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."

The 50-Year Journey to Solve the Murder of Harvard Student Jane Britton

Jane Britton
Jane Britton
Middlesex District Attorney File [PDF] // Public Domain

On the morning of January 7, 1969, anthropology graduate students at Harvard University gathered to take their general examinations—one last hurdle they’d have to jump before beginning their doctoral theses. One student, however, was missing: 23-year-old Jane Britton.

It wasn't like Britton to miss a test, especially one this important. Her parents, a Radcliffe College vice president and a medieval history scholar, had raised her to take her education seriously, and she had graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1967. At Harvard, she served as a teaching assistant, helped discover the remains of a Neolithic community during an archaeological dig in Iran, and dazzled everyone with her quick wit. In short, she was more than a model student.

Her classmate and boyfriend, James Humphries, called her—but she didn’t answer. So he set off for her fourth-floor apartment at 6 University Road and knocked on her door just after noon.

Again, no answer.

Humphries’s knocking was loud enough to draw Britton’s neighbor and fellow anthropology student Donald Mitchell from his nearby apartment, and the two men decided to enter Britton’s unlocked residence.

They found her lying facedown on her bed in a blue nightgown, her body partially obscured by blankets and a fur coat. Mitchell uncovered her head, realized she was caked in blood, and promptly called the Cambridge police, who, upon arrival, asked medical examiner Dr. Arthur McGovern to come to Britton’s apartment as well.

McGovern soon confirmed the worst: Britton was dead. It was obvious that she had been the victim of a brutal murder, but there was no murder weapon in sight. With no weapon, no eyewitnesses, and the public demanding answers, detectives embarked on an arduous and baffling hunt for the truth—one that would last half a century.

The Night Of

The night before her murder, Britton and Humphries joined some classmates for dinner at the Acropolis Restaurant and ice skating at Cambridge Common. She and Humphries retired to her apartment for hot cocoa around 10:30 p.m., and, when Humphries left an hour later, Britton visited the Mitchells to retrieve her cat, Fuzzy, and enjoy a glass of sherry before returning to her own apartment at about 12:30 a.m.

Though Donald Mitchell and his wife, Jill, hadn’t seen or heard anything suspicious, two other residents had [PDF]: A neighbor heard noises on Britton’s fire escape that night, and someone else reported seeing a 6-foot-tall, 170-pound man running in the street below at 1:30 a.m. Unfortunately, neither of these testimonies gave authorities much to investigate, and they couldn’t even be certain that the murderer had in fact used the fire escape to gain access into Britton’s apartment—they saw no evidence of forced entry, and her front door had been unlocked.

As police continued their inspection of Jane's apartment, Dr. George Katsas autopsied Britton’s body at Watson Funeral Home and determined her cause of death to be “the result of multiple blunt injuries of the head with fractures of the skull and contusions and lacerations of the brain.” It was later confirmed that Britton had also been the victim of sexual assault, and a toxicology report proved that since the sherry had never entered her bloodstream, she must have died within an hour of having returned to her apartment that night.

The fact that Britton’s door was unlocked caused something of a public outcry, because it wasn’t the first time that someone had been killed in the building. Just six years earlier, Boston University student Beverly Samans had been stabbed to death in her apartment by Albert DeSalvo, better known as the Boston Strangler. After Britton’s murder, The Harvard Crimson reported that the front doors of the “littered and dingy” building didn’t even have locks, and that Britton’s apartment door was often left unlocked not out of negligence, but because it was “almost impossible to lock.” Students had allegedly complained about the lousy security in the past, though a university representative denied those claims.

A Trail of Dead Ends

Meanwhile, police were considering the possibility that someone from the university had committed the crime. They started questioning members of Harvard’s anthropology department, some of whom were Britton’s companions on the dig in Iran during the previous summer.

While canvassing the crime scene, police had found traces of red ochre—a powder-like clay—sprinkled both on Britton’s body and around her apartment. Since red ochre was once used in ancient Persian burial rites, investigators were looking for a suspect likely to have an in-depth knowledge of the subject.

It wasn’t the only reason that Jane's former companions seemed like a promising place to start: According to some media reports published in the wake of the murder, there had also been hostility among the nine participants. But, as the interrogations failed to produce any viable suspects, investigators were forced to conclude that the media reports had been exaggerated.

“There were complaints about too much tuna fish,” Professor C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky told The New York Times when asked to address the rumors. Hardly a compelling motive for cold-blooded murder. The perplexing presence of red ochre turned out to be insignificant, too—it was later determined to be nothing more than residue from Britton’s paintings.

With a bone-dry suspect pool, police focused instead on evidence from the crime scene. Though they had managed to find traces of semen left behind by the killer during the sexual assault, the existing technology wasn't advanced enough for them to use that DNA to locate a match. They also discovered that a sharp stone—perhaps sharp enough to kill— Britton had received as an archaeological souvenir from the Mitchells had gone missing from her residence.

Then, just two days after Britton’s body was found, Cambridge Chief of Police James F. Reagan announced a black-out on any further news of the investigation until he himself decided to release more information, citing inaccuracies in media coverage of the crime. He wouldn’t elaborate, but he did give one last parting update: They had located the sharp stone.

As for any other details—where they found it, for example, or if it happened to be smeared with blood—Reagan didn’t say. The public was left to assume that the potential murder weapon was yet another dead end.

Remembering Janie

In the absence of any official updates, people looked back on Britton’s life both to honor her memory and search for some clue they might have missed. She was a bright, spirited young woman who rode horses, played the piano, and decorated her apartment walls with drawings of animals.

“She could interact with a lot of different types of people very well,” Jill Mitchell told The New York Times. “She had manners, yet was very down to earth.” While Britton's varied hobbies and active social life made her a well-rounded, well-liked young woman, she was also exceptionally focused on her career goals: She specialized in Near Eastern archaeology, and planned to become an archaeologist after graduation.

Some considered the many accounts of Britton’s all-around winning personality proof that her assailant must have been a complete stranger.

“The police have a mass of material and I think it will all lead to the conclusion that no one would want to kill Janie,” her friend Ingrid Kirsch said.

Others, however, simply generated the kind of ugly gossip that so often rears its head during tragedies. One popular conspiracy theory suggested that Britton’s murder was connected to her alleged involvement in the counterculture movement of the time.

“She knew a lot of odd people in Cambridge—the hangers-on and acid heads who you would not call young wholesome Harvard and Radcliffe types,” an unnamed friend, who had known Britton in 1966, told The New York Times. “She went to a lot of their parties and was very kind to them.”

But time wore on without any news from the police department, and eventually, even the foundationless rumors petered out.

The murder of Jane Britton became another cold case. Her parents passed away—her mother, Ruth, in 1978, and her father, J. Boyd, in 2002—without knowing the truth about their daughter's tragic death.

A Belated Breakthrough

Then, in 2017, several public requests for the district attorney’s office to publicly release the case file prompted investigators to pore over the materials once again, and they decided to test the DNA sample using the latest forensic technology.

Incredibly, they found a match: Michael Sumpter, a convicted murder and rapist who had died in 2001. Without new DNA from Sumpter to verify their findings, they turned to the next closest thing—a DNA sample from his brother, whom they located through services like Ancestry.com.

The sample from Sumpter’s brother matched the original sample, ruled out 99.92 percent of the male population, and proved within reason that Michael Sumpter was in fact responsible for the rape and murder of Jane Britton.

According to the Middlesex district attorney’s office, Sumpter was no stranger to Cambridge. He lived there as a child, worked just a mile from Britton’s apartment in 1967, and was convicted of assaulting a woman in the area three years after Britton’s murder.

In November 2018, Middlesex district attorney Marian Ryan confirmed that, after nearly 50 years, Britton’s case was closed.

“A half-century of mystery and speculation has clouded the brutal crime that shattered Jane’s promising young life and our family,” Britton’s brother, Reverend Boyd Britton, said in a statement [PDF]. “The DNA evidence match may be all we ever have as a conclusion. Learning to understand and forgive remains a challenge.”

When Ohio Outlawed Seduction

Lee Tracey/BIPs/Getty Images
Lee Tracey/BIPs/Getty Images

"Hot for Teacher" may have been a major hit for Van Halen back in 1984, but the very idea of a personal relationship between teacher and student—regardless of age—was nothing to sing about for Ohio lawmakers back in the 19th century. On April 22, 1886, the Buckeye State passed a law that made it illegal for any man over the age of 21 to put the moves on a woman he was instructing. Those who dared try would face the possibility of spending up to a decade in the clink.

To be clear, while the statute quite rightly made it illegal for an adult male teacher to engage in an inappropriate relationship with one of his young students, the wide latitude of the law went far beyond that, stating:

A male person over twenty-one years of age, who is superintendent, tutor or teacher in a private, parochial or public school, or seminary or other public institution, or instructor of any female in music, dancing, roller skating, athletic exercise, or any branch of learning, who has sexual intercourse, at any time or place, with any female, with her consent, while under his instruction during the term of his engagement as superintendent, tutor or instructor, shall be imprisoned in the penitentiary not more than ten years nor less than two.

Translate that to today's standards and what it means is that, even if you're an unmarried thirty-something looking for Mr. Right, you'd be wise to keep your hands off your personal trainer, lest he be arrested for reciprocating your romantic interests. (And yes, the same goes for your roller skating instructor.)

But Ohio was hardly the first state to pass such a law. In Virginia, dangling the prospect of marriage as a way to get some nookie was a no-no with "any unmarried female of previous chaste character" and again punishable by up to 10 years in prison. (The lawmakers were generous enough to note that the "chastity of the female shall be presumed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary.") New York instituted a similar law in 1848, but considered the crime a misdemeanor (whereas Virginia classified it as a felony).

Georgia, too, had a seduction law, which reads very Jackie Collins-esque with phrases like "induce her to yield to his lustful embraces" and "allow him to have carnal knowledge of her." Any man charged with the crime had one of two choices: take his chances in court and risk spending two to 20 years in prison—or marry the gal! The written law noted that, "The prosecution may be stopped at any time by the marriage of the parties, or a bona fide and continuing offer to marry on the part of the seducer." Which was certainly one way to snag a husband!

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