In 2012, investigative journalist and crime writer M. William Phelps began producing a TV show about investigators working in tandem to crack unsolved murders suspected to be the work of serial killers.
For that show, Phelps began corresponding with Keith “Happy Face” Jesperson, an incarcerated Canadian-American serial killer who strangled at least eight women to death. Jesperson and Phelps have been in correspondence for five years (and counting), exchanging thousands of pages of letters and spending hundreds of hours more on the phone and in person—a haunting experience that Phelps details in his new book, “Dangerous Ground,” a true crime/memoir hybrid. A&E Real Crime spoke with Phelps about falling for a serial killer’s charm.
In your book, you allude to some of the side effects of being in close contact with a murderous sociopath: sleepless nights, stress-related G.I. problems. Can you talk more about how working on this book may have affected your personal life?
It absolutely broke me…just to talk about those horrors, to be so close to the horrors. It broke me spiritually, emotionally and physically. My marriage has been in ruins for two years now. …You have to understand: at this point in my career it’s not something you talk about much anymore with your people. It’s just what you do. I didn’t realize what was happening as it was happening.
About three quarters into this book, I made an appointment [for therapy]. I hadn’t been in two years. I started going twice a week. I haven’t stopped going.
Tell me more about Jesperson. You say he occasionally comes across as just another guy—you even use the word “friendship.”
The thought was never “I kind of like this guy.” But there’d be times when we’d be talking—about him going hunting with his father, or going to the movies—and I would say to myself, “Gee, that sounds like a normal person.” And then my next thought would be, “I see how a psychopath’s victims get lured in.”
This is the thing that makes this person so dangerous. The fact that they can be so charming. They’re charming, and that makes them even more dangerous than someone who’s not.
Charming how? Is he funny?
He thinks he’s funny. I find nothing he says funny.
He told me…that he was with a victim once and she’s telling him [about some legal problems she’s having, and she says], “I can’t go to court.” And he thinks to himself, “I know one way to keep you out of court.”
That’s not funny. But he thinks he’s funny.
Can you describe that charm a little more?
He’ll remember things from one week to the next. Once I was on the phone with him, and as I was hanging up said, “I have to go to my daughter’s volleyball game.” And that was a mistake. But then the next time we’d talk he’d say, “How was your daughter’s volleyball game? Did they win?”
On your show Dark Minds, you feature Jesperson as a concealed source, using a pseudonym—Raven—because you didn’t want to bring him fame, saying to do so would’ve both indulged his vanity and brought disrespect to the victims’ families. Didn’t this book face the same ethical quandary?
Books and TV are two different things. There’s absolutely no way I was going to put a serial killer on TV and give him that spotlight. It’s a live voice, the real person. You can’t defend his victims if he’s a guest on a TV show. In a book I can [speak] through his victims, give my opinion on how I feel about him. It’s apples and oranges when it comes down to it.
At one point you ask Jesperson to help you solve a cold case of a Jane Doe in Florida you suspect is one of his victims. He admits to the killing, but worries that helping put a name to the body will result in a new trial and the death penalty. Do you think Jesperson should be put to death for his crimes?
I think anybody who kills multiple people doesn’t deserve to live. That’s just across the board for me. I would not care one bit—[but] I wouldn’t be over here celebrating, and I wouldn’t be thinking about it.
I want him to be punished for what he did, and I don’t get to decide what that punishment is—a jury does. If he wanted me there for his execution, I would absolutely go and watch him die. I would have no trouble with that. Would I enjoy it? Hell no. But would I go? Yeah.