Five die in suicide, family shooting
Police suspect a teacher killed his two kids, his ex-wife, her roommate, then himself.
By JACOB H. FRIES, EILEEN SCHULTE, JOSE CARDENAS, LORRI HELFAND and DEMORRIS A. LEE, Times Staff Writers
Published December 15, 2007
Jennifer Davis shook with nerves Thursday night as she told a domestic violence support group about being gay and how her ex-husband had abused her.
Afterward, group facilitator Jackie Brown urged Davis to get a protective injunction.
It wasn't the right time, said Davis, 27, a newcomer to the support group. But she promised to attend next week's meeting.
Less than 12 hours later, Davis was dead. So were her children, Olivia, 4, and Magnus, 2. So was her roommate, Andrea Pisanello, 53.
The prime suspect: Davis' ex-husband, Oliver Thomas Bernsdorff, 36, who appeared to have turned the gun on himself.
As investigators worked through the night Friday, a picture emerged of a family in turmoil and an abuser who apparently exploded.
"That's the part I don't get," Brown said. "He was very loving with the children. That's why I don't get his killing his children. I don't know what he told himself."
* * *
In public, Bernsdorff was the consummate family man, a doting father who chronicled in minute detail the lives of his two young children.
On a family Web site, he posted letters he wrote to both children before they were born.
"Dear Olivia ... Your first name, as mine, means 'bringer of peace,'" he wrote in a letter dated Thanksgiving 2002. "Whether that is in the smallest corner of the world, or across galaxies may you stay true to it."
Bernsdorff, who had no criminal record in Florida, was an adult education instructor for the Pinellas County School District.
Tammy Pleasant, 41, lives across the street from the Bernsdorff family house on Powderhorn Drive, a dead-end street in Clearwater.
"The kids were always outside, running around and playing and riding bikes," Pleasant said.
She said the entire family frequently sat on lawn chairs on their driveway.
"The wife seemed like a normal person, a good mother," Pleasant said.
Several neighbors referred to Bernsdorff as a hippie because of his tie-dye T-shirts and the way he painted the family van in bright colors, calling it the "happy bus."
But despite the appearance of domestic tranquillity, the eight-year marriage was unraveling. In August, Bernsdorff filed for divorce, and he received custody of the children. Davis began meeting with Brown, the domestic violence counselor. In those conversations, Davis told her she was in love with Pisanello.
The women met at the Unitarian Universalists Church in Clearwater and worked together at the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast.
"Jen said she had never been more in love with anybody," Brown said. "Andrea made Jen very happy."
Brown also met with Bernsdorff to discuss the divorce. He blamed all his troubles on Davis.
Those problems included massive debt. According to divorce records, Bernsdorff had $168,000 in student loans and $27,000 in federal income tax liabilities from 1999 to 2003. He also agreed as part of the settlement to take on the couple's $50,000 credit card debt.
Erica Moore, an adult education teacher who worked with Bernsdorff, said he was usually very talkative and outgoing. But recently, with the divorce, he "became very obviously despondent."
On Wednesday, based on a referral by Brown, Davis met with Frieda Widera, a domestic crisis specialist for the Largo Police Department. Davis told her that she had been with Bernsdorff since she was 18 and that he had been abusive the whole time.
"She left and he got everything in the divorce, and she didn't have the energy or the resources to fight then," Widera said.
But, Widera said, Davis was just mounting the strength to get back her kids.
"He won everything except her, and he found a way to take everything away," she said.
* * *
At 6:42 a.m. Friday, police received a call of shots fired at the Monterey Lakes Apartments, a sprawling complex at 7501 Ulmerton Road in Largo.
When detectives arrived, they found Pisanello and Davis dead in a first-floor apartment.
Raashon Mayers, 25, who lives above the unit where the bodies were found, said he heard five or six shots that sounded like hammering. But then he realized it was too early for someone to be hammering.
"It sounded like he took his time," he said.
When he stepped outside, he said he heard a little girl screaming: "Mommy! Mommy!"
Left alive in the apartment was a 4-year-old girl named Annie, said Megan Szczepanik, the girl's biological mother. She said she and Andrea Pisanello were a couple for eight years, and Annie considered Pisanello her mother.
Annie was "the only one that made it," Szczepanik said. "He stepped over her. ... I'd like to think (Pisanello) gave her life trying to save Annie."
* * *
Largo police investigating the murders contacted Clearwater police at 10:08 a.m. to assist with a "welfare check" at the Bernsdorff house on Powderhorn Drive. When no one answered the door, officers went inside and found the couple's children dead in a bedroom.
About 10:30 a.m., Manatee sheriff deputies began receiving 911 calls about an erratic driver on Interstate 275. Deputies began to tail the van -- Bernsdorff's "happy bus" -- once it crossed to the Manatee County side of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Just before Exit 5, the van pulled over to the side. But instead of stopping, it crashed into the thick mangroves lining the highway.
The driver, believed to be Bernsdorff, was found in the driver's seat with a gunshot wound to the head. A handgun was also found in the car, said Dave Bristow, a Manatee sheriff's spokesman.
The driver's face was mangled from the gunshot, Bristow said. Largo police were examining fingerprints. Friday night, Clearwater police said the driver might have to be identified through DNA.
Investigators processing the van for evidence pulled out a car seat, two blue sleeping bags and fluffy white pillows.
* * *
Late Friday, many questions remained unanswered.
Foremost among them: What sparked the rampage?
Bernsdorff had been working on a doctorate and nearing his dream of becoming a university professor. St. Petersburg Rep. Bill Heller, a USF professor who served on Bernsdorff's doctoral committee, said Bernsdorff stopped by to see him early during the summer to talk about the stalled progress on his dissertation, which examined South Americans' migration to Clearwater and their assimilation into the community.
Bernsdorff said he was ready to get back to his Ph.D. And about a month later, toward the end of the summer, he called to say he would be sending materials as part of his dissertation process.
"But I don't recall getting anything from him after that," Heller said.
The tension in the family was visible at Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, where they and Pisanello attended church.
On Sundays, Bernsdorff would bring the children to church, said Charlene Carnes, the church's past president. He would sit on one side of the sanctuary. Davis would sit on the other.
During the service, the children would make their way over to their mother, Carnes said.
But when it came time for them to leave to go to Sunday school, Bernsdorff would retake custody of the children and lead them away.
Jacob H. Fries can be reached at (727) 580-0307.