Daughter of the 'Happy Face Killer' Talks About Growing Up With a Serial Killer Dad

Melissa Moore heard dad say: 'I know how to kill someone and get away with it.'

August 16, 2010, 4:35 PM

Aug. 20, 2010— -- Growing up, Melissa Moore adored her father. She had a modest upbringing in rural Toppenish, Wash. and remembers the fun times they had together. "I have memories of riding my bike and my dad would run behind me as I would be peddling," she said.

Not once during her early childhood did she suspect her father was capable of becoming "the Happy Face Killer."

Moore is the oldest of three children, and always looked forward to when her dad, a long-haul truck driver, would come home from a trip.

"The first thing I would do when he got out of the car is I would run up to him and go for his pockets with the change that he had left over from the day and I got to keep the change," she said.

Keith Jesperson was a doting father when his children were little, but behind the loving facade, his daughter says, were the darkest of secrets. Secrets he mostly managed to keep hidden from his family, except for one traumatizing day that Moore still remembers vividly.

She was just a young girl when she saw her father torture animals. "I found some little kittens, he grabbed them by the tail and hung them on the clothesline," she said.

Frightened, she ran inside to get her mother, Rose Hucke, but by the time she came back, it was too late. "I remember bending down and seeing that they were dead."

Moore believed that's when she first saw her father's darker side. "I think I caught a glimpse of the sociopath, the part of where felt in control over me and that he enjoyed it. I got the sense that there was another side to him," she said.

Moore's mother fell in love with Jesperson when she was a teenager. The two were married in 1975. "When you're young, you don't realize that this person's gonna become who they become," she said. "At the time he was a very charismatic, considerate young man and I had no clue that this is what he would become."

Jesperson would turn out to be one of the country's most notorious serial killers, known as the "Happy Face Killer." The nickname began because he signed anonymous confession letters with a smiley face.

After a few years of marriage, Hucke said strange women started calling the house and she suspected her husband was having affairs.

The marriage started to crumble, and the final straw came for Hucke while she and her husband were on a road trip. "We took a little walk ... and there was a bunch of young men and he grabbed me and threw me in their arms and said, 'Here, you can have [her],' and walked away," she recalled.

Hucke had had enough, and she knew it was time to get away from her husband of 14 years. So while he was on the road, she packed up her three children, and drove 200 miles to Spokane, Wash. to move into her mother's basement. Her daughter Melissa was only 10 years old at the time.

Melissa Moore Recalls Life Before and After Her Father's Serial Killer Conviction

Hucke and Jesperson would eventually get divorced, but he continued to visit the family over the next five years, whenever his trucking jobs took him their way. Moore remembers them as fun times.

"He would come into town and the first thing he would do is take us out to eat," Moore said. "Then after going out to eat, he would say, 'Well, let's go shopping,' and then after shopping he would take us to the grocery store and then he would stay the night and leave the next morning."

Everything seemed normal -- except for some awkward conversations that sometimes became grotesque.

"One time as we were driving up the old scenic highway, my father said, 'I know how to kill someone and get away with it,'" Moore recalled. She thought maybe he got the idea to say that from one of the detective magazines he often had in his car.

But it turns out he was talking about an actual murder, one he had just committed. "The same route that we would take going to the Oregon coast is where he disposed of the first victim," Moore said.

Jesperson is currently serving multiple life sentences in Oregon's state penitentiary. His killing spree started in 1990, the same year his divorce to Moore's mother was finalized.

His first victim was a 23-year-old woman named Taunja Bennett, who was described by her family as overtly friendly and developmentally slow.

After a night of drinking, Jesperson said he took her back to his bachelor pad in Portland, Ore. "Comments were made and different things and uh, an altercation happened, and I struck her. I actually had hit her in the face and for some reason I just kept hitting her in the face and because of that," Jesperson said. "I feared going to prison for slugging her in the face and causing her bodily injury and so I killed her."

For five years he got away with one grim slaying after another. He wanted credit for his crimes, but he also wanted to stay out of jail, so he wrote a six-page confession letter to The Oregonian, the local newspaper, detailing a virtual roadmap of his murders. The only thing missing was his name.

Phil Stanford, a writer for the newspaper, recalled getting the letters "He didn't sign it, he just signed it with happy faces and so I called him "The Happy Face Killer" when I wrote the series."

Jesperson's eighth victim would be his last. Once the woman's body was discovered, police found his signature on a receipt among her possessions. After being questioned by a detective, Jesperson turned himself in the next day. While he was in custody, detectives discovered a letter Jesperson had sent to his brother before turning himself in that described the eight murders he had committed.

His family was shocked when they received the news. Moore was 15. "I heard my mom say, 'Come to the stairs, I have something to tell you," she said. "I got up the stairs with my brother and sister and she says, 'Your dad's in jail for murder'… and then she walked right back up the stairs."

A Family's Dark Secret

Moore's mother admitted she was totally shocked, and regretfully tried to make the whole thing go away, so they never talked about it.

But it wasn't going away. "I started thinking, How would my dad be capable of doing this? How would he do it?" Moore said. "But then the memory of the cat came to my mind and him strangling the cat ... and then instead of the cat, I pictured a woman. Then it became real."

Jesperson confessed to the murders in exchange for plea deals that would allow him to avoid the death penalty. He received multiple life sentences that would ensure that he would spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Ashamed and worried what people would think, Moore kept the dark family secret to herself.

When she was 21, Melissa met Sam Moore at a church dance. Their romance blossomed quickly, but she was worried about telling him her secret.

"I knew that our relationship was going towards marriage ... and I thought, well, this is something he's gonna need to know," Moore remembered. "I said, 'Hey, you know, you always ask me, you know, who my father is. I want you to know he's in prison.' And then I said, Hhe's' a serial killer. [Sam] put a face on that it didn't bother him."

After they were married, the Moores had two children: a daughter, Aspen, now 9 and a son, Jake, now 6. Moore admits she used to be afraid that her son "might have characteristics or DNA that would prove -- that he is capable of being a sociopath like my dad." She later learned that research has found there is no genetic link.

Just as Moore was settling into a normal life with her new family, letters from her father began arriving, asking her to visit him in prison. After talking it over with her husband, she decided to take the family to visit her father.

"I was kinda curious to see ... would he look like what I remembered him looking like? Or would I see him as the convicted serial killer?" she said.

They were told there was a family center and the couple expected to meet with the serial killer one at a time, while the children waited in the security of a day care facility. But the visit was nothing like what they had expected. The inmates were free to visit with their families in the children's center of the prison. The meeting wasn't what Jesperson had dreamed about either.

"It was, uh, uncomfortable ... last time I had seen my daughter, she was 15 years old, and all of a sudden, 10 years after the fact, she shows up, she's a mother and has children of her own and has a husband I've never met before," he said.

No one knew how to react. "I didn't want to talk about the crimes and I didn't want to bring to my attention that he really was a convicted serial killer at that moment. I wanted to play that he was my dad." Moore said.

A Serial Killer's Daughter

After that visit, Moore and her husband decided to keep their distance, because staying in touch seemed to be doing their family more harm than good. Thankfully, the children had no memory of the jailhouse visit.

The couple hid the sins of her father until one day when her daughter Aspen, then in first grade, said, "Everybody has a daddy, where's your daddy?" It was something Moore wasn't prepared for, and that simple question set off a complicated chain of events in her head.

"I went everywhere looking for books about serial killers in relationship to their family members. There was nothing that I could find out there that talked about the issues between criminals and their families," she said.

She decided to write the talk show host Dr. Phil McGraw a letter. In October 2008, Moore appeared on his show and asked him if she was doing the right thing by cutting off contact with her dad. His response was that she did nothing wrong, she didn't hurt anyone, her father did.

Moore said she found the show liberating and it ultimately changed the course of her life. "It held me accountable to sharing the secret. It made it so that I had to continue to move forward in my healing. It made it so that I couldn't hold it a secret anymore," she said.

After the show Moore received support from people all over the country, which prompted her to write a book based on journals she had been writing for decades. The book is called "Shattered Silence: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer's Daughter."

"I started journaling right after I found out about my father being in prison for murder. I started to write my feelings out every day, 'cause the journal didn't judge me," Moore said tearfully.

Today, Moore shares her experience at conferences, and says several people in similar circumstances reached out to her after she wrote the book.

"I feel so relieved, though, to have it written ... it feels like it's out of my spirit. I can move on from the darkness and close that door," she said. It's permanent in a book; it's not living in me."

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