Dangerous Ground: My Friendship with a Serial Killer

Dangerous Ground: My Friendship with a Serial Killer

by M. William Phelps

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 “Anyone can become a killer under the right circumstances—even you.”
It was a bold, life-changing decision when award-winning investigative journalist M. William Phelps asked one of America’s most disturbing convicted serial killers to co-star with him on TV’s Dark Minds. Now Phelps reveals the identity of the man code-named “Raven”—and tells the story of their intriguing bond. For as Raven shared his insights into the minds and crimes of other killers, making the series an international sensation, he also became Phelps’s unlikely confidante, ally—and friend . . .
Here is an unforgettable journey into the heart of a psychopath few would dare to know—and the determined journalist who did just that.
“Phelps is a true-crime veteran.” —New York Post
“Anything by Phelps is an eye-opening experience.”  —Suspense Magazine
“Phelps is the Harlan Coben of real-life thrillers.” —Allison Brennan

As seen on Investigation Discovery’s Dark Minds

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786040841
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 02/27/2018
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 206,404
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 3.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

New York Times bestselling investigative journalist and serial killer expert M. William Phelps is the author of thirty-one nonfiction books and has appeared on over 100 television shows. He created, produced and starred in the series Dark Minds and is one of the stars of Deadly Women and Oxygen’s Snapped, Killer Couples and KillerPost. Radio America calls him “the nation’s leading authority on the mind of the female murderer.” Touched by tragedy himself through the unsolved murder of his sister-in-law, Phelps is able to enter the hearts and minds of his subjects like no one else. He lives in a Connecticut farming community and can be reached at his website, www.mwilliamphelps.com.

Read an Excerpt



"Well, evil to some is always good to others."

— Jane Austen, Emma

THE CHECK-IN ENTRANCE FOR A PRISON VISIT AT OREGON STATE Penitentiary looks, ironically, similar to the facade of a downtown Chicago, 1930s-era, gangster hotel. There's a canopy overhanging two sets of concrete stairs, each fanning out in opposite directions, like praying mantis legs. The stucco wall leading to the door is grimy, the color and texture of cantaloupe skin, chipped and covered with mold in places. Walking in, you are overwhelmed by the potent smell of sweat, stale perfumes, and mildew.

Once inside, I couldn't help but notice a young pregnant woman with lots of tattoos, a disappointed look on her face, sitting alone, staring at the floor.

"Denied access," the guard behind the counter explained after looking up and asking for my photo ID. "She's been here for hours. Name? License? Who are you here to see?"

I tell him.

He taps away at his computer. Turns to me. "You cannot wear those clothes. You'll have to change. Or you cannot go in."

My blue jeans and button-up shirt were not part of the dress code. Any clothing similar to what an inmate wears is off-limits.

The day had begun on a high note, with baby-blue skies, soft white cumulus clouds, warm air radiating from the tar in hazy waves. It was Friday afternoon, September 14, 2012. The coast-to-coast journey from Connecticut was exhausting, plagued by airport idiots causing unnecessary delays. I didn't know it then, but after my prison visit, I'd be robbed in downtown Salem of my passport, iPad, phone, rosary beads, and other personal possessions by a meth addict bearing an uncanny resemblance to one of the Backstreet Boys. By the end of the night, I'd be staring at the ceiling of my Portland hotel room, a warning a dear friend gave me before I left keeping me tossing and turning: "If the Devil knocks at your door and you invite him in, you had damn well better be prepared to dine with him."

After sorting out my garment issue, a guard walked me and several others through a metal detector, then down an incline similar to a handicap ramp, where we stopped at a set of barred doors. A guard sat behind tinted glass in a kiosk to our left. The smell here was heavy, stuffy, and wretched: think of a laundry hamper full of dirty clothes. Ahead of us were a series of old-fashioned, iron prison doors that made loud, echoing, steel-against-steel latching noises as they snapped and locked shut. I'd been in over a dozen prisons. It is the supermaxes, like OSP, that have a sticky coat of scum on everything.

As I entered the visitor's area, it was loud and noticably humid. Everyone spoke over one another. Women fanned themselves with their hands and newspapers, like they do in the South on Sundays in church. I scanned the room and saw him waiting for me on the opposite side. He was a human being who was hard to miss, clocking in at about three hundred pounds, give or take. He stood six foot six and sported gray-black hair, military buzz cut, hazy blue eyes, the beginning of cataracts. He wore a pair of off-trend, 1970s-era, large-framed glasses, which reminded me of Peter Fonda's character in the film Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. This massive, handsome man, representing the polar opposite of everything I believe and promote, smiled and waved me over.

We sat across from each other on stiff, wooden chairs. He looked at me with the smooth, glassy shimmer only a psychopath can invoke. The depth of evil was inherent and natural — same as the slight, nervous smile he maintained throughout our conversation. All of it reminded me that a serial killer is a craftsman, a professional, in so many ways.

This was a man who had killed for purpose and reason. Every act and every thought and every word and every lie was carefully structured around an agenda, planned and thought out. Contrary to the public perception that most serial murderers are white males in their thirties living in their parents' basement, serial killers actually fit no particular stereotype. All are different. This man I sat in front of shredded the common myth that the serial killer psychopath is a solitary figure, a loner, a person without social skills who is afraid to allow anyone inside his head, or get close to him.

His hands are the size of pot holders. He had them cupped over his knees, feet away from my throat. I stared and thought: Those are the same hands he killed eight human beings with — all females, all strangled to death, one beaten bloody and unrecognizable, another allegedly secured with rope and dragged underneath his truck for twelve miles (according to him), until all identifying markers (teeth and fingerprints) and "even her chest cavity" were gone.

The person in front of me was a monster. He and I both understood this. I made no secret about my feelings: I despise him. I view him — and those like him — as scum that cannot be rehabilitated and will reoffend at any given chance. This man killed females for sport and enjoyed it. And these opening moments of our first visit became an existential, enlightening realization, putting the reason why I'd made the trip to begin with into perspective.

"Could you kill me?" I asked him after we exchanged pleasantries.

"If I had to," he said, pausing and laughing, before pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "I need to be clear with you about something. Despite what people say, I never raped any of them — I never needed to." The tone of his voice, something I'd come to realize is a way for him to express his deepest feelings, sounded as though he'd done his victims a favor by not raping them. He was a "fair-minded killer" for not sexually assaulting women. It's a skewed piece of logic, I knew, something psychopaths rely on to make themselves feel better about what they've done: justification. Every single report led me to believe that he was motivated by sex and had raped many of his victims. Yet he sat staring back at me, telling me no, never.

"That is not who I am."

The reason I'd asked about murdering me was because we'd known each other by then over a year. I felt uncharacteristically comfortable sitting in front of this man. We'd spoken by phone over one hundred times so far. I'd received no fewer than one hundred letters, amounting to over two thousand pages of text in that time. He'd become quite fond of me. He was on the fringes of trusting me. I was his last hope, he'd often say, for telling a part of his story the way he'd wanted it told. He'd been down sixteen years and change, sentenced on November 2, 1995, to two life terms. His earliest parole date on paper was scheduled for March 1, 2063. He was fifty-seven years old the first time we met in person. This serial murderer — Keith "Happy Face" Jesperson — will never feel the sunshine on his back again as a free man. As he should, Jesperson will die alone, a convicted, incarcerated murderer, in one of the oldest, dirtiest, roughest prisons on the West Coast.

"If you ever got out, would you kill again?" I asked, knowing that 60 percent of psychopaths released from prison go on to reoffend. Those are not good numbers.

"I'd tell you no because that is what you want to hear," he said. "And I would never want to come back to this place. But the truth is, I don't really know."

I made note of his comment: I don't really know. I sensed a fleeting jolt of honesty in his response.

Prison for Happy Face was easy, as long as he did the time and did not allow the time to do him. On a day-to-day basis, infamous serial killers in prison are either revered or have targets on their backs. Which illustrated a point: so much of this for him was unknown, part of a subtext that many serial killers structured their lives around. You wake up feeling inadequate and angry, maybe not even planning to kill anyone. But the urge to take a life, I would come to find out, is omnipresent, something you can never escape. Much like a dope addict, it becomes all you fantasize about.

That next fix.

He wore a blue, button-up dress shirt, state-issued, and denim blue jeans, same as every other inmate around us (the reason why I had been asked to change clothes). He had a sour smell, same as a musty basement. Two of his top teeth were missing. "I'm in the middle of some dental work, excuse how I look."

As I sat and listened, he struck me as a country bumpkin. Not that I mean he was dumb, or some sort of Lennie parody from Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men — an oversized adult with the brain of a small child. In some respects, Jesperson was a smart man. One study of 252 serial killers found that their intelligence quotient (IQ) numbered from 54 to 186, with a medium score of about 86, with 85 to 114 being a standard average. Jesperson's IQ fell slightly above average at 115. An artist (colored pencil/charcoal on paper), he is a voracious reader, with strong, vocal opinions about what he reads.

Still, he had this strange, hospitable manner about him, which felt inviting, easy to trust. I'd sense the same temperament from locals I'd meet a week later in British Columbia, where he's from. As I sat before him, I was on my way into the mountains of a town called Smithers to hunt a serial killer. It's a regional dialect, I'd soon learn. Jesperson came across the same way: laid-back, slowed pace, comfortable in his own skin. I could grasp how he might have charmed an unsuspecting victim into his comfort zone.

He asked me why I was so late. I'd made it to the prison on time, but it took three attempts at changing my clothes before guards approved me to go in. I'd never read the regulations (like directions, who does?). No jeans. No sweatpants. I ended up wearing a pair of shorts I borrowed from my cameraman, Peter Heap, who, with the rest of my Dark Minds crew, waited in the parking lot.

Though it was clear to me by then that Keith Jesperson suffers from acute systemic paranoia, he did not seem to worry about much with regard to the lack of morality surrounding his eight known murders. He'd committed his crimes, given himself up. He was contented serving time for his "debt" to society. To him, he was paying for what he'd done; and the public, because of that, should not condemn him for the choices he made in life. It's a common theme I've heard within the context of my research surrounding other serial killers: Most are able to wiggle their way out of the death penalty by withholding information about their crimes until a deal is offered. Most are afraid of death ( Jesperson included). All have a complex regarding what society thinks of them; they fear and loathe being judged. For example, "I dragged a woman underneath my truck to get rid of her teeth and palm prints, but I never, listen to me, I never strangled any kittens," Jesperson told me. "That's the Hollywood prototype my daughter has parlayed for herself into a career writing books and being on television."

As I began to learn about his crimes (not what has been written about him in books and on the Internet or portrayed in the fictionalized films made about his life — but the admissions he would make only to me over five years and the exclusive documents I'd soon obtain), I realized I was dealing with a complicated, evil human being (a description he would laugh at), who does not care about humanity. Not because he doesn't want to, but sympathy and empathy are not part of his biological makeup. He is a man who murdered women as if their lives did not matter, as if he'd been authorized by some unknown entity to decide how, why, and when they should die. He was a murderer who had killed for years with no thought about the consequences or pain those deaths would cause his victims' loved ones, or the mere fact that taking someone's life because of your own preconceived notions, issues with women, anger, a need to control, obsession, fantasy, or any reason, is unethical and just plain wrong. He knew what he did was immoral and criminal, yet he had trouble understanding society had the right to hate and judge him for those actions.

"I did her family a favor," he rhapsodized about a young victim who was "supposedly" pregnant and asked him for a ride. According to Happy Face, she was on her way to trick a man into thinking he was the father of her child. "There was no way I could allow her to ruin this man's life and have him raise a child that was not his."

"So you killed her?"

"Yes — and her baby. She deserved it. I put her out of her damn misery."

As an active killer, and perhaps even more today, Jesperson believed his own ethos. He assumed that playing God with his victims' lives was a choice he could make. This brings up a point one needs to bear in mind moving forward: Jesperson lives within a bubble of his own truth, a moral relativism defying explanation or reasoning. He thinks we should listen to him and take what he says as gospel because it is how he "feels." He believes the eight lives he took needed to be snuffed out. His victims had been at fault, deserving their fate (always), and that karma played a role in him crossing paths with each victim. Most interesting, he is certain that anyone put in a similar position, under the right conditions and circumstances, would have responded to the situation as he had.

"We are all capable of murder," he told me. "And once you cross the line and do it once, you're one murder away from becoming a serial killer like me and killing two and three and so on."

He said I had within me the capability of evil, of taking a human life — that we all do, adding, "You need to understand this. Hopefully, I can educate you. Look, I got away with my first murder. Two people were arrested, prosecuted, and convicted for a murder I committed. Then I attacked a woman, was arrested for it, and got a slap on the wrist. I was free to kill."

Despite everything we talked about, however, the main thrust of any discourse or soliloquy he delivered, the one objective always on Jesperson's mind, was a law enforcement and judicial fiasco following his first murder and what led to two innocent people being arrested and convicted for it. Jesperson had a detailed narrative he needed to make known to the world, one that a few before me had tried to get right, he complained, but failed. Correcting the record was a refrain and motive for him to participate in my research. "A wrong that was committed against me," he reiterated. "I need you to make it right."

Imagine: A serial killer was upset that, in his opinion, there had been an injustice (he called it a "cover-up") within his criminal life that had gone unchecked and unchallenged. He wanted me to commit to "investigating" this facet of his case and report my findings.

I promised to tell that part of his story. But sharing the facts of his case, I explained, while digging into his life and childhood, his relationship with his kids and father, and exploring why he killed, was how I'd planned to get there.

"I hope you're ready," he warned as guards rounded everyone up to leave. It was loud in the room and we had to speak over the crowd noise. There was an unspoken, handshake deal between us, as if we'd cut fingers and shook a blood oath. "Because it is going to get messy. I'm going to share things with you I've told no one — and not everyone is going to accept or like what I have to say." He winked.

I left.



"The only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves."

— V.S. Naipaul, In a Free State

KEITH JESPERSON PACED INSIDE HIS CELL. NOW, HOURS AFTER dinner, he and his fellow inmates had been put to bed for the night. It was the end of September 1996. He'd been down just over a year. A bit squirrelly still, not quite used to the daily grind of everyday prison life, Happy Face knew he would not find sleep on this night.

Incarcerated serial killers have fans (groupies) sending them money, food, nude and clothed photos, letters, all sorts of odd things. Days before, a groupie had sent Jesperson a copy of an article written about his first "official" murder — the murder he claims released the Devil inside and initiated an attack on a woman (months later) who got away, thus sparking a killing spree of seven additional victims over the next four years. As he read the article, "A Question of Guilt," written by Los Angeles Times national correspondent Barry Siegel, published in the Times magazine on September 1, 1996, Jesperson was struck by the "depth of deception" and overwhelmed by how far the prosecutor, Jim McIntyre, had gone to "make [the state's] case against two suspects, Laverne Pavlinac and John Sosnovske, who had been arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced for a murder [Taunja Bennett] I had committed."


Excerpted from "Dangerous Ground"
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Copyright © 2017 M. William Phelps.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Prologue 1

Part 1 Friends

1 Meeting My "Friend," the Psychopath 11

2 A Murder of Crows 19

3 A Dark Mind 28

4 Some Sickness 35

5 The Impatient Maniac 41

6 Rootless Tree 48

7 The Space Between 55

8 Death Becomes Him 61

9 Killer Instinct 67

10 "Noodles" 75

11 The "Reality" of True Crime 83

12 Wounded Bird 90

13 High Horses 93

14 Long, Long Way 105

15 Transformation 111

16 Spectator 120

17 Trusty and True 128

18 The World According to Raven 130

Part 2 Family

19 Selective Madness 139

20 Death-as a Performance 143

21 I Remember 150

22 Feels Like Fire 159

23 Strange Condition 169

24 Nightmares 177

25 Satan's Whisper 184

26 The Terror of Damnation 189

27 Ghost Stories 194

28 Ten of Hearts 199

29 Smoked 204

30 Nostalgia as Camouflage 211

31 Oh, Brother … 218

32 Risky Uncertainty 228

33 When Grace Abandons 236

34 You Can See With Those Eyes 243

Part 3 Faith

35 A New Purpose 249

36 True Blue 258

37 Baby Doll 267

38 Case Closed 276

39 Question 280

40 As Much as I Ever Could 285

41 The Girl with the Familiar Last Name 288

42 Jane Doe, Florida 296

43 All In 305

44 The Mighty Mississippi 311

45 The Big Sleazy 317

46 Brain Scam 325

47 Victim Number Six 329

48 Grand Optimist 334

49 Blank Canvas 337

50 Same Old Suffering 344

51 The Past as Ransom for the Future 348

Acknowledgments 351

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