The Duquesne University seniors joked and chatted on this rainy November night as they normally do before class, but there was a strange energy, an odd combination of the excitement of New Year's Eve and the fear of the unknown.
In half an hour, the forensic science and law majors would be on a conference call with serial killer Keith Hunter Jesperson, a long-haul trucker who confessed to authorities he strangled eight women in six states between 1990 and 1995.
Since the beginning of fall term, Mr. Jesperson, 52, had corresponded with the forensic investigation class and its future crime scene investigators, crime lab scientists and other law enforcement specialists for a project designed to give them a firsthand look inside a killer's mind.
And now, they were scheduled to have an hourlong phone conversation with Mr. Jesperson, who is serving three life sentences in the Oregon State Penitentiary. Mr. Jesperson had never before spoken in a conference call from the prison to anyone other than his attorneys.
Understandably, everyone was apprehensive. Would he try to intimidate the class, which was primarily female? Would he bristle at pointed questions? Would he sound as evil as his deeds?
Lyndsie Schantz, who with friends Cara Spencer and Natalie Sciullo had written all of the letters to Mr. Jesperson, would talk to him first.
"I'm really anxious," Miss Schantz said. "I just hope he doesn't get mad at anything we ask.
"How do you ask a serial killer different questions about people he's murdered?"
Miss Sciullo admitted to being "morbidly excited," noting that Mr. Jesperson had recently turned down interviews with former FBI profiler John Douglas, NBC's "Dateline" and the Discovery Channel's "Most Evil."
"He's denied famous news broadcasters and profilers and he's going to talk to a bunch of kids, so there's obviously something he wants to tell, but only to certain people," she said.
Even their instructor, Ron Freeman, who worked 34 years in the Pittsburgh homicide squad, felt the anticipation. The night before, he had dreamed that he arrived at Duquesne's Fisher Hall two hours late for the call.
"Talk about anxiety," he said, laughing.
The voice of a killer
"It's 5:30!" Miss Sciullo said. "Let's go! It's kickoff!"
Miss Schantz dialed the number. A prison counselor answered. And then, "Hello, Lyndsie, this is Keith Jesperson."
After months of letters in which Mr. Jesperson nonchalantly wrote about strangling women and dumping their bodies, here it was, the voice of a serial killer.
Miss Schantz tried to engage Mr. Jesperson in small talk, complimenting him on the two colored-pencil drawings he had sent the students as a present -- after months of trying to get them to buy the drawings for $75 each.
Mr. Jesperson cut off the chitchat: "I'm sure you have a lot of questions. We should probably get to those."
Because Mr. Jesperson is 6 feet 6 inches tall, the students presumed he would have a deep, gruff voice and sound "scary," as one said.
But however a serial killer's voice should sound, this wasn't it. He turned out to be more soft-spoken than gruff, more friendly than frightening, more disarming than alarming. And that made the conversation all the stranger.
Mr. Jesperson's demeanor helped ease the tension as the students took turns asking questions. He warmly greeted each one.
Only once did he seem even a little unsettled, when he was asked about the "killing game" detailed in the book " 'I'-- The Creation of a Serial Killer," by the late Jack Olsen, with whom Mr. Jesperson cooperated.
"Why did you torture them first and not kill them immediately?" a student asked.
"I did kill them immediately," Mr. Jesperson asserted. "Jack Olsen's book said I strangled them and brought them back to life and strangled them again. That was complete poppycock.
"When I did it, it was done, over with. I did not cherish murder. I basically looked at it as something I had to do to get it over with and keep going. I didn't intend on holding them hostage in my mind or in my grip for any more of a length of time than I had to."
The question-and-answer session touched on such varied topics as Mr. Jesperson's childhood and legal knowledge, how he disposed of evidence, and his thoughts before, during and after the killings.
Mr. Jesperson said that even though he confessed to eight homicides, one of his victims actually died of an overdose. Still, he felt responsible because he had purchased the drugs for her.
"I said at one time I was responsible for 166, but the only reason I brought that up was because a detective who came to see me lied to me, so he deserved a lie back," Mr. Jesperson said.
The killings were simply "taking care of business. It was something I didn't want to do, something like a task, something that had to happen because I put myself in that position," in which a woman angered him.
"It's no different than going to the store and buying a jug of milk. If I have to go to the store and buy jug of milk, I have to do it. You put yourself in a state of mind this has to happen. It's not going to go away, you can't back down."
"What would you have done differently in your cases and what did you regret during those crimes?" a student asked.
"I regret every crime I've done," he said. "Here I am in prison. I have to deal with what I've done. If I were to go back, what would I do differently? I wouldn't have killed them."
Details of a murder
Mr. Jesperson discussed in detail the murder of Angela Subrize, 21, whom he met in a bar in Spokane, Wash. She hitched a ride in his tractor-trailer in January 1995. They drove a load of cedar to Seattle, and got another load bound for "Washington, Pa., close to where you guys are."
In Wyoming, he pulled over and climbed into his truck's sleeping compartment as a snow storm raged outside. But she was impatient to keep moving to Indianapolis, her destination.
"I said, 'Just let me have four hours sleep and everything will be fine.' About 20 minutes later she pushed on me and I got angry and she died," he told the spellbound students.
He said he assumed Miss Subrize had a criminal record, meaning she could be identified through fingerprints. And because she had used his credit card to make a call, she could be linked to him.
After sleeping for a time, with Miss Subrize's body in the truck, he drove into Nebraska and got a bite to eat. He recalled a story about a man who tied a dog to a car's bumper and accidentally forgot about the animal and drove off.
"When they finally pulled him over, there was nothing left of the dog. I thought, 'I can put the body under my truck, drag it down I-80 and get rid of her identification, at least her facial features or fingerprints and so forth.' "
And that's what he did. After a dozen or so miles, he "dragged what was left of her to the median and left her in about foot-high tall grass. They would not find her until I told a jailhouse rat exactly where to look."
Mr. Jesperson said his lone mistake was killing a former girlfriend, Julie Winningham, whose friends and family knew of their relationship. She was his last known victim.
"I was so used to taking care of business the other way that when we got in this little argument I just took care of it [by strangling her] and forgot the idea you don't kill who you know. And I did and that's why I'm in prison."
There was some levity, too, such as when he was asked about being known as the "Happy Face Killer" because he had drawn a smiley face on an anonymous letter he sent to an Oregon newspaper.
"You can imagine, I walk the track out here with other convicts and they're saying, 'If you're happy and you know it clap your hands!' " Mr. Jesperson said, cracking up the class. "How would I pick a better name than that?"
Why, the students wanted to know, was he helping them?
"Well, gee, you are the future of America," he said. "You are the future people who have to deal with forensic science and law. It does me good and everyone else in prison to have people who are knowledgeable out there, people who know the rules and how they are used.
"If I can help you through this and show you how it really works then I've actually bettered my situation, I think. That's why I help you."
A look at the real world
Too quickly, the hour was up and the call ended.
"That was so cool!" Miss Sciullo said. Some students applauded.
"I guess I expected someone who would be a little more harsh and callous, but he was really nice, like an uncle kind of nice, which is kind of strange," Miss Spencer said.
"He's just fascinating," Mr. Freeman added.
In the following weeks, more letters were exchanged. The most recent arrived Dec. 10, in time for the final class of the semester that night. Mr. Jesperson wrote that he thought the call went well but "an hour is just too short to cover it all."
He wrote that when fellow inmates learned he wasn't being paid for the class project, "they tell me I'm wasting my time with you. Most believe that our time is best suited not talking about what we did unless we get paid good for it."
But Mr. Jesperson said he had "enjoyed this experience," and wanted to help them because "you are the future of law and order. Through your new careers, hopefully, what I've shared with you will make a difference in how you see your job, do your job."
He wished the students "Happy holidays," and told them to feel free to continue the correspondence.
That may happen: The second part of the forensics investigations class will convene next month, and it's possible the students will resume the project.
As it is, they've acquired a large binder full of letters and documents, such as the Oregon State Police investigative file on the killing of Taunja Bennett, 23, Mr. Jesperson's first known victim. Each member of the class will get copies of what's in the binder; the original documents will remain with the school.
Dr. Frederick W. Fochtman, who heads the Forensic Science and Law program, has asked Miss Spencer, Miss Sciullo and Miss Schantz to speak to undergraduates about their "remarkable" experience.
"This was a learning process that goes beyond 'CSI,' " Mr. Freeman said. "Now they see there's a world out there where there are horrible, terrible people and this is why they're in labs working to try to make connections from a scene to a suspect. Now they know why they're doing it, because of people like Jesperson."
"This was definitely a once-in a-lifetime experience that I'm so happy we had," Miss Schantz said.
Miss Spencer agreed: "We all come from safe little families, safe little neighborhoods and we go to Duquesne.
"There's nothing close to a connection like this in our lives, nothing that has ever actually been tangible for us, and now it's so surreal. It feels that someone like this is only an arm's length away."