It's been seven years since Dr. Phil sat on the Oprah Show stage. In that time, he's delivered hundreds of smackdowns on The Dr. Phil Show and heard plenty of harrowing stories. But it was Melissa Moore, a guest with a dark family secret, who revealed a truth he felt compelled to share.
Dr. Phil met Melissa in 2008 at one of his "Get Real Retreats," an intense three-day therapy session. Melissa went on the retreat, she says, to decide if she should try to have a relationship with her estranged father. During their sessions, Melissa told Dr. Phil she didn't know why she was protecting a man who had hurt her. When Dr. Phil asked what Melissa's father had done, she admitted a shocking secret: He was a serial killer.
Keith Jesperson's killing spree began in 1990, when Melissa was just 10 years old. In the next five years, he would kill eight women in five states. He even sent an anonymous letter to a local newspaper describing his savage murders in detail. The letters were signed with a smiley face drawing, earning him the nickname "The Happy Face Killer."
Jesperson's victims were strangers, which made him difficult to track down. One of the women was a young mother of 2-year-old twins. After killing her, Jesperson strapped her body to the bottom of a truck and dragged it for miles.
Police were finally tipped off to Jesperson after he killed his eighth victim, girlfriend Julie Winningham. Julie's mother had seen her get into Jesperson's truck. With the information from Julie's mom and help from Jesperson's employer, detectives tracked him down.
After a lengthy interrogation, Jesperson confessed to all eight murders. Melissa was a sophomore in high school when her father was sentenced to life in prison. He is serving life without parole.
For 15 years, Melissa told only her husband and her best friend about her father. She says the "Get Real Retreat" helped her open up about the truth and stop feeling shame. "I went on the retreat to find out if I should have a relationship with my father. I know that sounds absurd now, but I was receiving letters and I felt so guilty as a daughter," she says.
Dr. Phil says the most important thing was for Melissa to stop blaming herself. "We had to clear something day one, minute one," he says. "You didn't do anything wrong. You didn't kill anybody. You didn't hurt anybody. You didn't hide anything. You have no complicity in this whatsoever."
Melissa says the truth clicked for her during the retreat. "He was my father and didn't have a conscience; he didn't show remorse for the victims," she says. "I took it upon myself to feel that burden, that guilt, for him, and I didn't realize I did that."
One of the hardest things about accepting the truth of her father, Melissa says, is reconciling the fact that he was a murderer with her memories of him as a dad. "I have memories of him playing with me, picking me up, spinning me around," she says. "Then to see that he was a stone-cold killer, I can't fuse the two together."
Still, Melissa admits she saw glimpses of evil in her father when she was very young. "I was just a child when he took my kittens from me. He took the little tails and pinned them on the clothesline, and I watched them scratching at each other, trying to get down, and I couldn't stop it," she says. "As I got older, I started to put two and two together."
Melissa's parents divorced before the killings began, but she says she got a sick feeling whenever her father came to visit.
"His appearances to visit us were so random. He would never call or tell us. But I'd have this instinct that my father was coming. It was like a form of anxiety," she says. "It would start building and building, and I would tell my mom: 'I know Dad's coming. He's going to visit us.' But when I was around him, I felt this intense stomach-turning feeling."
The last time Melissa saw her father was just before her 16th birthday. "We went to a restaurant, and we were having a normal father-daughter conversation. ... Then the conversation turned to, 'Melissa, I have something to tell you, but you'll tell the police,'" she says. "I didn't know what it was. I thought maybe stealing. I thought misdemeanors. I wasn't thinking murder. I went to the bathroom and tried to calm myself down. I went back to the booth, I sat down, and we resumed normal conversation."
Melissa's father never told her what he was going to say, which Dr. Phil says is a good thing. "Had he completed the conversation, you would have never made it home alive," he says. "He would have had to kill you to protect himself."
Within Melissa's family, her father's history was handled with secrecy and shame. "My mother and I wouldn't discuss it because it's so painful. He was such a disgrace to our family," she says. "There's a wall of silence between my mother and I."
Melissa's mother, Rose, says she knows she created that silent barrier. "I was paralyzed with fear and pain. You want the best for your children. Then to tell them that their father's a murderer? There are no resources for you to say that," she says. "I had to find my own way to deal with the pain. I think in dealing with my own pain, I wasn't there for my kids."
In 2005, Melissa spoke to her father when she tried to bring her family to visit him in prison. "I wanted [my father] to meet my husband. I wanted him to meet his grandkids," she says. "I went to the prison with my kids thinking that it would be safe. I saw that they had a child center there, and I thought it would be okay. My little girl starting clinging to my leg, and she was so scared. I felt regret that I was taking my kids to a prison to see my father—who I was just thinking of as my father, not a serial killer."
Dr. Phil says Melissa's attempt to separate her father from the criminal he is is normal but futile. "It's a mechanism of denial. You want there to be this man, this influence [in your children's life]. 'Do I owe my children the opportunity to know their grandfather?' But the point is, he sacrificed that right," he says. "The best thing in the world you can do is keep your children away from evil and that man is evil. It's that simple."
Melissa says she's finally learned to accept that her father can't be in her life. "The denial was so thick. I could only see the memories that we had. I couldn't see the heinous acts that he committed," she says. "I was aware of [his crimes], but to me it sounded almost like a fictional story."
If there's anything to be learned from Melissa's story, it's to trust your gut, Dr. Phil says. "You can't be in denial. If your instinct tells you something's wrong, it's probably wrong," he says. "At 10 years old [Melissa] had instincts telling her something is wrong, and she was so right. You've got to trust that intuition."