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'His whole world got turned around'

Outwardly, the suspect in 4 deaths was happy; some saw a darker side.

By JONATHAN ABEL and TAMARA EL-KHOURY, Times Staff Writers
Published December 15, 2007


Oliver Thomas Bernsdorff ran for City Council as a teenager -- twice.

He drove a rainbow colored Toyota van with "Happy Bus" painted on it.

He and his wife, Jennifer Davis, taught natural birth classes at their Clearwater home, where their son was born after Davis went through labor in a whirlpool. They buried the placenta under a palm tree. They banned TV from the house.

On the outside, Bernsdorff led a happy, if eccentric life. But since high school there were signs he was struggling.

Recently, he confided in neighbors and colleagues -- even the letter carrier -- that his life was spiraling out of control. Of course, they had no notion he would be named a suspect in the slayings of his ex-wife, two children and another woman.

"It seemed like his whole world got turned around on him," said Willie Roundtree, a neighbor and a St. Petersburg Times employee. "You have your family there and then six months later it's all turned around."

Bernsdorff, 36, was a teacher for Pinellas County schools. He helped teens and adults pass the GED test. Usually upbeat, his colleagues say, he didn't show a dark side while in the classroom.

"Never, ever, ever would I have thought he had the power to take anyone's life but his own -- and not even that," Erica Moore, an adult education colleague, said Friday afternoon. "I'm just sitting here with my stomach turning in shock."

But Jackie Brown, a counselor at the Haven of RCS, a domestic violence agency in North Pinellas County, sensed serious trouble while counseling Bernsdorff and his wife in the months leading to their October divorce.

"It popped up in my mind that he had some power and control issues," she said.

Bernsdorff was born in Baranquilla, Colombia, the son of an immigrant who left Eastern Europe in the 1930s. His mother is German-Catholic.

He grew up in Hallandale, outside Fort Lauderdale, where his independent spirit quickly became apparent.

As editor of his high school paper, he routinely butted heads with the principal and dropped out of school.

At 18, he married Crystal Arocha, who was 16 at the time. That marriage ended after two years. Arocha, who now lives in Broward County, said it was a rough relationship and a contentious divorce. But she declined to say more because the two hadn't spoken in years.

After high school, Bernsdorff wrote briefly for the Hallandale Digest, a weekly newspaper.

He was brilliant, everyone recognized that, but also unstable.

Daniel Bluesten, his boss at the time, said the young man was "very, very, complex" and subject to "severe mood swings."

"We had to let him go because his behavior was, he was like manic depressive," Bluesten said.

The precocious and aggressive young man fancied himself a politician. He declared himself a candidate for City Council in Clearwater in 1989, but then never officially qualified. He did the same thing in Hallandale.

Bernsdorff's career went through many iterations: newspaper reporter, police academy graduate, computer technician.

As a GED teacher the past five years, he had about 30 to 35 students during day sessions in Clearwater. Christy Richards, administrator of the Clearwater Adult Education Center, said Bernsdorff was regarded as capable.

But the hidden side of his home life was a different story.

His Web site was a collage of love and devotion. Posted were intricate updates of his life as well as the lives of Davis, 27, Olivia, 4, and Magnus, 2. Photos range from Davis in labor to Olivia's favorite foods -- strawberries and Gummi Bears.

The couple's home was filled with books and decorated with artifacts from all over the world.

"They were a really neat, eclectic couple who had a lot to give and were very passionate about what they did," said Hallie Bedrick, 26, who had taken a birthing class from the couple.

Another mother in their class, Tina McGowin, 27, of St. Petersburg said Bernsdorff never wanted to have kids but when Davis had their first child he embraced fatherhood.

Bernsdorff's Web site indicates he received his master's degree in educational leadership from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in 2001, where he was an adjunct instructor in education. But he hadn't taught there since December 2004, said USF spokesman Ken Gullette. He was enrolled in graduate classes for his doctorate this past spring, Gullette said. But records show he did not enroll this semester.

St. Petersburg Rep. Bill Heller, a USF professor who served on Bernsdorff's doctoral committee, said he hadn't heard from him this fall.

Court records indicate a recent divorce left Bernsdorff facing new financial challenges.

James Stearns, a Dunedin lawyer who represented Bernsdorff, said he filed for divorce and Davis didn't contest. An agreement reached Aug. 31 gave Bernsdorff residential custody of the children. Davis, who was not working at the time, Stearns said, was ordered to pay $200 a month in child support.

That order was adjusted to $801.90 a month in October after Davis started working as a team assistant at Hospice of the Florida Suncoast. But she soon fell $1,800 behind in child support, according to court documents.

As of Nov. 1, Bernsdorff got exclusive possession of the home at 2068 Powderhorn Drive, where the two children were found. It had a market value of $200,000.

Nancy Hopp, an adult education colleague of Bernsdorff's, said he walked out of the office at 3 p.m. Wednesday, carrying his laptop, the school day over. He called in at 8:30 a.m. Thursday and said his daughter was sick. He called at noon to say he couldn't find a babysitter.

That was the last time she heard from him.