What's It Like to Have a Serial Killer for a Dad?


Keith Hunter Jesperson was a long-distance truck driver who confessed to killing at least eight women he met during his travels. He is currently serving four life sentences for some of his crimes. Elva Etienne/Getty Images

Looking back on her childhood, Melissa Moore wonders why none of the adults in her family thought it was odd that her dad enjoyed torturing animals. Perhaps if they had voiced some concern, he wouldn't have morphed into the Happy Face Killer, a man who murdered at least eight women in the 1990s.

The Happy Face Killer devastated the lives of many people — including those of his own children. As part of her healing process, Moore has gone public with her story and is now a voice for kids of serial killers. She hosts the new 12-part podcast "Happy Face," along with friend and television producer Lauren Bright Pacheco.

"I think we were all just stunned by Melissa's story," says Mangesh Hattikudur, one of the show's executive producers. "We've all been exposed to stories about serial killers, but it's rare that we hear the family's perspective: What it's like to actually have a serial killer for a father, how do you reconcile the normal experiences you have with this brutal and vicious double life that's being hidden from you.

"For us, as much as this is a story of the cat and mouse game Keith (the Happy Face Killer) was playing with detectives and the media, it's really a story about Melissa. It's her reckoning with the reality of her childhood and teenage years, trying to put a happy face on, and come to a sense of peace with it all."

Moore remembers an early childhood that was full of happy memories. Her father, Keith Hunter Jesperson, was a long-haul truck driver and giant of a man, standing 6 feet 6 inches (2 meters) tall and weighing 300 pounds (136 kilograms). He made her feel loved, adored and safe. When he came home from one of his trips, she and her two younger siblings would race to grab the change that was always rattling in his pockets. Their dad, in turn, would "pick us up and throw us in the air and play with us," she says in the first episode. There were exciting trips to town for ice cream and gummy worms.

But she also recalls some not-so-fun times. Like when her dad grabbed a stray cat she and her brother were petting and began to strangle it. Or when he'd talk about his sexual frustration regarding her mother. Still, he was smart and engaging — her beloved dad — and she never suspected he was capable of anything as horrendous as murder.

Then, in 1995, when Moore was a high school freshman, her mother sat the three kids down and told them their father was in jail. For homicide. Soon his additional slayings were uncovered and, just like that, Moore was the daughter of a serial killer. Her mother refused to say much on the topic, so Moore went to the library and looked up the grisly details in the newspaper archives. She read how many of the victims' families described her father as a monster.

"He goes from protector to predator," she says in the podcast. "And wrapping my mind around it is impossible."

During the trial, it emerged that Jesperson mainly targeted prostitutes during his five-year, six-state killing spree, which began in Oregon. He earned his moniker because he sent letters detailing his gruesome slayings to The Oregonian newspaper and the Multnomah County district attorney's office, signing them with a smiley face. He may have gotten away with his crimes, but Jesperson eventually confessed and is currently serving four life sentences without parole in the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Moore, meanwhile, transferred high schools — twice — because her peers shunned her as the spawn of a serial killer. When she wasn't being harassed or ignored, she began blaming herself, wondering why she had never noticed anything odd about her dad. How could she not have noticed some evil within him?

Today, as an adult and mother, Moore continues to cope with her tragic past. She's written two memoirs, "Shattered Silence" and "Whole," and works as a crime correspondent for "The Dr. Oz Show." Moore says she has been in touch with more than 300 kids and relatives of serial killers; she and her mother also met with the sister of her father's first victim, Taunja Bennett, to offer their condolences.

This podcast will sound very different to other true-crime podcasts, says Hattikudur. "We've tried to give the whole thing a beautiful, lush soundtrack, and this dream-like feel. ... In terms of the story, one of the big questions we're trying to tackle is how much of Keith's personality can be passed down. Melissa looks like her dad, and shares his intelligence and charisma, and one of her real fears is that she could be a psychopath, or that she could pass those characteristics down to her children. That's one of the things we try to resolve along the way too. The story has a lot of layers, and for fans of true crime, we're hoping it's a very different take on the traditional serial killer story."


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