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Reclaimed Identity: Keith Jesperson’s Sixth Murder

Feb 28, 2024 | Legal News | 0 comments


“In my head there was a possibility that it could happen, but I wasn’t looking forward to—it wasn’t my intention to do so … but I knew I had the potential [to kill],” Keith Jesperson, also dubbed the Happy Face Killer, explained over the phone from Oregon State Penitentiary. Reflecting  on the sixth murder he committed, he described the narrative in such a detached manner, like he was reciting a work of fiction rather than a real event.

Starting from the beginning, Jesperson described pulling into a rest area in August of 1994, where he saw a woman outside “trying to hitch a ride.”

“She said she was going to Lake Tahoe, Nevada,” he said. “I pointed to my truck and said, ‘I’m going to Washington State. I’m heading in that direction. I’ll be leaving in about an hour or so.”

Sometime during their exchange, she would introduce herself as “Susan” or “Suzette,” one of the few details he’d remember about her years later. Names were not important to him.

Working as a long haul truck driver, Jesperson said that with picking up the hitchhiker who would become his next victim, he was just looking forward to the rare opportunity to have someone to talk to, which would help keep him awake. He described how the road would become a lonely, quiet place at times.

Although that may be true, Dr. Eric Hickey, a top forensic expert and core senior faculty member of Walden University’s Forensic Psychology, suggests that while all professions have a dark side, serial killers like Jesperson may choose a career like long haul trucking with ulterior motives. Hickey reviewed some of the transcript of the interview with Jesperson from his perspective as an expert in the psychology of crime.

“I’d say most long haul truck drivers are decent people trying to make a living,” Hickey said. He explained how an isolated job like trucking might be chosen because it can give someone an opportunity to kill. “Jesperson’s one of those guys, and I’d put my career on the line that his killings were sexual.”

That night, while waiting to receive the instructions of his next load, Jesperson spent an hour sitting in a booth in the restaurant within the rest area. He described the hitchhiking woman as impatient, and said he thought she looked like she’d been on the road for a while. So after they left for a job further north in Cairo, Georgia, he got her a bathroom key to take a shower at the next truck stop where they stopped for their next meal.

After the pickup in Cairo, Jesperson said he started driving back toward Florida.

“At about two or three in the morning, I pulled into the rest area to use the restroom, and that’s when the incident happened.” By incident, he means murder.

“And I dropped her body off at Exit 11, a few exits up the road,” he explains nonchalantly, as if she was simply another thing to be loaded and unloaded from his truck.

In psychopathic serial killers, “the parts of the brain that express empathy, care, and concern—they never relate to the victim,”  Hickey said.

“[Jesperson] has more psychopathic tendencies and even less victim empathy. He treats his victims like they were just pieces of material to do with what he wanted and then get rid of them.”

But how did Jesperson go from giving this woman a ride to killing her with his bare hands?

He claims he had learned from previous experiences that when he had a female in the truck he’d ‘never hear the end of it’ if he didn’t pull into a rest area so they could use the bathroom. If he was alone, he had no problem relieving himself in the woods on the side of the road.

On that particular night, allegedly with this intention, he purposely woke up the hitchhiker who had fallen asleep on the mattress in the back of the truck.

What he thought was a thoughtful gesture startled her, causing her to scream, the kind of scream you’d expect if someone was getting murdered, except in that moment, all he had done was sit beside her.

“She was screaming because she didn’t like being woken up like that,” he said, and said that she wouldn’t listen when he told her to be quiet. In an attempt to justify his actions, Jesperson said he was afraid  he would be written up by the security guard that was patrolling the rest area.

“The trucking company I was with did not allow unauthorized people in your truck, so I was breaking the rules”—and to make matters worse, she was being loud.

He imagined the report of this violation landing on his boss’s desk, which would cause him to lose his job. So he physically quieted her.

“I put my fist into her throat and leaned on her. I’ve learned that strangling takes too much effort to do so… you don’t have to grab on tight. You make a fist and kinda like lean in, cup your hand over, and push down… once I pushed down, she lost consciousness very soon… about twenty seconds or so.”

In the moment, Jesperson feared the repercussions of getting caught breaking the rules at work more than he feared getting caught for murder. “I’d gotten away with murder five times before, so getting away with murder wasn’t the issue,” he boasted.

However, “getting away with murder”—or rather getting caught—would soon become an issue for Jesperson. On March 30, 1995, he was arrested for the murder of another woman,  41-year-old Julie Winningham.

By May 1995, to avoid the death penalty, he had decided to confess to all eight murders he had committed. However, the woman in the Florida case would remain unidentified for decades, despite the relentless efforts of investigators.

In April 1996, Florida sent one investigator, Glen Barbaree, to speak with Jesperson.

 

Over the years, investigators would continue to meet with Jesperson and work to identify his  sixth victim. Investigators hoped that by circulating an approximate image of her within the media and comparing the portrait to photos in missing persons databases, either someone would recognize her, or they’d find a lead.

Jesperson told them he thought she looked like Nicole Kidman, and he remembered what kind of hairstyle she had.

When investigators sent him photos of Kidman, Jesperson drew a portrait of the actress with the hair he recalled the Jane Doe to have.

Jesperson was dismissive when he recounted the effort.

“I got a laugh out of it. What did they expect? They wanted me to remember something [from] twenty years ago, and I can’t remember it.”

Recent advancements in technology, particularly DNA analysis, has helped investigators identify victims in cold cases all over the country. In 2022, DNA from ancestry.com identified Jesperson’s fifth victim as Patricia Skiple; however, unlike his Florida victim, he had already been charged in this case.

Then, in March 2023, Othram, a genetic genealogy company working with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System  produced leads in the case. These leads finally restored the name and identity of Jesperson’s sixth victim: Suzanne Kjellenberg.

When Kjellenberg was identified, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office held a press conference on Oct 3, 2023. Othram’s law enforcement liaison, David Nutting described the conventional DNA analysis that their team used to identify  Kjellenberg

“Othram will develop a profile from the remains and submit that into genealogy databases, and we have a team of nearly a dozen forensic genetic genealogists on staff who work through publicly available databases to search to find relatives, and once we narrow it down through those databases, we’re able to provide leads to law enforcement,”  Nutting said.

Nutting shared that 102 cases have been resolved this year alone using this technology, regardless of how little DNA was available. However, despite these hopeful forensic advancements, 14,000 unidentified human remains still exist today in the United States.

“The technology exists to solve these cases but are only limited at this point by the lack of funding,” Nutting said.

In this particular case, The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and District One Medical Examiner’s Office worked over the span of 29 years to positively identify Kejellenberg.

“Suzanne deserves a voice. We’re that voice for her today, and this case has been years in the making…[but] it’s unfortunate that it took this long to bring this case to justice,”  Okaloosa County Sheriff Eric Aden said.

Sheriff Aden said  Kjellenberg’s family had “ expressed gratitude for the perseverance of investigators, the Medical Examiner’s Office, and the FDLE. They also asked for privacy to cope with this new development.”

Jesperson received an arrest warrant at Oregon State Penitentiary on Oct 2 “for the murder of Suzanne. I don’t know what her last name is,” he admitted. “I told them I don’t even want to know because I didn’t know her name then and I don’t want to know it now.”

“I’m trying to forget about all this,” Jesperson said.

Hickey found Jesperson’s indifference unsurprising. “This is a man who does not fear God. This is a man who does not think about life hereafter, [and] has no belief other than himself, and he’s obviously in denial about a lot of things,” Hickey said.

Jesperson has filed for a fast and speedy trial through Florida Department of Corrections If granted, the request would  prompt the court to settle the case within 60 days.

On December 27, Jesperson was scheduled to appear in court via Zoom. He expected to be sentenced that day. Already serving life without parole, any time added to his original sentence will make no difference to him, although it may provide closure and justice to Kjellenberg’s family.

Jesperson said he has been contemplating making a statement to the court, and if he does, he plans to explain that “the only mistake that my victims made was that they trusted somebody that couldn’t be trusted.”

“They came in thinking that everything is going to be okay, and it didn’t turn out that way, and here I am—why did they die? Because I injected myself in their lives,” Jesperson said.

Asked about remorse, Jesperson said that  he’s sorry his life went down this road and he wishes it never did. However, he seems incapable of considering the pain his actions have caused others, only speculating that Kjellenberg’s family and the families of his other victims would not “want me to tell them how sorry I am that their family member died. They don’t want me to do that because they want their family member back. They don’t want to hear what I have to say because as far as they’re concerned there’s nothing I can say that will be beneficial to them.”

Most likely, he’s right about that.



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