DA's Office seeks to identify woman murdered by the 'Happy Face Killer' 31 years ago
January 8, 2024
Recent advances in DNA technology have allowed cold case investigators in Riverside County to come the closest they’ve ever been to identifying the only remaining unidentified victim of serial killer Keith Hunter Jesperson, known as the “Happy Face Killer.”
On the anniversary of his conviction for that murder, the Riverside County Regional Cold Case Homicide Team, led by investigators from the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office, is seeking help around the world in putting a name to the woman’s face.
The woman’s body was found on Aug. 30, 1992 along Highway 95, approximately seven miles north of the city of Blythe, California. After his arrest in another case, Jesperson confessed to a news reporter in Portland, Oregon, and later to Riverside County Sheriff’s Office deputies, that he killed her and seven other women.
Jesperson pleaded guilty to the murder in Riverside County on Jan. 8, 2010, and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison, but the woman Jesperson referred to as ‘Claudia’ was never positively identified.
“Our goal is to identify this victim and provide closure to her family, wherever they may be,” said District Attorney Mike Hestrin. “We are hopeful someone hearing any of these details may remember anything that could help us reunite this woman with the family who may have been looking for her for over three decades.”
As part of its mission to reunite missing persons with their families, Riverside County Regional Cold Case Homicide investigators interviewed Jesperson about ‘Claudia’ at the Oregon State Penitentiary in late 2023.
Jesperson said he met ‘Claudia’ at a brake check area on the I-15 south of the Victorville area around August of 1992 while he was working as a long-haul truck driver. The woman asked to be taken to the Los Angeles area, but he refused, and due to his planned truck route to Arizona, took her to Cabazon, California instead. After stopping in Cabazon, the woman decided to continue traveling with Jesperson until they arrived at the Indio/Coachella Burns Brothers rest stop.
The two argued about money and Jesperson claims he killed the woman in his truck, then drove his purple semi-trailer from Coachella, California to Blythe, where he dumped her body.
Jesperson described the victim as a woman with shaggy, wild blonde hair, and tight clothing. He said her name was ‘Claudia,’ but that may not be her real name. She was described as about 20 to 30 years old, about 5'6" to 5'7," and was of medium build, around 140-150 pounds. She was found wearing a t-shirt printed with a motorcycle and had a tattoo of two small dots on the left side of her right thumb. A number of sketches have been made of the woman as she may have appeared prior to her death. These forensic approximations were created using a combination of DNA technology, her remains, and a description by Jesperson himself.
Based on conversations with Jesperson about his encounter with the victim, it is believed she was living, or at least familiar with the Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Riverside County areas, and had ties to Las Vegas and southern Nevada. She is believed to have been a cigarette smoker and a frequent hitchhiker.
In the years since the woman’s death, improvements in forensic science have allowed investigators and genealogists to determine some familial relatives, including her biological father, who is now deceased. The victim’s father was from Cameron County, Texas, but traveled all over the country, including Texas; Santa Barbara County, California; Washington state and Oregon. Several half-siblings were identified, unfortunately, these living relatives are not biological matches to the victim’s mother, and so these individuals were not aware of ‘Claudia,’ and cannot assist with her identification. There is reason to believe the woman’s maternal side of the family has ties to the Louisiana and/or southeast Texas area.
The Riverside County DA’s Office is calling on the community to contact our investigators with any additional leads that will grant dignity to the victim and answer long-asked questions from her family. Any leads, no matter how insignificant they may seem, can be reported to the Cold Case Hotline at (951) 955-5567, or by emailing [email protected]. For example, those who may have known her from interactions in southern California, or in Las Vegas, or more significantly, those who recognize her face as an acquaintance from a long time ago.
Funding for DNA testing in this case is made possible by a grant. This grant assists with the investigation and the prosecution of cold case murders and violent sexual assault cases where a suspect’s DNA is currently in CODIS. Recently, investigators in Oskaloosa County, Florida were able to use DNA technology to identify one of Jesperson’s victims found in 1994.
If you believe that you are a relative in this case, or other unsolved homicides, please consider contacting GedMatch for DNA comparison.
The Regional Cold Case Homicide Team is comprised of members of the DA’s Office Bureau of Investigation, the Riverside County Sheriff-Coroner Department, the FBI, and the Riverside Police Department. The team is available to assist in the investigation of cold case homicides for all Riverside County law enforcement agencies.