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Having a notorious serial killer for a father, and only finding out about it at the age of 15. That’s exactly what Melissa Moore went through. She hid her secret for years before breaking her silence.
Melissa Moore as a little girl sitting on her mother’s lap, her father holding her little brother Jason.
Melissa Moore, 35, is the eldest daughter of notorious serial killer Keith Hunter Jesperson, who is currently serving several life sentences after being convicted of raping and strangling eight women in the United States in the 1990s. After two people were wrongly convicted of Jesperson's first murder, he left confession notes in the restrooms of truck stops and bus stations, signed with a smiley face. The media therefore dubbed him the "Happy Face Killer." Melissa told Life Links what it was like growing up with a serial killer, how she found out about her father's secret and how she is dealing with it now.
Melissa Moore remembers the moment when she learned the truth about her father like it was yesterday. "I came home from school one day and my mom called me and my little brother and sister to the basement," the now 35-year-old recalls. "We never had family meetings, so I knew there was something serious going on. My mom's face looked like all the color had been washed out of it and she said: 'your father is in jail for murder.'"
Back then, Melissa was 15 years old and a freshman in high school. Her parents had been divorced for five years and she'd been living in her grandmother's basement with her mother and two younger siblings. She only saw her father sporadically - he was a long-haul truck driver and therefore often on the road.
"I was trying to picture who he would do this to,” she says. “I thought maybe he was at a bar and got in a fight and killed a man. My dad's a big guy, he's 6 feet 6 inches tall and 300 pounds (1.98 meters and 136 kilos), so just his sheer presence was intimidating."
Melissa's mother wasn't willing to tell her more about what exactly her father had done. Talking about his arrest was taboo, so Melissa was left wondering.
"I had a million questions but I was afraid to know the answers because that would change my whole world,” she says. “It was easier just to have limited information. In the spectrum of murder, wouldn't it be much nicer to think that he was somehow in a bar fight and accidentally punched someone too hard versus serial murder?"
'He could take a life with his bare hands'
Melissa was in high school when she found out her father is a serial killer. "It's like I won the reversed lottery,” she says.“I won the horrible parent. I got the worst of the worst."
But then Melissa remembered an incident from her childhood that made the idea of her father intentionally killing a person seem more plausible. When she was five years old, Melissa found kittens in their farmhouse cellar. She was playing with them outside, when her father took them away from herand started torturing them in front of his daughter.
"He just killed them with his bare hands. He seemed to lack any kind of emotion, he saw them as objects," she says. "So I did feel like there was something simmering underneath the surface because of the way he was treating animals and the fact that he took pleasure out of it. He could simply take away a life with his bare hands."
Being reminded of that moment made Melissa think that rather than accidentally killing a man in a bar fight, he had probably strangled a woman. "In my mind I somehow felt that was the case, I don't know why," she says.
With her father's arrest in March 1995 and the consequent trial, in which he confessed to the murders, Melissa soon found out more about his crimes. She went to the public library to read every article about her father she could find. "Within only six months I had way more information than I was prepared to deal with," she says.
She found out that at around the time her five-year-old self had witnessed her father torturing animals, he had also started raping, strangling and killing women.
'My dad the serial killer vs. my dad the loving father'
Melissa remembers sitting in the library, reading articles about her father and thinking: 'Who is this man? Is he really who I thought he was when I was growing up?'
Melissa mostly has fond memories of her early childhood, living together with her two younger siblings and both of her parents. She says as a child she was never scared of her father; he never sexually molested or beat her.
When she talks about her father's crimes, Melissa seems distant and detached. But when you ask her what he was like when she was young, her voice immediately changes. She sounds happy and excited as she describes him as "hands-on" and "engaging," adding that he took his three children on bike rides and camping trips as often as he could.
Melissa says she was in denial when she learned about her father's arrest. "I wanted to place him as the 'dad who took me cycling and camping.’ But that didn't go together with hunting and seeking out women to torture, rape and kill. For a long time they were two separate people - my dad, the serial killer, and my dad, the loving dad."
Melissa (right) with her parents and little sister at her first communion. When she was little, Melissa had a good relationship with her father. "But the older I got, the more disconnected I felt from him. He just turned odder and odder," she says.
These two separate men finally merged together when Melissa visited her grandfather, who told her that Melissa's father admitted he’d had thoughts of killing his three children. "This confirmed my last interaction with my dad before he was arrested,” she says.
'I think my father would have killed me'
In the fall of 1994, Melissa's dad came by to see his children. He wanted to take his eldest daughter, Melissa, to a diner and dropped off her younger siblings at school on the way. Melissa was sitting in the sleeping compartment of her dad’s truck when they turned a corner and she saw industrial-sized duct tape roll out from underneath his pillow.
"I thought: 'Oh my Gosh, my dad goes through a lot of duct tape, that's really strange.' But my mind quickly justified it as there is not a lot of space in the truck so he probably has to store and fix things," Melissa remembers with a bitter laugh.
At the diner, Melissa’s father told her: “‘Not everything is as it seems to be, Missy. There's something I need to tell you but I'm afraid you'll tell the authorities,’" she recalls.
Melissa says she wasn't sure what he was trying to confess but she had a bad feeling about it. "I suddenly felt sick to my stomach and I felt really uncomfortable, I didn't want to be around my dad alone anymore,” she says. She excused herself to go to the restroom and when she came back he had dropped the topic.
"I always think back to that time and wonder what would have happened if he had told me that he'd murdered seven women by that point,” she says. “Would he have driven me back to school and let me go? I can't imagine that scenario happening. I really believe in my whole being that he would have killed me."
'I felt guilty by association'
That was the last time Melissa saw her father before he was arrested a couple of months later. With his arrest and the following media coverage, Melissa's life changed completely. Her friends suddenly weren't allowed to hang out with her anymore.
"Their parents thought maybe there is something wrong with me, too, and they wanted to keep their children safe, so they kept them away from my entire family, including me,” she says, her voice laced with anger. “That made me feel like a monster, too."
Melissa isn't the only child of a serial killer who has been shunned by society. Dr. Helen Morrison, a forensic psychiatrist who has studied 135 serial killers and their families from all over the world, says it's very difficult for the children to have a normal life.
"They seem to be doing okay until their fathers are caught or arrested. Then they get almost tainted by the fact their father did this. They are treated like outcasts and they begin to feel marked by their father's behavior," she tells Life Links.
'Do I carry my father's evil genes?'
Melissa started to wonder whether she might have inherited certain violent traits from her father. "I physically look like my dad and we do have some things in common; we like the same kind of music, food, and sports,” she says, almost apologetically.“So I was wondering if I could do any of the things he did. But I never enjoyed seeing other people's torment. I have empathy, which he is lacking. He never had any remorse and no respect for human life and I do."
Morrison says being a serial killer is not a trait that is passed down in the same way as eye or hair color. "That's not something the children of serial killers have to worry about,” she says. “But even though we tell them that it's nothing genetic, they still worry."
Despite knowing that she wasn't capable of committing the same horrible crimes as her father, Melissa was worried other people might think otherwise. "That's why I kept it a secret for so long,” she says. “I wanted people to get to know me before they know about my past. But it became a personal hell to always wonder what people think about me, whether they judge me, to the point where I had to break my silence."
'If I'm going to break my silence, I'm going to break it loud'
It was in 2009 that she decided to speak out about her father. By that time Melissa was a mother herself. What finally convinced her to tell her story was having her daughter come home from kindergarten one day and ask Melissa where her "granddaddy" was.
"I didn't know how to explain to this little innocent girl who her grandfather was. I was wondering if it will impact her as strongly as it impacted my life,” Melissa says. “I didn't know what to do, I really felt alone."
Keith Hunter Jesperson was born in Canada in 1955. It’s believed that he raped and strangled eight women, some of whom have never been identified, but he once confessed to murdering 160 women. His first-known murder happened in January 1990.
Melissa decided she would #link:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hM2iZ7Pa9yk:go on an American talk show# to speak about who she is. "I thought if I am going to break my silence, I am going to break it loud so that everybody knows everything and nobody feels the need to gossip and whisper behind my back anymore,” she says. “I wanted to have that power in my hand."
Once she started talking, she says she realized how repressed her pain was and how good it felt to talk about it. She couldn’t stop crying.
"It was powerful to see that by me not being afraid of people knowing the family secret, my daughter isn't afraid either. She doesn't feel like she has to justify herself to anybody,” says Melissa. “There is nothing I can do to protect my daughter from who her grandfather is. But I don't want my daughter to feel any kind of stigma and so I hope that I can turn around this family legacy into something positive."
By now, Melissa has written a memoir called #link:http://www.shatteredsilencebook.com/:"Shattered Silence,"# in which she tells her life story. She hasn't allowed her now 13-year-old daughter to read her book yet as she doesn’t want to expose her to the graphic details of her grandfather’s acts, but her daughter is aware of who he is and that he's in prison for being a serial killer.
Speaking to victims
Ever since Melissa came forward, everything has changed for her. She suddenly started meeting the families of other serial killers and created a whole network of people who have gone through similar experiences. "I wasn't expecting that there is such a huge underground community of people suffering from what a relative has done. For a long time I thought I was alone in this," she says.
And that's not all. Melissa was also contacted by family members of her father's victims. She says she decided to talk to them to learn more about them so she would always be reminded of what he did in case she ever tried to legitimize his actions in her head. It helped her accept who her father really is.
"If I ever want to have denial about who my father is, I have real faces and people in my head that had to deal with the consequences of my father's behavior. That makes it profoundly more real than just reading about it in the newspaper," she says.
Melissa also talked to her father's only survivor, a woman he raped and strangled in front of her infant. In a letter Melissa's dad wrote to his daughter from prison, he explained why he let his first victim go.
"When he was strangling her, he heard her son crying in the back of the car and then he realized that he had to kill the baby, too, so he decided to let them both go,” Melissa says. “Maybe he did value life to a point. I don't know."
When speaking to the woman herself, Melissa learned how her father made women feel safe around him: by telling them about his daughter, Melissa.
Today, Melissa Moore is a happily married mother of two living in California. In 2009, she published her autobiography “Shattered Silence.” The last time she saw her father was in 2005. "At first I felt this obligation as a daughter of keeping my dad in my life. But later on I realized he had lost any rights when he murdered eight women," she says.
"He would offer women to walk them to their car for safety - how ironic is that,” Melissa says, laughing disgustedly. “Then he essentially used me as a pawn to gain their trust. By telling them he was a dad and talking about me. He made them feel comfortable - so comfortable, in fact, that they would get in a car with him."
'I used to sleep with a gun underneath my bed'
Knowing the full truth and speaking out about her family has helped Melissa deal with reality and lead a normal life. She's been happily married for more than a decade and has two children. Her two younger siblings, who are also both married, chose a different approach; they don't publicly discuss who their father is but support Melissa for what she is doing.
But there is one person who doesn't like Melissa speaking out: her father. He started threatening her when she broke her silence.
"My dad has this weird fan club of people who are obsessed with serial killers," Melissa says. "I know that he communicates with them about me. He had them contact me to send me messages. Just recently he sent a message to my grandmother saying that I need to watch my back; that it's all going to go down soon. I don't know what that means, I guess he has something up his sleeves but I don't know what it is."
For many years, Melissa slept with a gun under her bed. But now she has moved to a guarded and gated community in California, where she feels safe. "I don't want him to stop me from being vocal about my story," she says.
One day, when she's ready, she wants to go to see him in prison and ask him all the questions that still play on her mind. But she says she doesn't feel ready yet. She needs to gather more information to be fully prepared.
Still, despite her father's history, she doesn't bear him any ill will. "I have forgiven the pain that he has caused me but I cannot forgive what he's done to other people,” she says. “I do not hold a grudge for what my father has done to my life. I had to move on."