5 Things We Know About Happy Face, a New Podcast About Having a Serial Killer for a Dad

Melissa Moore as a girl with her father, Keith Hunter Jesperson
Melissa Moore as a girl with her father, Keith Hunter Jesperson
How Stuff Works

For the most part, Melissa Moore thought her father was amazing. He was strong, 6-foot-6 and close to 300 pounds, and she loved how his head looked like it could eclipse the sun. When he'd return home from his long-haul trucking trips, he'd pick her up and throw her in the air, making her feel like a superhero. Sure, sometimes she thought he was a little weird—what kid doesn't think that about their dad?—but she was in no way prepared for the news her mother delivered one day when Moore was 15. After gathering her children around the kitchen table, Moore's mom announced that their dad was in jail. For murder. For several murders, in fact.

Today, Keith Hunter Jesperson is serving three consecutive life sentences without parole at Oregon State Penitentiary. He's been convicted of murdering eight women, although he has claimed to have killed dozens more. Happy Face is the story of how Moore has grappled with her father's crimes, how she's learned to separate fact from fiction in her own story of her childhood, how she's faced her nightmares, and how she's moved forward with hope. Here's what we know about the 12-part podcast series from How Stuff Works.

1. THE SHOW IS ABOUT CONFRONTING YOUR DEEPEST FEARS.

There might be only one thing scarier than a serial killer: the idea that you could have the potential to be one yourself. Moore resembles her father physically—she's blond like him, with a long nose and a strong chin—and also shares his intelligence and charisma. Could she share a trace of his evil, too?

"Melissa's deepest insecurity was that she could actually be a psychopath, like her dad, and she faces it full-on in the podcast," says Lauren Bright Pacheco, an executive producer on Happy Face and a friend of Moore's.

"She's worried about passing this along to her son," says Mangesh Hattikudur, also an executive producer on the show (and, full disclosure, one of the co-founders of Mental Floss). "She's trying to figure out what motivated [her dad]. Was it the head injury he sustained as a kid? Was it conditioning? Or is there a genetic component?"

2. IT'S PARTIALLY NARRATED BY THE MAN WHO GAVE JESPERSON HIS MONIKER.

In 1994, Jesperson sent an anonymous letter to The Oregonian newspaper. "I would Like to Tell my story!" the note began, using a strange mixture of uppercase and lowercase letters on pale blue paper. It went on to describe five murders, including chilling details about the crimes that no one outside the local police departments would have known—unless they were the killer themselves. At the top of the first page, the writer had scrawled a happy face: two circles for eyes, and a little c for a mouth.

Oregonian staff writer Phil Stanford used the letter as the jumping-off point for a multi-part series on the crimes. "There's something about the letter that holds you, that makes you keep reading," Stanford wrote. "Maybe it's the urgency of the prose itself. Maybe—although you might not want to admit it—it's the lurid details, spilling off the pages like cold sewage." Stanford's series also explored the fact that two people were already in jail for the first murder detailed in the letter, of Taunja Bennett, who was raped and strangled in January 1990.

Police would later reveal that Jesperson had also scrawled confessions at a truck stop and Greyhound station, and sent other letters to authorities, but Stanford was the one who gave Jesperson his famous moniker, based on the little drawing on the front page of his letter: The Happy Face Killer. On the podcast, Stanford reads from his Oregonian series, with an appropriately vintage-sounding treatment lending a historic vibe.

3. IT MIGHT NOT HAVE HAPPENED IF IT WEREN'T FOR DR. OZ.

Over the years, especially since Moore wrote a book about her experiences, Shattered Silence, and appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, hundreds of relatives of killers have reached out to her. "People often tell her their stories, because they feel judged by others, [but they know] she won't judge them," Hattikudur says. (Moore definitely knows what it's like to be judged herself—she was ostracized in high school because of her dad, and had to change schools several times.) These days, as an Emmy-nominated crime correspondent for the Dr. Oz show, Moore often interviews relatives of killers and their victims. That's how she met Lauren Bright Pacheco, a producer on the show, and part of what helped give rise to the podcast.

"Melissa and I had an instant connection as co-workers who quickly became friends," Bright Pacheco says. "Getting to know Melissa, I was taken aback by how much her father's crimes continued to impact her on a daily basis ... I've seen people blame her for his actions, begrudge her her career or treat her as if she's somehow contagious. It's a significant burden, but I've never seen Melissa bitter. In fact, she's sincerely driven by a conviction to somehow 'right' his wrongs." That drive became part of the genesis for the show.

4. THERE ARE SOME SOME NOTABLE GUESTS.

While untangling the idea of whether she might carry her dad's criminal DNA, Moore meets a neuroscientist who is himself a psychopath—just one of the show's several surprising guests. Happy Face also features some never-before-shared insights from the detectives who helped bring Jesperson to justice and interviews with the son of his last victim. Jesperson himself even makes an appearance—"but not in the self-glorifying narrative he's tried to spin in the past," Bright Pacheco explains.

The show also features some haunting music courtesy of Hope for a Golden Summer, an Athens band, who do a memorable interpretation of the folk song "In the Pines" (also known as "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?").

5. THERE'S A POSITIVE GOAL BEHIND IT ALL.

While the podcast definitely makes for some unsettling listening—sensitive listeners will likely want to steer clear of the graphic details—it's not just meant to shock. As Moore works on understanding her past, what motivated her dad, and how his crimes affected her, she's ultimately sharing a story of overcoming adversity.

"While Melissa is the daughter of a serial killer, ultimately her story—and her struggles—are really relatable, universal, and inspiring," Bright Pacheco says. "Happy Face is about overcoming fear, shame, and ultimately grief."

10 of the Best True Crime Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

HBO
HBO

Is the true crime genre going anywhere? Probably not. Since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line premiered in 1988 and helped free an innocent man accused of murder, filmmakers and viewers have developed a bottomless appetite for movies based on true stories that shed light on some of the darker sides of the human condition. Check out 10 of the best true crime documentaries you can stream right now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other platforms.

1. The Seven Five (2014)

Crooked New York Police Department cops get a filmed perp walk in this examination of the city’s infamous 75th precinct, which was a hive of corruption in the 1980s. Ringleader Michael Dowd talks about how taking money from drug dealers to offset his salary woes led to an increasingly complex and dangerous web of deceit.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. Amanda Knox (2016)

College student Amanda Knox grabbed headlines in 2007 and beyond when her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was found dead in the apartment the two shared in Italy. What follows is a grueling path through an often-impenetrable Italian justice system.

Find It: Netflix

3. The Central Park Five (2013)

Director Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us limited series on Netflix has brought renewed attention to the Central Park Five case, which saw five minors wrongly convicted of attacking a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. This feature documentary co-directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon examines the case, from the coerced confessions of the boys to their attempts to clear their names.

Find It: Amazon Prime

4. Long Shot (2017)

Though it’s more of a short film than a feature, this examination of Juan Catalan’s fight to be recognized as innocent of committing murder is notable for his attorney’s methodology: Catalan couldn’t have done it because he was at a baseball game. How they go about proving that turns into one of the biggest left-field twists you’re ever likely to see.

Find It: Netflix

5. Killing for Love (2016)

When married couple Derek and Nancy Haysom are found dead in their Virginia home in 1985, suspicion falls on their daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Jens Söring. Was Jens a co-conspirator, or just a pawn in Elizabeth’s game? Watch and find out.

Find It: Hulu

6. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

Before garnering acclaim for their Paradise Lost documentaries, filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger captured this portrait of four elderly brothers living in rural Munnsville, New York. When one of them turns up dead, police believe it could have been murder. As one brother goes on trial, the others close ranks and try to keep family secrets from leaking out.

Find It: Netflix

7. Without Charity (2013)

In 2000, police discover a trio of construction workers have been murdered at an expensive home in Indiana. As police dig deeper, they discover the puzzling presence of Charity Payne, a woman who might have helped a group of robbers to break in and commit the murders.

Find It: Amazon Prime

8. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016)

Antivirus pioneer John McAfee reinvents himself in Belize, becoming an armed leader of a makeshift militia before later being implicated in the death of his neighbor.

Find It: Netflix

9. I Love You, Now Die (2019)

Teenagers in love Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy nourished their long-distance relationship via text messaging. But as Conrad’s mood grew darker, Michelle believed the best way to help her boyfriend would be to encourage him to take his own life. That dynamic sets the stage for a dramatic trial in Massachusetts that ponders the question of whether it's possible to be responsible for taking someone’s life via text.

Find It: HBO

10. Out of Thin Air (2017)

In 1974, two men in Iceland disappeared. A police investigation led to six men, who were all eventually sent to prison after confessing to murder. Decades later, new evidence casts doubt on their version of events—and whether they killed anyone at all. 

Find It: Netflix

10 Facts About Alcatraz

Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images

At 9:40 a.m. on the morning of August 11, 1934, Alcatraz's first group of prisoners—137 in all—arrived at the soon-to-be-infamous prison. For decades, it was known as the site of one of the most unforgiving federal prisons in the country. “Break the rules and you go to prison,” went one anonymous quote. “Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” But San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island has a history that goes far beyond its infamy as a criminal commune. Check out some facts about its origins, its history-making protest, and signing up for a tour.

1. Alcatraz was a military outpost in the 1850s.

Described by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, Alcatraz Island is the Americanized name of Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, California became property of the United States. In the 1850s, the island was earmarked by U.S. forces for a military citadel. Outfitted with more than 100 cannons, it monitored activity in San Francisco Bay to thwart foreign invaders looking to cash in on California's gold rush. (Later, it was used to discourage Confederates from trying to seize control of San Francisco in the Civil War.) That presence led to some federal prisoners being housed on site—a foreshadowing of the general-population prison it would one day become.

2. Alcatraz inmates were forced to build their own prison.

An aerial view of Alcatraz circa the 1930s
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

When the need for armed monitoring of the bay ended, the U.S. Army deconstructed the fortress, leaving only the basement foundation intact. From 1909 to 1911, the military prisoners were put to work building a new structure that would house disciplinary barracks for the West Coast. (That building is the one standing today.) The military transferred ownership of the island to the Department of Justice in 1933, which is when Alcatraz became synonymous with the worst of the worst, housing notorious criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

3. Life at Alcatraz wasn't always so bad.

Known as the “Rock,” Alcatraz developed a reputation for segregating America’s incorrigibles from the rest of the population. Sometimes, rules dictated that prisoners couldn’t even speak to one another. But conditions inside the prison weren’t as harsh as movies and television would later portray. Inmates often got their own cell, and some even asked to be transferred there because the potential for violent trouble was low. The reason some of the more notorious criminals of the era were sent there was usually due to the facility’s strict routine. Prisoners had little leeway or privileges outside of the four basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. One perk? Hot showers. Inmates got warm water to use for bathing, although it wasn’t for altruistic reasons. A theory has it that if prisoners got used to warm water, they’d freeze up if they ever made an escape attempt in the bay’s frigid conditions.

4. Odds of escaping Alcatraz were slim.

Swimmers run across the water near Alcatraz Island
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Many know the story of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who famously attempted to escape the prison island in 1962 using a raft made out of raincoats. No one knows whether the men made it, but the odds were stacked against them. Of the 36 men who fled from the site in the 29 years it was open (1934 to 1963), 23 were recaptured, six were killed by guards, and two drowned. The remaining five—including Morris and the Anglin brothers—made it to the water and disappeared.

5. Softball was a popular pastime.

Though Alcatraz would never be confused for a country club, inmates still had outlets to pursue physical activities. Softball was the most popular pastime, with prisoners using a diamond in the recreation area. Organized teams played using shorter innings; balls going over the barricades were outs, not home runs. But not every game went smoothly. The teams were integrated, and that occasionally to racial tensions. During one May 20, 1956 game, tempers flared and makeshift knives were pulled before guards could restore order.

6. Alcatraz's prison guards lived on the island with their families.

A camera peers through a chain-link fence inside Alcatraz
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Life at Alcatraz wasn’t isolated just for the prisoners. Guards and other prison employees lived on the island in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks. Their kids fished in the bay and passed time in social halls that had pool and bowling. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.

7. Alcatraz was closed in 1963 because it was too expensive to maintain.

Alcatraz didn’t get shuttered over human rights issues or because the prison was too hardcore even for society’s worst. It closed in 1963 for the same reason it was so distinctive: the location. Saltwater continued to erode structures, making the cost of maintaining the buildings excessive. On a day-to-day basis, Alcatraz cost $10.10 per person to maintain in 1950s dollars, three times as much as most other federal prisons. It also needed freshwater brought in by boat at the rate of a million gallons a week.

8. In 1969, a group of college students occupied Alcatraz in protest.

A man stands on Alcatraz Island during a Native American occupation
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1969, a group of college students stormed the abandoned prison. Their cause: to draw attention to the United States government's policy of terminating tribal sovereignty and relocating Native American residents to cities. Richard Oakes, a student at San Francisco State College, led the occupation, which lasted a total of 19 months. Authorities moved in 1971 when the group—which was 400 strong at its height—had dwindled to just 15 people. During their protest, Richard Nixon reversed the policy in 1970, effectively ending government seizure of Indian lands.

9. Alcatraz is now one of San Francisco's most popular tourist attractions.

Alcatraz Island was converted into a park and made part of the U.S. national park system in 1972. If you want a tour, you can make advance reservations and book a ferry. Once there, an audio tour will take you through the grounds, including the cells of luminaries like Al Capone. More than 1.5 million people visit annually.

10. Alcatraz has literally gone to the birds.

Alcatraz sits in the background of two birds flocking nearby
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Without a permanent human infrastructure, Alcatraz Island has slowly been engulfed by nature’s squatters. One of the first sights visitors see is a surplus of Western gulls taking up residence on almost every surface. The park service even offers a tour of the avian life, which includes 5000 birds across nine different species. The population is fitting, since the prison’s most famous inmate is widely considered to the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud. After being sentenced for murder, Stroud took up ornithology and was considered to be an expert by the time he arrived on the island in 1942.

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