He tells his story casually, between yawns, revealing unspeakable horrors the way most people talk about the weather.
Joe Kondro, shackled at the wrists, rests a chin on his big hands as he tells how he used them to rape and kill a little girl, and get away with it for a dozen years.
Get away with it long enough to do it again.
Gilbert W. Arias / P-I Serial killer Joseph Kondro is serving a life term at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla for slaying two girls in the Longview area.
And if he had a second chance, he says, he wouldn't be in this small room being watched so intently by armed guards. If he could change just one thing, Kondro says, he would've been more careful in hiding his final victim's body. Then, he'd be free now to rape and kill again.
Joe Kondro. Adopted son. Father of six. Serial killer.
He was allowed to go free for so long, he says, because he learned to exploit the gaps and weaknesses of the law enforcement system.
"When a police officer can't find a body, what can he do?" he asks, already knowing the answer.
In another prison, behind walls just as drab, another student of murder explains his own twisted art of hiding the dead.
Time and distance, Keith Hunter Jesperson says, is all it takes. Separate yourself from the body and don't be seen. Meet a victim one place, dump her someplace else -- in another town, another county, another state -- somewhere no one is looking for the missing.
"The longer it takes to find a body, the better," Jesperson says. "But you don't have to take it 20 miles away to dump it. You can put a body in the Dumpster next door if you feel comfortable that no one can pin it on you."
That's why it's best to take strangers, he says, victims who can't be linked to you.
Keith Hunter Jesperson, the infamous Happy Face Killer, has boasted of murdering as many as 160 women. His confessions tie him to eight murders in five states, including one in Washington. He might still be on the road had he not failed to heed his own advice.
"The longer it takes to find a body," says killer Keith Jesperson, "the better."
The killers among us are always learning. Even with advances in police and forensic technology, experts say, killers learn new tricks that allow them to continue their morbid harvest. Both Kondro and Jesperson killed for years before anyone knew their victims shared a common killer, much less who that killer might be.
One lesson each learned early on is that police rarely can track down a killer if they can't find a body. Without a body, a murder can be forgotten as a routine missing-person case.
And even if a body is found, both killers know that paying attention to matters of time and distance can mean that police can't always determine who that body belongs to, or who did the victim in.
State and national law enforcement databases hold thousands of records of unidentified bodies and reports of missing people, but oversight, error and bureaucratic glitches often prevent anyone from linking a body found here to a person missing there. And sometimes the dead are never found.
For Kondro it was simple: He hid 8-year-old Rima Traxler so well that no one ever found her.
"I figured if I could take her and bury her in a place far enough away, there was no way they'd go find her or go looking for her there," he says. "I was right."
On the afternoon of May 15, 1985, Kondro, then a 25-year-old laborer, was driving to the store for beer and cigarettes when he saw Rima walking home from St. Helens Elementary School in Longview.
Rima's parents were his close friends; she trusted him like family. Just that morning, he had been at her home, drinking beer with her step-dad, an old high school pal.
"I pulled over and thought, 'If she gets into my car, I'm going to take her out to the woods . . . ' " Kondro says. "And she just jumped in."
Kondro drove to a remote swimming hole on Germany Creek west of town. He raped, bludgeoned and strangled the third-grader, then buried her behind a tree. When Rima didn't return home from school, her desperate mother went to Kondro for help.
"She asked me if her daughter was there," Kondro says flatly. "She started crying and she actually used my phone to call in the missing-persons report."
Police searched for Rima, but found nothing.
Kondro also went on a hunt -- for other victims. He gives little away, but acknowledges that 11 years later he found 12-year-old Kara Rudd.
Kondro also knew Kara's family, and lived for a time at their home. The girl and her sister called him "Uncle Joe."
One fall day in 1996 he took Kara and a friend to an abandoned house on the banks of the Columbia River.
"That was like a test run," Kondro says. "I was planning on raping and killing them both."
He had already picked the place where he would dump the bodies; a spot chosen on one of his many long drives through the dense forest around Longview. His cruising was part of the game, a chance to savor the anticipation.
On a cold November day in 1996, Kondro met Kara and her friend near their school while on his way to drop off a job application. He stopped and talked to the girls, and agreed to help Kara skip class. When he came by the school later, Kara hopped in his gold Firebird.
Kondro took her to the abandoned house, where he beat, raped and strangled her, then loaded her body into his car. Off a logging road on Mount Solo he wedged the body under a rusted shell of an abandoned Volkswagen he had found in a deep ravine.
"The search started right away," Kondro says. "The school called her mom and said, 'Hey, your daughter's absent.' "
Kara's friend, who had come close to sharing her fate, told authorities about Kondro.
By then, the killer had covered his tracks. He had washed his clothes, showered and thrown away his shoes. Police searched his home and questioned him, but came away empty-handed.
"I knew they didn't have any solid evidence," he says. "I knew they didn't have a body."
More than six weeks later, detectives searched the Mount Solo area on a hunch. They'd heard Kondro sometimes liked to hang out there. They found Kara's body, and DNA evidence that sealed the case against Kondro.
"I should've buried her in a different place," Kondro says. "Still, it took them 49 days to find her."
Facing the death penalty, Kondro bartered for his life with a secret he'd kept for 12 years.
"Police had given up on Rima's murder," he says. "They couldn't find her. They even admitted they couldn't do anything without a body."
He confessed to Rima's murder and explained how and where he hid her small body beneath debris, but investigators still haven't found her.
Kondro is now serving 55 years in the Washington State Penitentiary.
Like Kondro, Jesperson was a methodic killer. A long-haul trucker, Jesperson often chose women he met on the road -- truck-stop hookers and hitchhikers, women he derided as "lot lizards."
"I had a transient lifestyle," he says. "They were victimized because they were in my lifestyle."
In 1990, the Canadian-born Jesperson was a divorced, 35-year-old father of three leading a trucker's life out of the Northwest when he claimed his first known victim.
He met Taunja Bennett, 23 years old and mildly retarded, at a Portland bar. Later he beat, raped and strangled her, then drove east, up the Columbia River Gorge. On a dark, wooded stretch of highway he tossed his victim down an embankment.
He drove miles away to discard Bennett's purse and Walkman in bushes along a river, before getting coffee at a truck stop.
"When you're throwing away bodies, the real adversary out there is not the police, it's the public," Jesperson says. "You're trying to avoid being seen by them. You can't be placed at a dump site."
Jesperson never was. He not only avoided detection in the Bennett murder, he remained free to kill again as two innocent people were sent to prison.
After Bennett's body was found, a middle-age homemaker named Laverne Pavlinac told police that her boyfriend, John Sosnovske, forced her to help him kill Bennett and conceal the crime. Pavlinac learned details about the case from news accounts, and later produced a cut-out section of denim that seemed to match one missing from the fly of Bennett's jeans. Pavlinac also led investigators to the approximate area of the dumpsite.
The story was convincing enough to convict Pavlinac and Sosnovske of murder. Her recantation and explanation that she hoped to escape an abusive relationship by putting Sosnovske in prison came too late.
All the while Jesperson was picking up women along his truck route, dumping their bodies in ditches and along roads, sometimes miles away from where he met them. No one even knew a serial killer was at large -- until he decided to brag.
Two and a half years after Bennett's murder, anonymous letters were sent to an Oregon court and a newspaper, detailing slayings of women in California and Oregon. A "happy face" doodle was the only signature, and the unknown confessor was soon dubbed "The Happy Face Killer."
At the time, nothing linked the dead women to one another or Jesperson.
But after years of careful planning, Jesperson slipped up. Julie Ann Winningham's friends and family in Camas knew she was dating him. She even told them he was her fiancÚ.
When her body was found along a highway in Clark County in March 1995, friends told police about Jesperson. He was questioned and released -- there was no hard evidence to link him to the murder.
By then, Jesperson was ready to quit. A few days later, he wrote a letter to his brother admitting to eight killings over five years. He soon called a Clark County detective and confessed, but only to Winningham's murder.
"They didn't even know I was a serial killer until I told them," Jesperson says. "They had me down for one murder and that's it."
While awaiting trial, Jesperson began writing to the press about other murders, trying to trade information to avoid a death sentence. He confessed to killing Bennett, an admission authorities initially declined to accept. But Jesperson was able to prove his own guilt. For a reporter, he sketched a diagram of where he discarded Bennett's purse, and searchers later found it. He also passed a lie detector test and eventually, Pavlinac and Sosnovske were freed.
His admissions, along with handwriting analysis and DNA tests, were used to link Jesperson to killings described in the Happy Face letters.
At times, Jesperson has boasted of killing more than 160 women, but pleaded guilty to only four murders -- one each in Washington and Wyoming and two in Oregon. He's taken credit for three killings in California and one in Florida, but those cases haven't been prosecuted. Although he drew maps of where bodies were dumped and remains have been found, some victims haven't been identified or their causes of deaths not substantiated.
"Is there more? Yeah. But do I want to expose them? No. Why should I?" Jesperson says. "There's no benefit in it for me."
Kondro, who has been a suspect in more than 70 slayings, is equally coy when asked about potential victims.
Over the years, detectives have tried to persuade him that he could do right by the families of victims, to help recover bodies and end agonizing mysteries.
"I won't go there," he says with a smirk, the only sign of emotion during a three-hour interview.
Even behind bars for the rest of their lives, two killers remain loyal to their twisted rules of murder -- holding on to secrets or lies, keeping old skeletons hidden.
"People talk about closure, but in my opinion, it just doesn't exist," Jesperson says. "It's almost better for someone to believe their loved one is going to come home, rather than them knowing they're dead and dumped somewhere."
end of article
Bonnie M. Wells
The title of this article, and the fact that it is the same as one of the stories in book number eight in my Pure Coincidence series, is just another of those irritating "coincidences," because I titled my story long before this article was ever written. / Bonnie
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