Taunja Bennett was reported missing on January 21, 1990. On the following day, she was found dead beside the Old Columbia River Highway in Portland, Oregon. Taunja had been beaten, sexually assaulted, and strangled to death. Surprisingly, the police seemed to receive a significant breakthrough in the case when a caller implicated herself and her partner a few weeks after the murder.
ABC’s ’20/20: Happy Face Killer’ chronicles the gruesome murder and portrays how a false confession led to a flabbergasted police force while a heinous serial killer continued to roam free. Let’s dig into the details of the case and find out what happened to Taunja Bennett, shall we?
How Did Taunja Bennett Die?
A native of Portland, Oregon, Taunja Bennett was just 23 at the time of her murder. Described as a cheerful and lovely person, she was pretty outgoing and loved striking up conversations with strangers. A wonderful young lady who loved putting a smile on people’s faces, Taunja is terribly missed by her friends and family even today. Taunja was reported missing on January 21, 1990.
Subsequently, the police began organizing searches to find the young woman. Her family feared the worst, and in a cruel twist of fate, their worries turned out to be true as on January 22, Taunja’s deceased body was located near a switchback in the Columbia River Gorge along the Old Columbia River Highway. Initial examination showed signs of sexual abuse as well as asphyxiation. Moreover, it even seemed like Taunja’s attacker had beaten her with a blunt object, leading to severe injuries. An autopsy later confirmed the sexual assault and determined strangulation to be the cause of death.
Who Killed Taunja Bennett?
The initial stages of the investigation proved challenging as there was a lack of leads or eyewitnesses. Thus, the authorities decided to inform the public about the details of the murder, hoping someone might come forward with a clue. Subsequently, the show portrays how officers received an alarming phone call, which they initially believed to be a significant breakthrough. A woman named Laverne Pavlinac called authorities and mentioned that she overheard a person named John Sosnovske bragging about Taunja’s murder at a bar.
Based on the statement, police began investigating John and found that he and Laverne had been seeing each other for quite some time. The couple was then called in for questioning when Laverne decided to take her story a step ahead. She even implicated herself as an accessory after the fact and claimed that she had helped her partner dump Taunja’s body. Once the police were confirmed that the location Laverne took them to was the same where the victim’s body was discovered, they arrested John.
Unfortunately, even after John’s arrest, the police could not find any forensic evidence to connect him to the murder. Moreover, according to the show, witnesses claimed to have seen the victim in a bar with two unidentified men and affirmed that neither of those men resembled John. At one point, the investigation almost began believing in John’s innocence and was considering letting him go. However, Laverne suddenly decided to change her statement and insisted that she and John met Taunja when she was still alive.
The woman then went on to claim that John rendered the girl unconscious before they dragged her into the Vista House Museum in Oregon. There, Laverne insisted that she tied a rope around the victim’s neck as John allegedly raped her before strangling her. Based on such a condemning statement, the police arrested both John and Laverne before charging them with Taunja’s murder. Once Laverne was put on trial, she claimed that she concocted the whole story to escape an abusive relationship and was not involved with the murder. She even recanted her statement and pleaded not guilty.
Moreover, during her trial, further evidence came to light in the form of bathroom graffitis through which an unknown person took responsibility for killing Taunja. However, the graffitis were not considered pieces of viable evidence, and Laverne was convicted of Taunja’s murder which saw her receive a life sentence in 1991. On the other hand, John did not contest the charges against him and accepted a life sentence for the murder in the same year.
In the years following the conviction, there was nothing to suggest that the people behind bars were innocent. However, the police made a startling discovery when they arrested Keith Hunter Jesperson on an unrelated murder charge in March 1995. Jesperson surprisingly confessed to killing several women, including Taunja, and claimed that both Laverne and John were innocent.
In order to back up his claims, Jesperson provided details which only the person involved in the crime would know. Thus, after another investigation, the law finally released Laverne and John, while Keith Hunter Jesperson was considered responsible for Taunja’s murder. Incidentally, Jesperson turned out to be a serial killer and was sentenced to life without parole for his crimes, which he is now serving at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Oregon.