In order to do the research for a section of her book Our Symphony With Animals (Pegasus Books, May 2019), Dr. Aysha Akhtar, MD, MPH, had to talk to a serial killer. Here, she reveals the planning that went into her interviews and how she stayed sane through the process.
In the summer of 2016, I found myself sitting across from Keith Jesperson at the Oregon State Penitentiary. This was the second day of my face-to-face visits with Jesperson, occurring after we had conversed by weekly phone calls and letters for many months. Between 1990 and 1995, Jesperson murdered eight women by strangulation, after raping most of them. Previously married and a father of three, Jesperson met most of his victims while working for a long-haul trucking company. He targeted easy prey—vulnerable women such as prostitutes or transients—gambling that they could disappear for a long time before anyone noticed them missing.
Craving attention, Jesperson left an anonymous note on the bathroom wall of a truck stop and sent a letter to reporters bragging about his murders. Because he signed the letter with a smiley face, reporters dubbed him “the Happy Face Killer.” Jesperson’s five-year killing spree ended only when he murdered a woman whom the police could tie him to directly: his girlfriend, Julie Ann Winningham. Jesperson now serves life without parole in the Oregon State Penitentiary.
As I sat across from him in the visiting room, with only a small coffee table between us, I listened as he described his murders in sickening detail. I had read everything out there about Jesperson’s murders. But it was a very different experience to sit across from the man and hear him describe the murders to me. And one of the hardest things I had ever had to do was sit there and listen.
How did I get there and why did I do this?
As an avid fan of true crime, I’ve read many books about convicted serial murderers; many were pure sensationalist drivel. But some attempted to truly decipher the motives, backgrounds, and causes behind such violence. I, too, was trying to unravel some clues that could explain how someone like Jesperson becomes the person he becomes, but I was doing this from a different angle. As a neurologist studying empathy for animals, I knew of the published studies that suggested that many serial murderers abused animals as children and that their failure to develop empathy for both animals and humans stemmed from a shared root. The problem with these studies, though, was that they were not wholly informative. One of their major limitations was that they were rather superficial—they were more like a checklist: Did the person hurt animals? Yes or no? If yes, at what age and what was the circumstance? The studies didn’t provide full insight as to why violent people abuse animals and how that abuse starts.
I decided to go one step further than simply rehash the published studies. I decided to meet a serial killer and ask my questions directly.
Of course, I had no idea where to start. How does one go about meeting serial killers? It’s not something they taught in medical school. So I started my journey where anyone else would: I Googled it.
I researched convicted serial murderers who had a reported history of abusing animals. At the top of my list was Keith Jesperson. I contacted the Oregon State Penitentiary and asked how to send a letter to Jesperson. I then wrote to him explaining that I was a neurologist studying empathy for humans and animals and asked to talk with him about his history.
In less than a week, Jesperson responded and we started a series of weekly phone calls that ended up being some of the most disturbing, horrifying, annoying, and surprising that I have ever had. My conversations with him gave me insight into the mind of a violent person that I would never have had otherwise.
There are several lessons that I learned along the way that proved invaluable in maintaining a working relationship with Jesperson for more than a year.
Do your research first.
Before I contacted Jesperson, I researched convicted serial murderers who acknowledged their crimes. This criteria was critical, as it increased the chance that the person would speak truthfully with me. I had no desire to waste time with someone who would play games with me. Additionally, many serial murderers are quite narcissistic. If you contact them knowing little about them, chances are you will not get a response. If however, you show that you have done your research on them, they are more likely to appreciate your due diligence.
If you can, contact a specialist in criminal psychology before you contact the serial killer. Learn all you can from that specialist about how to behave with such a killer and what to expect from them. As a neurologist with a deep background in psychiatry I had a leg up on understanding the behaviors of violent killers. Still, there was always more to learn. My discussions with former FBI special agents and criminal psychiatrists provided me with extremely helpful advice that made for better interviews with Jesperson.
Be prepared to give up control.
Serial killers are all about control. Many times over the months that followed, Jesperson tried to manipulate me and take complete control over what we discussed. And I had to be OK with that. If you hope to understand the behavior of an individual like Jesperson, you need to be open to experiencing many facets of their personalities. You need to let them have enough control so that they stay with you. They can end conversations with you at any time. After all, if they are not getting anything out of the conversations, why should they bother with you? What Jesperson wanted from me was a face-to-face visit. For many months when we first started our conversations, I felt that I was getting what I needed from our phone calls. I didn’t see a need to visit him. But he felt differently. He wanted a female visitor. As uncomfortable as that made me, I had to agree to visiting him in order to continue our conversations. Ultimately, that was the best decision I made with Jesperson. He spoke more openly to me in person than he ever did over the phone.
Many serial killers are, understandably, suspicious of those who contact them. Authors wanting to sensationalize their lives and make a quick buck have taken advantage of people like Jesperson. Be upfront and honest about why you are contacting them. If you intend to write a book about them, say so. If, as in my case, your interviews with them are only a small part of your book, say that as well. Be honest about your intentions. If they feel you are being less than truthful, they will not hesitate to end conversations with you.
Treat your interview subject courteously.
No matter how heinous their crimes, serial murderers are still individuals with emotions and who who respond to basic courtesies. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be honest with them about how you feel about their crimes—by all means don’t be afraid to show your true feelings—but temper them. You must consider yourself a partner with the interviewee if you hope to get honest responses.
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