In the early 1990s, the Happy Face serial killer murdered women across the United States, from Washington State to as far away as Florida. His first victim, Taunja Bennett, was from Portland, but Keith Hunter Jesperson’s work as a trucker gave him opportunities to murder people in California, Nebraska, and even Wyoming.
If I don’t sound impressed it’s because I’m not. I’m not super interested in serial killers. They’re all one-trick ponies, and that trick is murder. Lucky for me, the new podcast Happy Face by Jesperson’s daughter, Melissa Moore, isn’t really about Jesperson. It’s about Moore, who was 15 years old when her dad was arrested and people started knowing her only as the daughter of an infamous serial killer.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Moore grew up to be a crime correspondent. You might know her from her appearances on the Dr. Oz Show or for her Lifetime TV series Monster in My Family. She’s built a life of atonement around the legacy of her father’s violent crimes.
As her career developed, Moore focused less on the perpetrators of violent crimes and became more drawn to the strength of the victims, the survivors, the loved ones, and even the perpetrator’s families. “They’re all innocent victims,” Moore’s Happy Face cohost Lauren Bright Pacheco explains. “So often the victims of serial killers or mass shooters become numbers, faces, and names that we dismiss. The killers become celebrities.”
While Moore is Happy Face’s unconventional subject, Pacheco is the series’ main narrator. She’s the second voice on the tape. Pacheco talks Moore through many of the difficult situations Moore wanted to tackle, like reading letters where her father accuses her of building her fame on his crimes or interviewing the boyfriend she had when she was a teen.
Pacheco acknowledges an inconsistency, when I ask about it, between Moore’s book and the podcast. In the podcast, Moore’s high school boyfriend, Nick, is presented as an old flame. In Moore’s book Whole she says he sexually assaulted her. “That was a very delicate relationship to revisit,” Pacheco says carefully. “Particularly when you’re looking back over a number of decades. For Nick, Melissa was the one that got away. For Melissa, it was a relationship that she felt the need to get away from.”
“It’s weird that he didn’t read her book,” I say, and Pacheco doesn’t have any further comment, but I guess I’ve found why the scene feels so much more tense than merely visiting an ex-boyfriend you were dating when your father was revealed to be a serial murderer.
Happy Face feels overworked in scenes like these and I questioned the torturous situations Moore put herself in. Though I can believe they weren’t expressly for good audio, Happy Face does seem to straddle a divide between the journalistic-factual, sometimes dry podcasts that are so hot right now (S-town, Searching for Richard Simmons) and a more talk show-factual, big-emotion style of storytelling.
But some of those big moments did impress me. Episode eight ends with a list of all the names of Jesperson’s victims and how he killed them. It’s grueling, but it expresses how violently, capriciously, and without remorse these poor women—whose main similarity seems to be trusting, kind natures—were deprived of their worthwhile lives.
All said and done, Happy Face is a perfectly gripping true-crime podcast. It’s well paced—chronological but looping back on itself artfully, akin to memory—and atmospherically scored by folksy Athens, Georgia, band Hope for a Golden Summer. The show’s main theme is a haunting cover of “In the Pines,” which you are most likely to remember from the 1994 Nirvana Unplugged cover or the Lead Belly version that inspired Nirvana. “In the Pines” is such an old Appalachian song, with so many versions, it’s difficult to even agree on the song’s name, let alone what happens in it. But it fits perfectly and—much like this podcast—gets stuck in your head for days.
All 12 episodes currently available at IHeartRadio and all your other regular podcast watering holes.