Patsy Skiple and the Happy Face Killer
A Family’s Search, A Serial Killer’s Confession, and A Victim’s Long Journey Home.
courtesy of the Sheriff of Santa Clara County
We now know the name of a 1993 victim of serial killer Keith Hunter Jesperson. Her name is Patricia "Patsy" Skiple, a native of Colton, Oregon, mother of two, and Gloria White's beloved sister. In 1992, she disappeared from her home in Molalla, Oregon in the middle of the night after she and her husband argued. She was forty-five years old. No one ever saw her again.
On June 3, 1993, a truck driver who had pulled over found an unknown deceased woman on the side of the California State Route 152 in the Gilroy area of San Francisco Bay. Police dubbed her "Blue Pacheco," "blue" for the color of the clothes she was wearing, and "Pacheco" for the nickname of the highway near where she lay. There was no way to identify her or tell how she died. So, for the next twenty-nine years, Patsy's family wondered why she didn't come home, and police wondered who she was and what happened to her.
Flying Under the Radar
In 1995, Keith Hunter Jesperson, a long-haul trucker himself, was arrested and charged with killing his girlfriend, forty-one-year-old Julie Ann Winnington, in Washington state. This relationship with one of his victims was an anomaly; the seven other women he eventually confessed to murdering between 1990 and 1995 were women he had met in bars or sex workers he encountered at truck stops. He killed women in several states; Washington, California, Oregon, Nevada, Florida, Nebraska, and Wyoming.
It is unclear why Jespersen took the risk of murdering someone he knew. Perhaps he was annoyed that he wasn't getting credit for his violent and sadistic acts and decided to up the ante.
There were hints that Jespersen wanted people to know what he'd done. His first clues were subtle; he gave an anonymous confession – along with incriminating details – of his first murder on the wall of a bathroom truck stop. When that failed to get Jespersen the attention he craved, he began sending taunting letters to the media and police. His nickname, the "Happy Face Killer," came from his signature sign-off to his letters - the drawing of a happy face.
An Unlikely Alibi
Right away, Jesperson was a person of interest. Witnesses had seen him approach twenty-three-year-old Taunja Bennett on January 20, 1990, in a bar near Portland, Oregon. Some had even seen the two of them leave together. A cyclist found her body the next day; she had been beaten, sexually assaulted, and strangled to death.
Two weeks later, Jesperson was bumped off the police's radar. In one of the strangest twists I've ever seen in a serial murder case, Jespersen had an alibi for his first murder he wasn't even aware of.
On February 5, 1990, police received an anonymous tip pointing the finger in another direction. Fifty-four-year-old Laverne Pavlinac had read about the murder of Taunja Bennett. Desperate to get out of her abusive, long-term relationship with her thirty-nine-year-old boyfriend, John Sosnovske, she met with the police and made a false confession. Sosnovkse, Pavlinac said, had murdered Taunja Bennett. She knew this because he had forced her to participate in the brutal rape and murder.
By implicating herself, Pavlinac surely knew she was in trouble. But she had no idea how much trouble. She tried to recant during the trial but investigators were now locked in and convinced of their guilt.
Not only were both of them arrested, but both were also convicted. Pavlinac got a minimum of ten years behind bars, far longer than anything she'd expected. Sosnovkse, terrified that Pavlinac's testimony would send him to death row, pleaded no contest and was sentenced to life in prison.
Pavlinac tried to walk back her story, but no one believed her; who in the world makes up a story incriminating themselves? Pavlinac was about to learn that some bells cannot be unrung. It took over five years for the two of them to get out of prison, and only then because Jespersen wrote a letter verifying their innocence and showing them where to find Bennett's purse.
A Criminal Convicted for Killing an Unknown Victim
For years, no one knew who "Blue Pacheco" was. But, in 2006, Keith Hunter Jesperson wrote to the county district attorney's office and said he had sexually assaulted and killed a woman near California State 152. The description, timing, and location were consistent with the Jane Doe, who was still not identified.
His confession cost him nothing; he was already serving three life without parole sentences in Oregon. He was extradited to California, where another life-without-parole penalty was tacked on. He was then returned to Oregon.
In 2019, cold-case detectives from the Santa Clara County sheriff's office decided to revisit the 1993 case. But this time, there was a new kid on the block; genetic genealogy. Uploading the victim's DNA led to one of the most complicated family trees genealogists had ever created; they had to go back to 1700s Norway and track forward.
But they persisted. In 2019, genetic genealogists identified a Norwegian ancestor who gradually them to one of Patsy's nephews who still lived in Oregon. On April 13, 2022, investigators said Patricia Skiple's name for the first time in almost thirty years.
The Bottom Line
I can only imagine the agony of wondering, for years, whether a loved one was alive or dead. Families of the missing invariably say that knowing what happened is better than not. But – still – the identification of a serial killer's victim is always bittersweet. How horrible to know that your worst fears about what happened to a loved one came true.
Pavlinac and Sosnovscke were released from prison in 1995, thanks in large part to the efforts of Keith Hunter Jesperson. Sosnovscke was exonerated but the irate judge refused to set aside Pavlinac’s conviction. Laverne Pavlinac passed away in 2003. John Sosnocke died in 2013.
Keith Jesperson will never get out of prison; his earliest release date is March 1, 2063. Justice – if we can call it that – tapped Keith Hunter Jesperson on the shoulder long before we knew Patricia Skiple's name. But giving this victim a face and a name is about more than justice. It offers the people who loved her a chance, at last, to move through the grief process to the peace that lies on the other side. And that peace and love is something no serial killer can destroy.
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