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."