Very Scary People (2019–…): Season 5, Episode 11 - The Happy Face Killer: Part 1 - full transcript

Keith Hunter Jesperson (born April 6, 1955) is a Canadian-American serial killer who murdered at least eight women in the United States during the early 1990s. He was known as the "Happy Face Killer" because he drew "smiley faces"...

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[Keith speaking]

Welcome to Very Scary People.

I'm Donnie Wahlberg.

He was a long
haul truck driver
with a wife and kids

who spent most of his time
on the road.

Travelling state to state,
he would hear tales
of other drivers

literally getting
away with murder.

But that wasn't him.

He was a family man.

So when a young woman went
missing in 1990 on a cold day
in Portland, Oregon,

no one would suspect
this friendly mild
mannered trucker.



But there would be
several more bodies to come.

This is part one
of The Happy Face Killer.

[Doug] The Colombia Gorge
is a scenic wonder.

It draws a lot of tourists
in Oregon and Portland.

Soaring whitecap mountains,

huge river,

second only to
the Mississippi
in terms of size.

[Judge] It's a kind
of a unique
geographical formation.

100 foot high walls of rock.

It's covering
out this wide valley.

The carving out
of the Gorge left

sort of a plateau and

you have a number
of waterfalls that come
off at the plateau.

The biggest of which is
Multnomah Falls.



Columbia River gorge
is a very popular place for

sight-seeing and hiking.

It's a really beautiful place.

Unfortunately, probably
also a good place
to get rid of a body.

[Keith speaking]

It was just a nude woman with
no clothing there and no,
um, forms of identification.

They lift her fingerprints
and match them to a set
in the system.

[Monty] We were able
to detect her identity
as Julie Winningham.

When they said
they found my mom,

I had lost it.

She was truly a kind hearted
free spirited loving
and caring person.

She didn't do people wrong.

I... just couldn't,
I couldn't believe it.

The killer dumbed this woman's
body off of the highway into
the Columbia River Gorge.

[Joey] But this wasn't
the first time.

[Michelle]
I was her big sister.

My family,

you know, even though I had
two older brothers,

they were supposed
to babysit us. No.

It was me and
my sister, Taunja.

Because they were working
or my mom was working.

We get out of school,
go home, no one's home.

We grew up poor,
so it was oatmeal,

cream of wheat, whatever we
had in the refrigerator,
in the cupboard I made.

We were just always together.

[Alafair] Taunja Bennett was
a 23 year old resident
of Portland.

She lived with her mother, um
she was described as being
mildly mentally disabled.

She was kind of slow
but she wasn't to me.

She went all the way
to high school and graduated.

So, she had
intelligence there.

And she was known for walking
around with a Walkman,

being very cheerful, kind of
a neighborhood local.

[Keith speaking]

[Michelle] Taunja said she had
to go to the dentist.

I was like, on a Sunday?

The... the dentist doesn't
open on a Sunday.

So I said, "Oh, since you are
going to the dentist,

could you drop off the movies?

'Cause it's on the way."

And she...
"Okay I will, I will."

[Alafair] Instead, Taunja had
left her house

to walk over to a local tavern
called the B & I bar.

And went by herself

wearing a jacket
carrying her purse,

carrying her Walkman.

Back then, you know what
it was, Madonna.

The tape of Madonna in 1990.

Whenever she came out,
that was it.

[Casey] Her sister described
her as being very trusting
and maybe a little bit slow.

But this just means that
she was very vulnerable.

She went in and would
go around hugging people,
very social.

[Keith speaking]

She went in and was
playing with two men.

[Keith speaking]

[Casey] Later the two men
that Taunja was playing
pool would leave,

and Taunja would leave.

Nobody could say
for certain when she
left or with who.

[Monty] That was the last time
that she was seen alive.

[Alafair] Her mother reported
that Taunja Bennett had
left her house

to walk over to a local tavern
called the B & I Bar

and then she did
not come home.

[Michelle] I said,
"Oh, my God,
my sister's gone."

Where could she go?

Said, "I went to go look
for her and she's gone, mom.

I don't know where she went."

[Judge] I got a call from the
Chief Deputy who makes the
assignments of murder cases

that we have a body in the
Columbia Gorge,

it looks like a homicide,
we need you to go out
to the scene.

[Chris] The location where
the body was discovered,

was on the scenic highway
which parallels Interstate 84

that runs east and
west out of Portland.

I found where the police
vehicles where,

and then, uh,
walked into the forest
I would estimate 25 feet.

There was, uh, her body.

[Chris] She was dumped
in a very steep hillside.

The hillside was probably
a 45 degree hillside

of off the... of off
the paved road.

And it was very rugged
covered with trees
and brush.

[Alafair] Her body was found
partially unclothed,

pants have been pulled down,
her top was up.

One arm was out
of the sleeve of her jacket.

[Judge] So we, of course,
from the very beginning

suspected sexual assault.

[Casey] The woman had a rope
around her neck.

[camera shutter clicking]

[Casey] And curiously somebody
had removed the fly,

like, the button and zipper
area of the jeans, they've
been cut away.

Because there was no
identification on the body
police had no clue as

to who this woman was.

The only clues were that
nearby there was a small
Swiss Army Knife

and the headphones
to a Sony Walkman.

[Judge] She'd been strangled,

she'd been beaten badly,

we didn't know for sure
what race she was,

'cause her face
was so badly beaten.

[Chris]
It's hard to imagine
that you can

kill a... a helpless person
and that you can beat
them to the point

uh, where their face
is essentially unrecognizable.

I have no words to describe
what kind of a...

what kind of an
animal does that sort
of thing to another human.

[Judge] We were just
needing to gain all the
clues we could

to help us find out
who was responsible.

And there was a head hair
that was taken into evidence

that was found,
I believe on her leg

or somewhere under
the clothing.

And the head hair wasn't hers.

And she didn't have her purse.

That becomes
significant later.

[Jeff] This was a news story

on the fact that a body
was found in the
Columbia River Gorge.

The victim had been
raped and killed.
That just didn't happen.

Now, Portland was a much more
innocent place at that time.

[Chris] Identifying bodies in
criminal investigations,
police investigations,

uh, oftentimes clearly one
of the ways you identify

a body is if someone
can recognize a person's face.

[Casey] Police composed
a sketch of the female victim

and put it out on
the news media.

The neighbor came down
and she told me
to watch the news.

Because [gasps] she's seen
something on the news about
a girl getting killed,

I was like,

no.

But the portrait they have,
didn't even look like her.

Nothing like my sister,

but what they had her clothes,
that's what did it.

Taunja's sister saw the
sketch on the news along with
photographs of the clothing

and got in touch with police.

[Michelle] Wanted to
identify her.

So I had to think
of something to identify her.

And there... at that time
all I could think of is she
had very flat feet

and she had a
mole on her hand.

[Casey] She confirmed that
it was indeed her sister
Taunja Bennett.

[Chris] Once someone who
is am unidentified victim
is identified,

then what detectives
do is they start

working closely with everybody
that knew that person.

Whether it be a family member,
whether it be a,
uh, roommate,

whether it be a spouse and...

and you have to start building
the story from the ground up

trying to determine why this
person was murdered.

[indistinct chatter]

[Chris] She went to a tavern
in the east Multnomah called
the B & I tavern.

And, uh, apparently she was
a fairly regular customer
in that...

in that particular location
because people knew her.

People from the bar
recalled seeing her playing
pool with two men.

Police are interested in these
two guys and are trying
to track them down.

[Alafair] After Taunja
Bennett's body was identified

the police had setup
a tip line and they
had placed,

it was Crime Stopper, notices
in the newspaper
with her picture

asking people about any
information about where she
might have been that night

and who she might
have been with.

[Chris] Law Enforcement
started getting calls

from a woman who wanted
to remain unidentified.

And she was pointing
the fingers towards
her boyfriend.

And her boyfriend was somehow
involved in the death
of Taunja Bennett.

[Joey] The body of 23 year old
Taunja Bennett is found
brutally murdered

in the Columbia River Gorge
outside of Portland, Oregon.

Investigators are looking for
any clue from the public
as to who could've done this.

[woman speaking]

[Alafair] After Taunja
Bennett's body was identified

the police setup a tip line
and they had placed,
was Crime Stopper,

notices in the newspaper
with her picture
asking people

for any information about
where she might
have been that night

and who she might
have been with.

And a woman made a phone call
to the parole officer,
of her live in boyfriend

a man named John Sosnovske,

saying that she believed that
he may have been involved
in Taunja Bennett's murder.

[woman speaking]

[Casey] Police learned that
John Sosnovske, who is
39 years old,

has an older girlfriend named,
Laverne Pavlinac
who happens to be 57.

And that the two of them
are in a very codependent

possibly abusive relationship.

A relationship that Laverne
says she wants to get out of.

[Laverne speaking]

John Sosnovske works the
local lumberyard but he had
no criminal history

other than a DUI.

I think she kind of supported
him, it's her house
that he lived in rent free

and they had a kind
of a difficult relationship.

He was by all accounts
a very heavy drinker.

[Laverne speaking]

[Casey]
Police go to interview Laverne

and she confirms that she is
the person who made that
anonymous call.

And that she knows
John killed this girl.

[Chris] She started telling
a story about John Sosnovske,

was a regular at J & B Lounge
and Wilsonville, Oregon.

And that he was talking
about the fact that he had met
Taunja Bennett

down at the J & B lounge.

And that he had ultimately
killed her down there.

[Casey] She says that on the
night of Taunja's murder

John came home at about
one o'clock in the morning.

He came in and took off all
his clothes and jumped into
the shower, something that was

very unusual for him to do.

Police gets a warrant and
search Laverne's home,
the she shares with John.

They find really nothing
except a piece of paper
that has the words,

"T Bennett,
Good piece" written on it.

The T Bennett, good piece
seem like a really an
improbable item to find.

And then based on that,
of course, went out to
interview John Sosnovske.

[Corson] Today is Friday.
February 16, 1990.

Time now is 6:40 p.m.

They spend quite a bit of time
interviewing him.

He denied.

In fact he continued
to deny that he knew
anything about it.

When he was confronted
with the fact that Laverne was
accusing him of doing this,

he denied ever
meeting Taunja Bennett.

He certainly
denied killing her.

[Joey] They didn't have
enough to arrest
John Sosnovske.

So they let him go.

But not before they took
a hair sample which they
tried to match

to evidence from
the crime scene.

Then detectives hear
from Laverne Pavlinac again.

[Alafair] When he still had
not been arrested

she continued to press
the issue and said that
she had found

more evidence
incriminating him.

[Judge] Laverne told the
detective she'd found
some things in the trunk.

She had found a purse
in the trunk and
a piece of fabric

from the crotch of the jeans.

[Alafair] She said that she
found a section of denim jeans

that had been cut away.

The button and zipper area
of a pair of jeans.

And of course that caught
Law Enforcement's attention

because that lined up
to the condition of
Taunja Bennett's

jeans when her body was found.

Subsequently that fly
was sent to the
State Police's Crime Lab.

By then we'd know one other
piece of evidence
had developed,

which is that his head hair
was consistent with the head
hair found on Taunja Bennett.

It's not a fingerprint.

It's not DNA, it doesn't have
that power to discriminate.

But it was indication to us
to try and to look at
all the evidence,

and see that's a piece
of evidence that supports
Laverne Pavlinac's description

in her statement.

Then police came back
with a decision on
the evidence

that Laverne said she
found in the trunk of her car.

A purse like Taunja Bennett's
missing purse,

and a piece of denim similar
to the denim cut from
Taunja's jeans.

[Jeff] The interesting this
is, the purse was not a match.

And the denim was not a match

to what Taunja Bennett
had on her person.

Investigators thought what's
going on here?

[Casey] When police confront
Laverne about all of these
inconsistent evidence

she admits that she planted
the purse and planted
the ripped out jeans

denim fly.

And then she tells them
a new story.

And that's when she started
to tell them that,

she knew that John Sosnovske
had killed Taunja Bennett,

because she was there.

Welcome back to
Very Scary People.

The brutal and senseless
murder of Taunja Bennett

devastated her family,

and sent shockwaves
through Portland.

With few leads, investigators
are focusing on a tip from
a 57 year old woman

named Laverne Pavlinac
pointed the finger on her
39 year old boyfriend.

Could this women's tip
being the key to solve this
horrific crime?

Or was it just
another dead end?

[Judge] Laverne gave three
or four different statements.

There was an evolution,
a progression
to her statements.

[Casey] There is no consistent
forensic evidence to prove.

It's all just Laverne's
testimony against John.

Now Laverne tells police
a whole new story.

She says that she got
a call from John in the
middle of the night

and that he head a request.

He needed her to come down to
the J & B truck stop

and bring a shower curtain.

[Casey] And when she got
there, there was a body lying
right there on the pavement.

She had found him
in a dark corner of the
parking lot.

At his feet was
Taunja Bennett's dead body.

[Casey] She says she asked
John looking at the body,

"Is she okay?"

And then John replied,
"It's worse than that.
She's dead."

[Casey] Laverne says that John
made her wrap that body
into the shower curtain

and lift it and put it
into the trunk of that car

and then together they drove
to the Columbia River Gorge

where they threw the
body over the embankment.

Detectives asked her,
"Could you show us
where the body was?"

And she said she could.

[Alafair] She took them out
to the Columbia River Gorge.

They were driving on these
winding roads and,

she told them to stop the car
and pointed and said, "This is
where we left her body."

She pointed to the exact spot
where Taunja's
body was dumped.

[Judge] Well I have to say,
I'm not sure
I could've found it,

I was there but there's
all these switchbacks and

I don't know if I could've
correctly identified it.

[Alafair] And that seemed,
to Law Enforcement at
the time, to really

suddenly shore
up her credibility.

Um, and the reliability
of her confession.

But when that still didn't
get the result she wanted,
she went further.

At some point she called
detectives and said
it's correction time.

[Judge] They went out to speak
with her the next day.

She proceeded to change
her story again to say,
he called her

she'd gone to the
J & B truck stop,

he was there
with Taunja Bennett.

[Judge] And he'd said we're
giving her a ride home.

They get in the car and as
she's driving,

he directs her out to the
Columbia Gorge and to
the observation point.

[Judge] He then gets out of
the car with Taunja Bennett
and they go around the corner.

He comes back and he's getting
something out of the trunk and
she asks him what he's doing?

He says come see.

And so she implicated herself
as an accomplice.

[Alafair] She probably didn't
realize, she hadn't watched
enoughLaw & Order

or taken a law school class
in aiding and abetting

but she put herself
right there helping him

which makes her just as
guilty as him under the law.

[Judge] And the
detectives arrested her.

That began then the
next phase of the case,

indicting her and
John Sosnovske.

As Laverne Pavlinac's
jury trial was commencing,

a truck stop reported
a disturbing piece
of graffiti.

Somebody scrolled on the wall,

January 21st, 1990.
Killed Taunja Bennett
in Portland.

Two people got the blame
so I can kill again.

Laverne Pavlinac and John
Sosnovske are charged with

the murder of 23 year old,
Taunja Bennett.

But as the trial of Laverne
is about to begin bizarre
messages

stun the authorities.

[Jeff] It comes to light that
graffiti was found at a

rest stop bathroom in Montana,

and in a remote section
of Oregon at another bathroom

confessing to the crime
of killing Taunja Bennett.

[Chris] The one in
Livingston Montana reads,

"I killed Taunja Bennett,
January 21st, 1990
in Portland, Oregon.

I beat her to death,
raped her and loved it.

Yes, I'm sick, but I enjoy
myself too.

People took the blame
and I'm free."

The one from Umatilla,
Oregon, which is just
east of Portland

on that bathroom it said,
"I killed
Taunja Bennett in Portland.

Two people got the blame
so I can kill again.

Cut buttons
of jeans as proof."

It's unsettling. Why would
somebody do that?

But, you don't know what
to make of it, right?

[Chris] When the detectives
involved in this case

were made aware
of those writings

they immediately notified
through the District
Attorney's office

the court that those
things have been found
because it was significant,

that someone was writing that
on a wall.

We did a forensic evaluation.
Didn't find anything that
would help us.

But Wendell Birkland,
Laverne's attorney,

moved to introduce it
into evidence.

Of course the problem was
at that point, it could've
been any friend of Sosnovske's

or Pavlinac's doing
that to short circuit
their own issues.

[Judge] We objected, it's
hearsay. It's the statement of
someone who is not in court,

not subject to
cross examination,

and it's been offered to prove
that Laverne Pavlinac didn't
commit the murder.

A judge decided that it was
inadmissible,
because, uh, it was

hearsay was being offered
for the truth and there was no
way to know who

wrote it and there was
no indicia that
it was credible.

And that made it
inadmissible in court.

I was trying this case
and I'm going into court
and looking at this

grandmotherly looking person
that I'm trying for murder.

She went to trial
claiming that her confessions
had been false,

that she was just trying to
implicate him saying that
neither of them

had anything to
do with Taunja Bennett.

Her defense was that she
had made this up,

because she was in an
abusive relationship
with John Sosnovske

and didn't know how else
to get out of it.

This is a very unusual
circumstance where
someone does

give a detailed
statement to the police,
then it's recorded

and then they go into
the court room and say,
well that's all a lie.

And of course what jurors
would think in that instance,
of course it's a lie

at this point at time because
you just realized you're going
to go to prison for murder.

I think the evidence was
so overwhelming of guilt

that the jury unanimously
found her guilty.

Of course what convicted
her in the court room
was her own

recorded statement saying
that she was involved
in Taunja's death.

Once she was committed
of murder, John Sosnovske
entered a no contest plea

um, to avoid
the death penalty.

He certainly denied
killing Taunja Bennett
but with time,

his confidence in his
recollections started
to waver because

he became convinced that
it was possible that he
could've met Taunja Bennett

and even talked to her but
forgotten about it because
he was a heavy drinker.

[Judge] He had experienced
blackouts in the course
of his alcoholism

and when Laverne told him
he had done it,

he was so,

I... I think impacted
by his alcohol use
that he wasn't sure.

No contest doesn't mean
I admit that I'm guilty.

But it says to the court
I'm choosing not to contest
the charge

and I... I understand
I'm going to be found guilty.

[Alafair] Laverne was
sentenced to a life sentence
but with a minimum

of only 10 years,

because the judge reasoned
that John Sosnovske had been
the major influence upon her

contact, and then he
was sentenced, um, also to
a life sentence with

a mandatory minimum
of at least 25 years.

[Joey] It appears that the
case of who killed Taunja
Bennett is solved and closed.

But then in the spring
of 1994, four years after
Taunja's murder,

The Oregoniannewspaper
receives a letter that may
change everything.

[Joey] Authorities believe
that the mystery of who killed
Portland native

23 year old Taunja Bennett
had been solved.

The killers had been convicted
and incarcerated.

But then in the spring
of 1994, four years after
Taunja's murder,

The Oregoniannewspaper
receives a letter that may
change everything.

I remember that day,
dark, haunting but,
not forgettable.

[Doug] I recall we had a news
aid who would bring me a stack
of mail every morning,

on the top of her pile
of mail was a handwritten
letter six pages long,

stapled together, and she
plopped this on my
desk and said,

"You've got a weird one
here today."

And I read it,
just a few lines of it

and realized this is somebody
trying to confess to a murder.

I'm reading a letter,
sent to The Oregonian
newspaper in Portland.

At the top of the letter
is a happy face,

and it says,
"All five of five.

I would like to tell my story.
I am a good person at times.

I always wanted to be liked.

I've have been married
and divorced with children.

I didn't really want
to be married
but it happened.

I have read your paper
and enjoyed it a lot.

I always have wanted
to be noticed.

So I started something
I don't know how to stop."

My first thought was,
yeah, it's a hoax.

I mean... we get these.

But I kept reading it.

[Chris]
"On or around
January 20th 1990,

I picked up Sonya Bennett
and took her home.

I raped her and beat her
real bad.

Her face was all broke up.

Then I ended her life."

[Jeff]
He calls her Sonya Bennett.

But this letter to
The Oregonian
was very detailed

on how he met Taunja Bennett
that night,

how exactly he killed her.

How he left her body.

He gave information
in that letter that only
a killer would know.

[Chris] "I went back home
and dragged her
out to the car.

I want to know
that it was my crime.

So I tied a half inch
soft white rope,

cut on one end...

The further down into
this letter I went the more

detail was provided
about crimes, horrific crimes.

[Jeff] He talks about how
two people are falsely
imprisoned for this killing.

But then comes
the stunning news.

[Jeff]
He confesses to a murder

in California describing
exactly how he
killed this person,

where he left the body.

[Chris] "One day in
California I picked up
a girl named Claudia.

I took her. I taped her up.

I kept her for
four days alive.

Then I killed her and dumped
her body about seven miles
north of Blythe on 95."

He confesses to another
murder in California.

Once again leaves out details
that only a killer would know.

Says exactly
where he left the body.

[Chris] "This time I just
strangled her right
there without sex.

She was in my truck
only five minutes.

I dropped her body off behind
the Blueberry Hill cafe

10 miles south on 99.

I placed her body in the dirt
and stepped on her throat
to make sure she was dead."

Confesses to another murder?

[Chris] "I felt so much power

I then told her she was going
to die and slowly
strangled her.

And dropped her off behind
GI Joe's in Salem.

I put her against the fence
under the blackberry wines and
covered her with leaves."

And then confesses
to a fifth murder.

[Chris] "I stopped at a rest
area near Williams
and had her.

I put her body on or near
a pile of rocks.

About 50 yards north of
Highway 152 West bound.

About 20 miles from
Santa Nella."

And perhaps the most
chilling this is, he makes
a happy face.

[Doug] I'd never seen
anything like this before.

I read through the letter
all the way to the end
and found it

nauseating, upsetting
and potentially credible.

The letter to The Oregonian
was basically saying,

"Ha ha ha. You guys are
so dumb you convicted
the wrong people.

I'm the killer."

The letter detailed five
homicides that they claimed
responsibility for,

including Taunja Bennett,
all of women
in various states.

[Doug] The skeptic in me
wanted to throw it
into the recycle box,

and the editor
part of me said,

better check it out.

So, I called one
of the reporters on our team,

his name was Phil Stanford,

and I gave him the letter
and I asked him
to check it out.

He contacted every police
agency and talked to every
investigator he could

on the murder cases that
could be identified
from the letter

to try to find details that

would corroborate
and authenticate

the confession letter.

He came back to me
and he said, I don't think
it's a hoax. I think they put

the wrong people in prison

for the murder that
he's confessing to in here.

[Casey] So, in May of 1994,

The Oregoniandecides to
publish the six page
handwritten letter that

they've received
from somebody that they
call "The Happy Face Killer."

[Doug]
From day one, Phil and I

described the letters,
The Happy Face Killer, letter

because of the happy
face at the top of it.

[Jeff] So once the letter
comes out inThe Oregonian
it becomes big news.

All the media is reporting
on the letter sent
to the newspaper

and speculating on is this
real, is this a hoax?

And the focus turns
to Laverne Pavlinac
and John Sosnovske

who are sitting in prison.

[Doug] I wondered if we might

blow the lid off
this story and get

the investigation reopened.

[Joey] If this letter is real,
if the killer's claims
are real

then Laverne and
John are innocent.

And there's a serial
killer on the loose.

[Jeff] He was claiming that
he did these murders.

There was still
no hard, hard proof.

They hadn't captured him.

So there was still that doubt
that this could be a hoax.

[Doug] The Happy Face Killer
story was lurid

and sensational and
all the things
that press critics

like to fault the media
for doing.

But, uh, the end of the day
this was news.

A serial killer at large,

killing women, that's
the newspaper's job to report
it when somebody

tries to confess to it.

[Chris]
He was so proud of his work,

and he really wanted
to be noted
as a serial killer.

He basically, beat, raped
and suffocated my mother

in the cab of his truck and
then tossed her
out of the truck

like a piece of garbage.

[man] It wasn't until we
actually got into the
interview room

that we told him
we're investigating

the death of Julie Winningham.

[Chris] I've spent a lifetime
looking at these
kind of stories

and I have no explanation for
how a person can be
so demented that

that becomes a way
of life for him.

[Jeff] He targeted sex
workers, prostitutes,

people who sort of are on the
fringe of society
and are already forgotten.

[Jeff] As he's talked about
how he killed these women,
how he cleaned up

after the murders,
he became the monster.

Two people are in
prison for the murder
of Taunja Bennett.

Four more women are dead.

Then an anonymous letter
arrives at The Oregonian
newspaper,

from a man who claims
that he is responsible
for all of the murders.

He signs the letter
with a happy face symbol.

Is it a hoax?
Investigators aren't certain.

If not, can they find him
before he strikes again?

In part two of
The Happy Face Killer.

I'm Donnie Wahlberg.
Thanks for watching.
Good night.