My Dad Was a Serial Killer

updated 10/12/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/12/2009 01:00AM

Sitting on the swing in her family's Spokane, Wash., backyard one afternoon last year, Aspen Moore asked her mother a simple question: "Mommy, where's your daddy? Everybody has a daddy. Where's yours?"

It was the moment Melissa Moore had been dreading. Though she gave Aspen, then 6, a quick answer—"He lives in Salem, Oregon"—the whole truth was a horror the young wife and mother of two had spent 15 years trying to forget. Her father, Keith Jesperson, 54, confessed to raping and murdering eight women between 1990 and 1995. Dubbed "the Happy Face Killer" for the bragging letters he wrote to the press and signed with a smiley face, he is now serving multiple life sentences at an Oregon state prison. "Every night I would reassure my daughter, 'There's no such thing as monsters,'" says Moore, 30. "How am I supposed to tell her that some monsters are real?"

The incident with Aspen was a turning point. Tired of living in shame and secrecy, Moore has written a book, Shattered Silence: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer's Daughter. "I was always afraid that if people knew who my father was, they would look for my flaws," she says. "I don't want my children to grow up ashamed—they're not responsible for what their grandfather did. People forget that serial killers have families too."

Growing up in Yakima, Wash., Moore and her two younger siblings, Jason, now 29, and Carrie, 26, had good times with their dad, a long-haul trucker. The 6'6" Jesperson "was charismatic," Moore remembers, and more attentive than their mother, Rose. "He'd take us bowling, fishing. He'd always say he had the best kids because we were well-behaved. I loved him—he was my dad."

Yet there were distinctly troubling signs, such as Jesperson's habit of torturing pets. "In my earliest memories, he was killing animals," Moore recalls. He swerved to hit cats on the road and once hung Melissa's four kittens on a clothesline, laughing as they squirmed. When she returned from trying unsuccessfully to persuade her mother to stop him—"I think she thought if she avoided a problem it would go away"—the kittens lay dead in a heap. "Those were signs," she says. "But we weren't looking for clues."

When Melissa was 10, Jesperson left his wife for another woman and floated in and out of his children's lives. Though their mom called him "Disneyland Dad" because "he always had some fun activity planned," Moore says, he was becoming moodier. He even began talking about how to commit the perfect murder: "I just thought it was something he read about in his detective magazines."

Then, in April 1995, Melissa's sister saw their dad's mug shot on TV. Rose gathered her children together and told them simply, "Your dad is in jail." When Jason asked, "For what?" Rose answered, "For murder," ending the discussion. Stunned and sickened, Melissa, then 15, sought details at the local library. She learned that her father had raped and killed his first victim, a young woman he picked up at a bar in Portland, five months after he and Rose split. Six others followed—all strangers, all raped and strangled. The eighth was a girlfriend, Julie Winningham, and his ties to her—combined with his letter to a local paper and a confession he sent his brother—led police to the truth.

Melissa was left reeling. "My father could kill a woman and then take us to McDonald's?" she says. "I couldn't wrap my head around it. And I worried it was genetic." She and her siblings didn't discuss their anguish. "It was too painful. We acted like Dad's just on a trip." Nor did she feel she could talk to her mom, who now says she "had no idea" her husband had the capacity for murder, though she admits, "I should have told the kids more about what was going on after he was arrested. I shut down. But there's not a place to go ask, 'How do you deal if your husband is a serial killer?'"

Moore struggled through her remaining high school years, dating only rarely. "I remember guys whispering, 'You know who her dad is!' They avoided me." Her father wrote her letters, saying he missed her and her siblings, and on the one occasion when she and her brother visited him in jail, he apologized that he could no longer care for them and encouraged them to change their name. "He started crying, and I started crying," Melissa recalls.

Enrolled in Spokane Community College, she met Sam Moore at a church dance in 2000. When she told him her story, "I had some reservations," admits Sam. "I was keeping an eye out to see, 'Is she a little off?' I never, ever saw it." Marrying Sam, now an account executive at UPS, helped her heal, as did becoming a mother to Aspen, now 8, and Jake, 5. Writing her book helped too, and her siblings are supportive, she says. As for her mother, who hasn't read the book, Melissa sees their relationship as a work in progress: "My mom admits she has a lot of regrets."

Recently, Moore's paternal grandfather informed her of something she'd never known. After her father was in prison, her grandfather said, "'He told me he was getting uncomfortable [at one point], because he was having thoughts of killing you kids.' My grandfather thought my dad didn't really mean it. But yeah, he did." (Keith Jesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)

After years of having mixed feelings about her father—along with revulsion, "I felt compassion and I felt sad"—she says that now she sees him as "a monster," plain and simple. And when Aspen wants to know more about her heritage, as she surely will one day, Moore will pass on to her daughter her own hard-won certainty. "I'm not a monster," she says, "even if my dad is."

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