildly retarded, met Mr. Jesperson at the B&I Tavern.

He told the woman that he wanted to buy her dinner but needed to stop home for money. There they had sex but Mr. Jesperson's violent temper came to the fore when she said to him, "Why don't you get it over with and take me to dinner!"

Mr. Jesperson beat her until her face was unrecognizable; blood splattered the floor and walls. And then he strangled her. He cut out the front of her pants, fearing his fingerprints were on the metal buttons.

He returned to the bar to establish an alibi and later dumped her body near the Columbia River Gorge. Eight hours later the body was discovered. It would be five more years before Mr. Jesperson's killing spree was halted.

It didn't take long for leaders to emerge in Mr. Freeman's class.

Friends Cara Spencer, Natalie Sciulli and Lyndsie Schantz volunteered to write the initial letter to Mr. Jesperson.

Miss Schantz said her parents were fascinated by the project. Miss Spencer and Miss Sciulli laughed, recalling that their parents jokingly had one caveat about their involvement: Don't end up marrying Mr. Jesperson.

Their friends haven't been as understanding when the women tell them they're corresponding with a serial killer.

"Their eyes get really big," said Miss Spencer, 22, of Greensburg.

"They say, 'You're using your real name?' " said Miss Sciulli, 21, of Crafton.

"My roommates can't believe it," said Miss Schantz, 21, of Lower Burrell. "They don't understand it and don't see the value of it like we do.

"I feel this is a way to get inside the mind of someone so evil to see how they think and how they were able to commit these crimes and basically have no remorse and to see the things they did to cover it up," added Miss Schantz, whose chief interest is the psychological aspects of criminality.

Said Miss Spencer, who wants to be a coroner's investigator: "Sometimes I feel sort of twisted about it, like this is entirely not normal. But then I realize I'm also in forensic science and most people consider that abnormal, to work with dead people in the first place. So, all in all, it sort of makes sense."

Miss Sciulli, who plans to pursue a career processing crime scenes and working in a crime laboratory, viewed the interaction with a serial killer as invaluable.

"We already have the perspective of the good guys ... but to have one of the bad guys tell us his mindset and how he went about making sure he didn't get caught and how he knew what he knew is extremely helpful," she said.

When news reports about the discovery of Miss Bennett's body appeared, Laverne Pavlinac, 57, saw a way to get out of a 10-year abusive relationship with her boyfriend, John Sosnovske, 43. She told police that her boyfriend was the killer and she participated. Despite the fact neither had anything to do with the killing, Ms. Pavlinac was convicted and Mr. Sosnovske accepted a plea bargain.

Mr. Jesperson complained in anonymous messages on bathroom walls in Oregon and Montana and in letters to an Oregon County courthouse and to The Oregonian newspaper that police had the wrong people in jail. In the letter to The Oregonian, he drew a "Happy Face" at the top of the first page, giving birth to the infamous nickname.

He provided details about the crime that only the killer would know. Nevertheless, the couple ended up serving four years in prison until Mr. Jesperson was arrested in 1995 and showed authorities where he had scattered the contents of Miss Bennett's purse.

The stranger-than-fiction tale was the subject of a 1999 Showtime movie titled "Happy Face Murders," with Ann-Margret playing a character based on Ms. Pavlinac.

On Sept. 17, Miss Spencer, Miss Schantz, and Miss Sciulli composed their first correspondence to Inmate #11620304 at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.

"We feel you could teach us a great deal about the legal system and forensic science from your standpoint," they wrote. "For example, what knowledge of forensic science did you have at the time of your crimes?"

Some of the students were skeptical that they would ever hear back from the serial killer.

About a week later, Miss Spencer and Miss Sciulli walked into their adviser's office on the third floor of Fisher Hall and learned they had mail: two letters from Mr. Jesperson addressed to "Duquesne University Forensic Science and Law Program -- Cara-Lyndsie-Natalie."

Miss Schantz hurried to the office. They phoned Mr. Freeman.

"Can we open them?" No, Mr. Freeman said, the contents should be revealed before the entire class.

The five days until the next class took forever. Finally, the three young women stood before their classmates, Mr. Freeman and Dr. Fochtman. The two envelopes were torn open, revealing nine handwritten pages.

"Dear Cara, Lyndsie and Natalie," the Happy Face Killer wrote. "So you are seniors -- forensic science majors. ... Do you want the real truth?"

Tomorrow: Corresponding with a killer

Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at or 412-263-1968. First Published December 16, 2007 5:00 AM


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