After Many Twists And Turns, Taunja Bennett's Death Led To The Capture Of The 'Happy Face Killer'

When the body of Taunja Bennett was found along the side of an Oregon highway in 1990, investigators never imagined that it would lead to the capture of a vicious serial killer. Although two different people were originally charged in Bennett's murder, the real killer turned out to be Keith Hunter Jesperson, who the media already knew as "The Happy Face Killer."  Jesperson had murdered at least eight women from 1990-1995, with Bennett being his first.

False confessions and Jesperson's apparent need for media attention made separating fact from fiction difficult. However, DNA evidence would eventually lead to Jesperson's conviction and the exoneration of two innocent people, all because investigators took a second look at Taunja Bennett's tragic murder.

  • In 1990, The Body Of 23-Year-Old Taunja Bennett Was Found Along An Oregon Highway

    In 1990, The Body Of 23-Year-Old Taunja Bennett Was Found Along An Oregon Highway
    Photo: Catching Killers / Netflix

    On January 21, 1990, the family of 23-year-old Taunja Bennett reported her missing. The next day, the body of a young woman was discovered off of an embankment along the Old Columbia River Highway east of Portland, OR. There was no ID on the Jane Doe, but she had been beaten, raped, and strangled with a piece of white rope. Detective John Ingram was among the first investigators at the scene, and he noticed that the fly of the woman's acid-wash jeans had been cut off.

    Police released a sketch of the Jane Doe, who was later confirmed to be Taunja Bennett. Police had no leads or suspects until they received an anonymous call on February 5. The caller said that a man named John Sosnovske murdered Bennett, and the caller had overheard Sosnovske bragging about the murder at a local bar. Police would soon learn that the anonymous caller was Sosnovske's girlfriend, Laverne Pavlinac.

  • Laverne Pavlinac Told Police That Her Boyfriend Was Involved In Bennett's Murder

    Laverne Pavlinac Told Police That Her Boyfriend Was Involved In Bennett's Murder
    Photo: Catching Killers / Netflix

    Detective John Ingram went to Laverne Pavlinac's home to find out more about her boyfriend's alleged involvement in Bennett's murder. Pavlinac was a 57-year-old grandmother who told authorities that 39-year-old Sosnovske was abusive towards her. Sosnovske was on parole at the time of Bennett's murder, and Pavlinac described him as an alcoholic who would become angry when provoked.

    Pavlinac also informed Ingram that she had heard Sosnovske tell a friend at a bar that he had killed Bennett. That's when Ingram asked if him and his partner could search the house.

    Upon searching the home, Ingram found a letter addressed to John Sosnovske with a handwritten note on the back: "T. Bennett - good piece."

  • John Sosnovske Gave Conflicting Accounts Of Bennett's Murder

    John Sosnovske Gave Conflicting Accounts Of Bennett's Murder
    Photo: Catching Killers / Netflix

    John Sosnovske showed up at Laverne Pavlinac's home just as Detective Ingram was leaving. According to Ingram, Sosnovske agreed to be interviewed but said he never knew Bennett, despite the letter that Ingram had found. Police didn't have enough evidence to arrest Sosnovske, so they had to let him go. However, it wouldn't be the last time they spoke to him.

    In a second interview with Sosnovske, he told Ingram that he did know Taunja Bennett, and that she had been murdered by a man named "Chuck" who was a friend of Sosnovske's. Sosnovske then told Ingram that Chuck had given him a ride home on the night of the 21st with Bennett's body in the backseat. Ingram did not believe Sosnovske, but there still wasn't enough evidence to arrest him for Bennett's murder.

  • Pavlinac Later Told Police She Was Involved In Bennett's Murder

    Over the course of the investigation, Pavlinac changed her story regarding how complicit she was in Bennett's murder. At one point she told Detective Ingram that she had seen Bennett's body and asked Sosnovske if Bennett was sick, to which Sosnovske replied, "Worse than that. She's dead."

    Pavlinac later changed her story saying that she had been holding the rope around Bennett's neck while Sosnovske assaulted her. Pavlinac went as far as to say she pulled the rope too tightly and felt as though she was responsible for Bennett's death. It was at this point that Pavlinac was placed under arrest for murder. Detective Ingram later recalled that it felt as though he were arresting his own mother and did not place Pavlinac in handcuffs.

  • Sosnovske And Pavlinac Were Convicted For Bennett's Murder

    Based on information gathered from Laverne Pavlinac, she and John Sosnovske both went to trial for the murder of Taunja Bennett. Pavlinac was found guilty of felony murder by a jury of her peers. She was given a life sentence and would have to serve a minimum of 10 years.

    Sosnovske pleaded no contest to the murder charge in an attempt to avoid the death penalty. He was also sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder and kidnapping.

  • In 1994, Police And The Media Began Receiving Letters About Bennett's Murder

    On April 29, 1994, Phil Stanford, then a journalist at The Oregonian, received a bizarre anonymous letter. The letter writer claimed that they were responsible for the murder of Taunja Bennett but had never murdered before. However, the writer also explained that they had kept murdering and that it had become "real easy" over time.

    At first, authorities were skeptical of the letter's authenticity, since the writer wrote "Sonja" instead of "Taunja" and got certain fact wrong about the case. For instance, the writer said Bennett was strangled with a white rope burned at one end. Jim McIntyre, the District Attorney at the time, confirmed in Catching Killers that while a white rope had been used to strangle Bennett, it was not burned at one end.

    Despite the errors, Stanford began writing about the letters, referring to the anonymous author as "The Happy Face Killer" due to the smiley faces scribbled all over the letter.

    As subsequent letters came in, Stanford was able to verify the murders described in them and started to realize that there was a real possibility that the Happy Face Killer had, in fact, murdered Taunja Bennett.