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Notorious ‘Happy Face Killer’ Evaded Cops for Years Because a Woman Lied to Get Her Innocent Boyfriend Thrown in Prison

Investigators learned the confession was made up when the real serial killer, Keith Hunter Jesperson, was arrested years later.
Cover Image Source: YouTube/A&E
Cover Image Source: YouTube/A&E

A woman's attempt to get out of an abusive relationship gave a serial killer free rein to commit murders for years to come.

Keith Hunter Jesperson, better known by the moniker "Happy Face Killer," terrorized women across America between 1990 and 1995, ABC News reported.

Long-haul trucker Jesperson killed at least eight women in the 1990s and sent authorities and journalists confession letters signed with smiley faces, earning him his unsettling nickname, CNN reported. 

Jesperson picked up his victims from the streets and then proceeded to torture them in his vehicles, as shared by Jack Olsen in his book The Creation of a Serial Killer. After killing his targets, he would dump their bodies on the highway and speed away. 

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Photo by Donald Tong
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Photo by Donald Tong

The notorious killer later claimed that he hunted victims in Washington, California, Florida, Wyoming, and Oregon, ABC News reported.

Taunja Bennett is believed to be the serial killer's first victim. Before Jesperson was apprehended in 1995, the officials were under the false assumption that they had already solved Bennett's case.

A Portland woman named Laverne Pavlinac had been convicted by a jury on charges related to Bennett's death in 1990, ABC News reported. The prosecution built a case against her based on information she provided to investigators. 

The woman had confessed to police that she helped her boyfriend, John Sosnovske, kill and rape Bennett, ABC News reported, but she later recanted. She was sentenced to life in prison with a 10-year minimum served.


Sosnovske pleaded no contest to first-degree murder and kidnapping charges to evade the death penalty, ABC News reported.

It was later revealed when Jesperson got arrested that the whole confession was made up. Pavlinac had created the story to escape her troubled relationship with Sosnovske.

The plan, according to reports, was to put Sosnovske in prison.

"I think what happened to mother was she was in an abusive relationship, and she was desperate, and desperate people do desperate things, not to say that it was right, but that's what I think happened," said Pavlinac's daughter Bonne McAlpine.

Pavlinac heard about Bennett's case in the media and approached the police. She claimed to have found a piece of denim in her car as well as a purse and painted Sosnovske as the suspect.

Bennett's purse was gone and her jeans were torn when her body was recovered.

The investigators could not match the jeans with the garment on Bennett's body and accused Pavlinac of fabricating the evidence, ABC News reported. It was at this point when she implicated herself in the case, Detective John Ingram stated. 

At first, she told the detective she was sure Sosnovske did the murder because she saw Bennett's body, ABC News reported.

"He went off into the woods with her," Pavlinac told investigators. "[He said] I better not open my mouth. That this never happened. Or… 'I will cause trouble for your family. I'll hurt your family.'"

The investigators on the case initially were hesitant to trust her, but Pavlinac took them to the place where Bennett's body was found, ABC News reported. The officials brought Sosnovske for questioning, but he denied everything.


Detectives put recording devices in the couple's home to try to get to the truth, ABC News reported. Pavlinac maintained her version of events — even within the confines of her house.

"I don't remember going to no gorge, dumping no body for God's sake. I don't," Sosnovke is heard saying on one recording.

"John... That's the worst thing you've ever gotten yourself into," she can be heard telling him.

Pavlinac's statements and Sosnovske failed polygraph test gave officials all they needed to arrest the latter on murder charges, ABC News reported. A few days later Pavlinac again changed her story.


Pavlinac told the investigators that her boyfriend picked Bennett from a bar, ABC News reported. According to her, they went to a scenic overlook at the Columbia Gorge, where Sosnovske asked her to stop.

He began to rape Bennet and instructed Pavlinac to hold a rope around the victim's neck, according to Pavlinac, who also claimed that she pulled the rope too tight and allegedly killed Bennet, ABC News reported. "I feel like it's my fault," she said.

As the couple served their sentences in prison, Jesperson continued to murder women all over the country, ABC News reported. 

Jesperson's killing spree started after a girlfriend dumped him, ATI reported. He picked up his first victim at a bar, and initially just wanted to sleep with her. But the encounter later turned violent.

“All she had to do was say the wrong thing, and I just exploded on her,” Jesperson later said, adding that the victim had started to remind him of his ex-wife, ATI reported. “I slugged her, I hit her hard, and I beat her senseless.”

Jesperson killed Bennett by strangling her with a rope, ATI reported. He abandoned the body near the banks of the Columbia River.

The killer got a rush when others were convicted for his crime, ATI reported. “Since I’d gotten away with the Taunja Bennett death, I was beginning to feel immortal,” Jesperson said. “It was a game now. I was boss, and I was invulnerable.”

In 1992, he picked up a female hitchhiker — known today only as Claudia — at a truck stop in Blythe, California, ATI reported. In the truck, he duct-taped her mouth, raped her, and then killed her. The same outcome was met by a sex worker named Cynthia Lyn Rose in Turlock.

The killing spree continued until Jesperson landed on the radar of law enforcement officials when his girlfriend, Julie Winningham, turned up dead, The Mercury News reported. Unlike his other victims, Jesperson had dated Winningham. It was this connection that led police to Jesperson.

Jesperson turned himself in to the police in 1995, ABC News reported. He claimed to have killed in five states.

When asked why he was choosing to confess now, Jesperson replied: "To come clean… get it all over, the record straight. I had been worried about this for a long time. I wanted to get those two people out of prison."

He was referring to Pavlinac and Sosnovske.

In November 1995, Pavlinac and Sosnovske were released from prison, ABC News reported. Sosnovske's conviction was overturned, but a judge refused to do the same for Pavlinac. 

"Pavlinac has selfishly engaged in an obsessive and persistent obstruction of justice which deflected the investigation at an early stage, causing it to focus on her boyfriend, Sosnovske, while the real killer remained free to kill again and again," Judge Paul Lipscomb of the Circuit Court of Oregon wrote in 1995.

Jesperson was sentenced to five non-consecutive life sentences, ABC News reported.

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