Authors: Jack Olsen
“We always knew he was different,” Keith Jesperson's father admits, “but we never thought he would kill.”
The old man sits in an overstuffed chair in his RV, sniffing oxygen through a tube, softly stroking his Yorkshire terrier, wondering if he remembered to take his Paxil, and brooding about a problem he has never solved.
“Looking back on Keith's life, knowing all he's done,” Leslie Samuel Jesperson says in a soft rustic accent, “makes me wonder if there was anything that prompted his bizarre behavior. He says it's all my faultâHe says, âDad, you and your belt made me a killer.' That's bull and he knows it. No kid ever had a better upbringing. He started out as a normal boy, a sweet-natured little bugger.”
In his eighty-two-thousand-dollar rig, parked deep in a relative's apple orchard near Yakima, Washington, the father shows off a favorite picture of his son, seated next to a piano. “He's a year and a half old. Look at those beautiful golden locks. He played a recital with his big brother, Bruce, and made us so proud. Till we cut his hair, folks said that Keith was the cutest little girl they ever saw. Of all my five kids he was the most lovable, the most huggable.” In a trembling voice the father reads a poem he wrote about his huggable son:
It only seems like yesterday
That you rode upon my back.
I bucked you off on the chesterfield,
Had a birthday cake for a snack.
Then at night when you went to bed,
All snuggled with Duke in your arms,
Mom would come in and give you a hug,
Releasing some of her charms.
Keith Hunter Jesperson, permanent resident of a walled domain, bridled when his father's words were repeated to him later. “I hugged my dog every day,” he said, “but I never hugged my mother and father. And they didn't hug me or my brothers and sisters. I never thought about this one way or the other. It's just the way we were. In our family nobody hugged except me and my dog.”
Three decades after his pet's death, he still mourned his chocolate Lab. “Duke was my closest friend for fourteen years. When Dad shot Duke, he might as well of shot me.”
Jesperson the elder was a strong man from a line of strong men, stolid figures of the north, inured to zero temperatures, gale-force winds and blizzards. They were also inured to empty stomachs. In the 1930s Leslie's blacksmith father migrated eastward from the family homestead in rainy British Columbia to the parched prairies of Saskatchewan. After a few years he was beaten back to B.C. by the dust bowl famine known in Canada as the Dirty Thirties. It was a terrible defeat for Arthur Jesperson, and he remained in a sullen mood for the rest of his life. The Jespersons, descended from warrior Danes, were unaccustomed to losing fights or giving up. They didn't always accomplish what they set out to do, but they kept on trying, even unto death. When one of Arthur's brothers was committed to a mental hospital, he decided to kill himself. When no other means were available, he pounded a three-and-a-half-inch nail into his skull.
Still sniffing from his oxygen tube, Leslie Jesperson spoke about his Canadian childhood, a mix of Dickens and Dante: “You never saw anybody work as hard as my dad and us six kids. We forge-welded, shod horses, made logging equipmentâanything that could be created with a forge, a bellows and muscle. From kindergarten on we kids worked alongside Dad when we weren't in school. We had two forges and two anvils and a trip hammer in between to draw out the red-hot irons. I swung the sledge while my dad held the splitters, punches and other tools to make tongs and bull hooks.
“After a few hours nonstop I'd collapse in a wheelbarrow, but pretty soon Dad would have the forges fired up again and the iron would be sizzling hot, and the place would reek of fire and fumes. If it sounds a little like hell, well, it was! No choiceâyou just did your job and shut up about it. By the time I left home, I could squeeze 240 pounds, just like my dad. That was as high as our scale would read. If we got out of line, he hit us with his razor strop. There was a worn spot where it hit. Dad's strap was a hell of an educator.”
Leslie's imprisoned son Keith remembered his paternal grandfather as a forbidding presence who sat silently in a corner of his living room next to the cribbage board, symbol of the family's favorite indoor sport. “My dad's father was a tough guyâ
to be to survive. He had a cold business sense. Never said much to us kids, never showed emotion. He treated women like they took up too much space. He raised my dad to be the same.”
A female relative by marriage claimed that after old Art Jesperson went broke on the prairies, he established a money-grubbing tone that would taint family life for generations. She said, “Art never got over having to shoot gophers to put meat on the table. It drove him to drink and distorted his viewpoint. From the Dirty Thirties till the day he died, he saw everything in terms of money. At family reunions money was all the Jespersons talked about. It's how they kept score. They even saw Keith's tragedy in terms of money. Everybody was gonna get rich off those poor murdered women.”
Les Jesperson, the killer's father, quit school in the tenth grade and scratched out a living welding, plumbing, blacksmithing and working as a whistle punk in a logging camp. He taught himself Morse code, advanced mathematics, electronics, hydraulic and mechanical engineering, industrial design, and the basics of manufacturing. During an epidemic he made coffins for Indian tribes. He designed and built a machine for pulling logs, a splitter for making cedar shakes, a new type of haytedder for working hay, an automated premix cement plant, a device called the Jesperson bin filler and other industrial marvels. He revamped the hops industry with a spreadlock clip that anchored a climbing string in the earth so that the vines could grow tall, then designed a machine that manufactured the clips at the rate of six hundred per minute. At the height of his prosperity, before he sold the rights to his patent, his plant spewed out clips by the ton. Then he invented a harvester that doubled hops production in the field. He was hired to speed up apple processing assembly lines, improvising complex new equipment as needed.
One of the autodidact's hobbies was collecting metal scraps and transforming them into objets d'art; a Saskatchewan museum displayed his creations. He taught himself keyboard and accordion and played Lawrence Welkâtype music for neighborhood dances. He carved, painted, sketched, told jokes, photographed, designed, composed, and wrote poetry that included a bawdy poem to his wife:
Roses are red
And some are white
So how about a little bit tonight?
And some mawkish advice to his children:
Even though people say,
How strong the heart can be,
It's the most fragile part of you,
And must be handled tenderly.
In any group the polymath moved in his own force field, commanding attention with humor, wisecracks, backslaps and over-the-top ebullience. Old friends remembered him as well over six feet tall, but he never topped five-eleven. His rural accent made him sound like a patient old grandpa, but his closest relatives knew that there were tightly controlled frustration and anger underneath.
At all stages of his life, Les Jesperson seemed to have limitless energy. At twenty-eight, he won election as the youngest alderman in Chilliwack, British Columbia, a town of forty-thousand just across the border from Washington. He was renowned as the only city official who could mollify the wild-eyed Russian sect called the Doukhabors. When they rode naked into the city, the cry would go out: “Get Les!”
At thirty he was named to the post of Master of the Fraser River Dikes. He started several businesses, moving from one to another when he was bored. He was a founder of the Chilliwack Boxing Club and the Chilliwack Search and Rescue Unit. Sometimes he wondered if he'd spread himself too thin and shorted his family in the processâ“Every day I was in the
for one thing or another. All that attention might've made Keith a little jealous, might've started him on the wrong path.”
As a husband and father Les Jesperson seemed to play out his adult life in two discrete acts. From his marriage at age twenty until he turned forty-seven, he drank heavily, excelled at a dozen different jobs, and dominated his family.
In act two, his late adulthood, he detuned his behavior. “I quit drinking when I realized I was drunk by ten o'clock every morning. I never went to A.A. I quit on my own.” The newly sober father renewed his interest in family life and churned out volumes of poetry. By then all but one of his childrenâhis younger daughter, Jillâwere raised and gone.
“â¦The last decade has produced strong data suggesting that genetic factors related to the drinking behavior of biological fathers have a significant effect on the behavioral and intellectual development of their children.”
âRobin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley,
Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence
Growing up, young Keith saw his father as an icon, an engineering genius, a towering figure of such authority and dominance that no one in his family even thought of challenging him. In discussing the relationship later, Keith would pause to collect his thoughts and memories, choke back tears and sighs, and smile or laugh only rarely. “I love my dad, and I hate my dad. He's so, uhâ¦overpowering. Dad is good at
. It only takes him a few minutes to make friends. Sometimes he comes off as a know-it-all, but maybe he
know it all!
“When I was growing up, he really didn't pay us kids much attention. He'd work and eat and then drink himself to sleep. He was too pickled to stay up late and read to us or help with our homework. He worked our asses off. Sunday was a work day. If we laid in bed ten minutes too late, we got the belt.
“He liked to put us down with sarcasm and wisecracks, but at the same time he acted proud of us. He'd say, âYou're a Jesperson. Behave like one.' I inherited his sick sense of humor. When I was a little kid I asked him how I could tell if our electrified fence was on. He said, âPiss on it.' I felt the shock in my balls. He just stood there laughing and said, âConsider it a learning experience.' He got my sister Sharon to touch our electric fence when she was little. He laughed at her, too.
“Deep down inside, Dad never respected kids. He had no tolerance, no understanding. He'd get mad at us for not knowing something we'd never been taught. He put himself on a pedestal to be admired and respected, and he was so self-involved that he missed everything else about his family. You never saw him at our school plays. It didn't benefit him, didn't bring in any cash. That was solely how he judged things. Mother always wanted to visit Hawaii and Alaska, but he wouldn't take her. There was no benefit to him. Dad did what
The father seemed to go from one serious medical problem to another: prostate cancer, hypoglycemia, vehicle accident injuries, depression, alcoholism. He broke three ribs coughing and quit smoking when a doctor predicted that he would be dead of lung cancer or pneumonia in six months.
No one could recall when he took a day off from work, drunk or sober, except for infrequent excursions with his children and regular summer visits to the family camp in the Blackwater region of British Columbia. He showed little interest in religion and resisted his wife's urgings to send the children to Sunday school. There was no appeal from his decisions. He seemed to look down on females and passed his attitude to his sons. Keith said his father liked to brag, “I stayed with your mom because she was a good cook.”