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Originally published Thursday, October 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Daughter of serial killer confronts her past

Melissa Moore, the daughter of Keith Hunter Jesperson, the so-called "Happy-Face Killer," is coming forward to tell her story on "The Dr. Phil Show" in a series of episodes starting this week. The Spokane woman also is writing a book.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Melissa Moore's dad is a serial killer.

That used to haunt her, but not anymore. Talking about the past, she says, has freed her from her father's grisly reputation.

Keith Hunter Jesperson, the so-called "Happy Face Killer," murdered at least eight women in the Northwest in the early 1990s. Now serving two back-to-back life sentences, Jesperson earned his pseudonym by signing letters with smiley faces and sending them to journalists.

For years, Moore's mother and siblings lived in the shadow of what her father had done, and no one would talk about it.

"Everyone in our family felt ashamed, that our name was tarnished," said Moore, 29.

After enduring a turbulent childhood, she threw herself into school, earning an associate degree. She met her husband at a church dance, and two children followed. She converted to Mormonism, drawn to its respect for family.

With her new, settled life, she distanced herself from her father's reputation.

"I was raised that you keep your secrets hidden, and that is what is comfortable for me," she said.

But it was a question from her 7-year-old daughter — "Where's your daddy?" — that finally motivated her to confront the past.

A fan of "The Dr. Phil Show," she contacted the television program's producers. They invited her to Los Angeles for the summer "Get Real Retreat," where Moore and 13 others lived together for a week, met with Dr. Phil (psychologist Phil McGraw) and worked through their issues. The "Get Real" series of episodes premiere today, and continue Thursdays through November.

She's also begun work — with the help of true-crime author M. Bridget Cook — on a book about her experiences, to be released next year. "It's not about salacious details, it's about recovery," Cook says.

Now, Moore sees her dad "in a different light" in what she calls "the beginning of a journey" of personal recovery.

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"I realized that he doesn't feel guilt," she said. "My dad is sick, and I don't have to have a relationship with somebody who is sick."

Father was different

Moore grew up in Yakima in the 1980s. Her father was a long-haul truck driver, gone for weeks at a time, but tried to act the part of a loving dad, she said. At 6 feet, 6 inches, he played with his children, putting his two daughters and son in a blanket and throwing them over his shoulder.

One of the first times she noticed her dad was different was when she was in elementary school. Their house bordered an apple orchard, and her dad killed stray cats and gophers that wandered nearby. But one day she watched, horrified, as he hanged her pet kittens from the family's clothes line and beat them.

The tension from her father's life spent on the road, and his erratic behavior, eventually pushed her parents apart.

In August 1989, 10-year-old Moore was driven with her siblings to their grandmother's home in Spokane. They were told their parents were separating, indefinitely.

"Our family was broken," Moore said.

For a year, she lived in her grandmother's home, sleeping on a cot in a storage cellar.

Her mother's minimum-wage job at a department store was barely enough to buy food, but "my mom took pride in being self-reliant," Moore said.

Meanwhile, her dad, having lost his job with his trucking company, moved in with a girlfriend and her family in Portland.

In January 1990, Jesperson assaulted and killed his first victim, 23-year-old Taunja Bennett.

Moore recalled a visit that summer. Her father pulled to the side of the road near Multnomah Falls in Oregon, where he had dumped Bennett's purse after her murder.

"I know how to kill someone and get away with it," he announced, before getting back on the highway. She thought her dad, an avid reader of detective magazines, "was in a really weird phase. I didn't know that these were quite true things."

A series of killings followed over the next few years; Jesperson targeted transient women in five states.

"He was able to build this trust in people," Moore said, developing a "knight in shining armor" image he used to control people.

In August 1994, as Moore started her freshman year of high school, her father visited. At a truck-stop diner, Jesperson, who had killed at least six more women, had breakfast with his daughter.

Their early-morning conversation veered from cars — he wanted to buy her a Pontiac Grand Am for her 16th birthday, she wanted a Volkswagen Bug — to a sudden, odd comment.

"You know, Melissa, things aren't always what they seem to be," she remembered him telling her. "I have something to tell you, but you'll tell the police if I do."

"My stomach turned," Moore said. She got up and went to the bathroom, calmed down and came back. But the subject was dropped, and breakfast resumed.

The following March, Jesperson was arrested in Arizona in the slaying of Julie Ann Winningham, of Camas, Clark County.

Downward spiral

Moore's life spiraled downward. Her mother told her that April that her father had been arrested in the slaying; about a week afterward she found out she was pregnant.

"It just seemed that the whole world was collapsing," she said.

Moore had an abortion. Her dad's arrest and trial were taboo. She felt angry and confused.

"I didn't know what was wrong with me," she said. "I thought I could snap out of it," but "I didn't want people to find out."

Life didn't improve until she was a senior in high school. Her family moved into a Habitat for Humanity house, and she focused on school.

"I wanted to prove to myself that I could do better," she said.

She attended Spokane Community College, married and started a family.

She finally felt secure, but continued to hide from the past until her daughter's question in May. That's when she reached out to her favorite therapist.

"I just have to push through the fear," she said.

Her sister, a nurse in Spokane, and her brother, serving in the Army in Iraq, have supported her television appearance, along with her husband and his family.

She hopes to encourage healing in other people with tough backgrounds.

"If I dwelled on the wrong of it, I would just fester," she said. "You feel like you're the only family going through this.

"I'm coming out to encourage other people that they're not alone."

Will Mari: 206-464-2745 or wmari@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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