Touching Evil: Serial killer's need to control shows in letters to students
On one of his letters to students at Duquesne University, serial killer Keith Hunter Jesperson drew a "happy face." Mr. Jesperson became known as the "Happy Face Killer" after including such a drawing on a letter to a newspaper.
The front and back of postcard artwork by serial killer Keith Jesperson, sent to Duquesne University students. Mr. Jesperson hoped the students would purchase his art.
Front and back of artwork by serial killer Keith Jesperson, sent to Duquesne University students. Mr. Jesperson hoped the students would purchase artwork from him.
Keith Jesperson talks with his attorney, Tom Phelan, during a 1995 court hearing.
Duquesne students, from left, Lyndsie Schantz of Lower Burrell, Natalie Sciulli of Crafton and Cara Spencer of Greensburg spearheaded a project writing letters and speaking to serial killer Keith Hunter Jesperson.
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The student's blood-red T-shirt was a big hit.
"Friends help you move," the front said.
And on the back, "Real friends help you move a body."
The dark humor was dead-on funny for the 30 Duquesne University forensic science and law majors. The seniors are enrolled in a five-year master's program that for most will lead to careers as investigators, scientists and specialists dealing with murder and other vile crimes.
That's why, on this October night, the members of Forensic Investigation I class were so excited.
Keith Hunter Jesperson, 52, a long-haul trucker who killed at least eight women in six states between 1990 and 1995, had sent them two letters in response to their request that he reveal to them the dark side of the criminal mind.
Now, it was time to open the letters. Amid some nervous laughter, the three students who had written Mr. Jesperson -- Cara Spencer, Natalie Sciulli and Lyndsie Schantz -- ripped open the envelopes he had mailed from the Oregon State Penitentiary, where he is serving three life sentences.
The nine handwritten pages quickly revealed that Mr. Jesperson had an agenda of his own -- to embarrass Oregon officials. All these years later, it still rankles him that an innocent couple were arrested and convicted for his first known killing, that of Taunja Bennett, 23, a mildly retarded woman he met Jan. 23, 1990, in a bar near Portland, Ore. Only after Mr. Jesperson was arrested in 1995 were the couple released from prison.
"I want you and your class to dig into the Taunja Ann Bennett murder case and prove to me how a proper forensic team could support [their] guilt," Mr. Jesperson wrote.
Mr. Jesperson also lambasted the book " 'I'-- the Creation of a Serial Killer," written by a true-crime author, the late Jack Olsen, with Mr. Jesperon's help. He now claims much of the book is false, calling it "garbage."
"We never had sex [as Mr. Olsen wrote]," Mr. Jesperson said, referring to the Bennett killing. "We kissed and I beat her to a pulp. The whole assault as Olsen said is false. No sex at all."
The tension created by such passages was broken by Mr. Jesperson's pitches. He wrote that if the students liked the enclosed postcard-sized drawings, one of a sunset and the other of vultures, they could purchase his 12-by-16 colored-pencil works for $75 each.
Class instructor Ron Freeman, a retired Pittsburgh homicide commander, said Mr. Jesperson's tone throughout the letters -- telling the students what to do, how to proceed -- was typical of a serial killer, whose goal is to "dominate, manipulate and control."
"I think it's interesting to hear this letter, to see him, as you said, being dominant and still trying to be playful with us. It kind of reminds me of Hannibal Lecter kind of stuff," said a female student, referring to the fictional serial killer in the movie "Silence of the Lambs."
"I feel like he's showing us the flaws in the system," another woman in the predominately female class offered, "and he's trying to teach us not to be like that because we are forensic majors.
"He's telling us what they did wrong and what we shouldn't do wrong."
Mr. Freeman also was captivated by the letters, particularly Mr. Jesperson's reluctance to admit that he sexually assaulted Miss Bennett even as he freely admitted to killing her.
"I think we can learn from this guy and I want to continue the communication," Mr. Freeman said. "You all agree with that?"
Before moving into that night's lesson about criminal profiling, Mr. Freeman recalled a serial killer he had met in the 1970s. The man was arrested here for killing a University of Pittsburgh coed and eight other young women in Philadelphia.
Then-Detective Freeman asked the man how he chose his targets.
"His victims, unlike most serial killers, weren't prostitutes, they were college students," Mr. Freeman said. "He said he would go to campus areas in Philadelphia and he would walk around and look and walk and look and walk and look."
"I finally knew which one it was," the killer told the homicide detective, "because she was the girl without a face."
The classroom fell silent.
Throughout the semester, the correspondence continued -- more than a dozen letters in which Mr. Jesperson detailed how he committed his murders, why he did so and how he got away with his crimes for so long. He pointed out what he considered to be errors in Mr. Olsen's book and in news accounts about his killings, all the while criticizing the police and prosecutors who wrongly arrested and convicted the couple for the Bennett murder.
"I hit Bennett so badly, I'm not sure she would have survived had I not strangled her," he wrote the class about the case. "Placing my fist into her throat, I leaned into it and kept pressure on. ... About four minutes later I leaned back -- staring at the damage I did."
He discussed how he returned to the bar where they met to establish an alibi, how he dumped the body over an embankment and later ran into Oregon state troopers at a truck stop: "These super cops had no idea I had just thrown away a body."
He spoke of washing the walls and steam cleaning the rugs to get rid of Miss Bennett's blood, but "up to several months after the murder I was still running across blood spatter in hide-and-seek areas."
He said reading crime magazines had provided him with "certain solutions" to getting rid of forensic evidence, but "most importantly, I watched a lot of 'Perry Mason' reruns to see cases develop."
In the murder of his seventh known victim, he said, "I felt a need to erase Angela's looks and hands to get rid of her identification. Dragging her face down [under his tractor-trailer] on the roadway seemed to be the logical choice at the time."
Along with such grisly details, delivered with a frightening matter-of-factness, Mr. Jesperson continued to prod the students to buy some of his artwork.
The correspondence was as spellbinding as it was chilling.
"It's in such detail," marveled Miss Spencer, who along with Miss Schantz and Miss Sciulli wrote all the letters to Mr. Jesperson. "There's no emotion attached to it. There's no regret or remorse. It feels really weird to be talking to someone who's so nonchalant about the terrible things he did."
Dr. David W. Seybert, dean of the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, also found the letters engrossing.
"They are absolutely fascinating, absolutely intriguing," Dr. Seybert said. "It was very sobering to hold the original letters and to realize the same hands that wrote these letters killed those women.
"It is a little disturbing to be reading in detail how he committed these crimes, how he evaded capture. You begin to get a sense into his psyche, into his mind from these letters."
The women noted that Mr. Freeman and Mr. Jesperson, the former cop and the former killer, have provided the class with a yin-yang educational experience.
"Freeman is the complete polar opposite of Keith, who has just as good a memory and attention to detail, but in a different way," Miss Sciulli said. "I feel we're learning how to be observant in a good way from Freeman and in a completely horrible way from Keith.
"Either way, it's going to help so much when we're out working cases."
Miss Sciulli, Miss Schantz and Miss Spencer were in Mellon Hall, a science building, with the letters from Mr. Jesperson, when they turned a corner and spotted a classroom -- but it had a barred door like a jail cell.
Miss Sciulli's cell phone rang; the caller ID read "Death Valley." She answered and a voice said, "Hello, Natalie. This is Keith. Your voice mail message is just so you. It fits your personality," Mr. Jesperson said. "Out of the three, you're my favorite. My vote's for you to be No. 1 with this project."
"How come he gets a vote? Why are you his favorite?" Miss Spencer yelled.
And then Miss Sciulli jolted awake. It was 4 a.m., the room was completely dark.
"Wake up! Wake up!" she yelled to her boyfriend. "I just had the worst dream ever."
"It's that serial killer," her boyfriend correctly guessed. "I told you it was a bad idea."
Miss Spencer likewise learned that even while she slept, the psychological weight of interacting with evil was difficult to avoid.
"I never had nightmares before," Miss Spencer said. "Last week, I was digging my nails into my side while I slept. I still don't remember what the dream was about, but I had claw marks on my side."
"We watch all of these weird, strange movies for fun," Miss Sciulli said.
"And now this is our real-life movie," Miss Schantz added.
First Published December 17, 2007 12:00 am