In the 1990s, Keith Hunter Jesperson, a long-haul truck driver, killed at least eight women across the United States and sent police confession letters with smiley faces on them. But it took thirty years for the identity of his last known victim to be solved.
This week, police in Florida identified her as Suzanne Kjellenberg. She was 34 years old when she was killed during Jesperson’s cross-country killing spree. In September 1994, her body was found by landscapers next to Interstate 10. This was confirmed by Sheriff Eric Aden of Okaloosa County in Florida.
Because of his letters, Jesperson was called the “Happy Face Killer.” He admitted to killing a woman named “Susan” or “Suzette” after he was arrested, but Aden said that no one knew who she was for decades. The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office told CNN that she was the only person who had not been identified out of the eight women he admitted to killing.
Serial Killer Described the Last Moments of His Victims
Jesperson was called the “Happy Face Killer” because he sent confessions to reporters and police departments across the country to get attention. Six states were hit by him: Florida, California, Nebraska, Wyoming, Oregon, and Washington. He was caught in the middle of the 1990s and is now in the Oregon State Penitentiary serving seven life sentences, Aden said.
He recently told investigators that he met Kjellenberg at a truck stop near Tampa and that the two of them went to a rest area together. Aden said earlier this week that he parked next to a security guard and went up to the victim while she was sleeping in the bed of the truck.
His story to the police was that she started screaming and wouldn’t stop. Aden said that he didn’t want to draw the security guard’s attention to the fact that she was riding in his truck without permission, so he put his fist against her neck and wrapped zip ties around her throat.
Last month, on the anniversary of the day her body was found 29 years ago, police went to see the killer in prison and got him to confess, Aden said. “This interview came up out of the blue. He didn’t know they were coming, but he did everything they asked. The killer was honest about how and why he killed the man, Aden said. “Very soon after, he dumped her body on the side of the I-10 in Holt.”
Investigators spent years trying to figure out who the last victim’s bones belonged to. Aden said that Kjellenberg was a wanderer and didn’t have a job at the time of her death.
The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office said that in 2007, a forensic artist did a facial reconstruction to help find her, but it didn’t lead to any new information. After a year, it sent the remains to be looked at by anthropologists again. It also sent samples to the FBI lab to be analyzed for DNA and added to the database for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
A big clue in the case was sent by the medical examiner’s office to Othram, a company in Texas that specializes in forensic genetic genealogy. In order to help find the victim, it made a genealogical profile.
“They were able to narrow it down to a family member.” Aden said at the news conference. “A family member gave a sample, and it turned out to be a 100% DNA hit.” A number of law enforcement agencies have used the forensic sequencing laboratory’s advanced DNA testing and forensic-grade genome sequencing to find important clues in open cases.