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Man changed, exerted more family control, friends say

Now police are sorting out a tragic aftermath.

By LORRI HELFAND and DEMORRIS A. LEE, Times Staff Writers
Published December 18, 2007


Jennifer Davis loved to go to dinner and spend time with her friends, but a year and a half ago that began to change.

She had to be home by 9 p.m.

Around the same time, her husband banned TV, shunned Disney and talked of joining a commune. Eventually, Davis "wouldn't go out at all," family friend Jenifer Brown said.

That was part of an escalating pattern of control that close friends saw Oliver Bernsdorff exercise over his former wife and their children.

On Friday, Bernsdorff, 36, apparently shot Davis, his daughter Olivia, 4, his son Magnus, 2, and Davis' roommate, Andrea Pisanello, 53, authorities say. He then appeared to have turned the gun on himself.

Both children were shot in the upper torso. They were found in bed. Largo police Sgt. John Trebino said that both Davis and Pisanello had been shot multiple times in the upper torso.

Authorities found Bernsdorff dead in the family van, crashed into thick mangroves near the Sunshine Skyway bridge. No note was found in the house.

"There was something in the van that may possibly be a note but there was so much blood in the van and it's taking longer to process," Trebino said."

Police see evidence of premeditation.

"If you look at the sequence of events, it is no doubt that this was well thought-out," Trebino said. "He was very purposeful."

The gun was purchased in Clearwater a few days before the shootings, police said.

Trebino said it appears that same 9mm semiautomatic pistol was used in all the shootings.

"Everything matches as if it was same gun," Trebino said.

Davis met with Largo police domestic violence specialist Frieda Widera two days before her killing.

She told Widera that she had been with Bernsdorff since she was 18 and that he had been abusive throughout their nine-year relationship.

In August, Bernsdorff filed for divorce, and he received custody of the children.

Widera said Davis didn't have the energy or the resources to fight at the time of the divorce, but she was mounting the strength to get back her kids.

Some close to Davis saw no sign of the tension in the Bernsdorffs' marriage.

"I totally didn't see anything," said Davis' friend, Luanne Uriel, a nurse midwife who helped Davis deliver Magnus. "Maybe it was so carefully masked."

Julie Phelps, who attended a nursing mothers support group with Davis at Morton Plant Hospital, said women in the group often shared frustrations at home and sometimes dished about their husbands.

"Never once did she even hint that something was going on," said Phelps, 34.

Others, however, saw an increasing pattern of control.

Brown and her husband met the Bernsdorffs in 2001 when they came here from Nashville.

Brown said Davis was a strong woman and a great teacher, who taught a natural childbirth class.

She planned to homeschool her children.

Others said she organized field trips with groups of kids to the park and zoo.

"There are a lot of people that look up to her as a mother," Brown said.

Her son, Magnus, usually hung from her in sling and her daughter, Olivia, was by her side, Phelps said.

For years, the Browns and Bernsdorffs had a lot of fun together.

"We'd go to their house for dinner," Brown said. "We'd really got along well, the four of us."

The Bernsdorffs' home was the place where everyone hung out for potlucks and parties.

But about a year and a half ago, Bernsdorff kind of "went over the deep end," Brown said.

The Bernsdorffs used to have a TV, though Brown recalls that Davis didn't want her husband to know she watched Sex and the City. But then Bernsdorff banned TV altogether.

He also wanted them to make their own clothing and he bought some chickens so they would have their own eggs.

He didn't like Disney, Wal-Mart or fast food.

"It was a little awkward," Brown said. "We would take my son to Disney. But we couldn't tell him about that."

Brown thought Bernsdorff seemed controlling over what the kids could and couldn't do. He wouldn't let his kids play with squirt guns, she said.

At first, Davis was a bit upset about the changes, but laughed them off, Brown said.

Bernsdorff and his wife started a business, called Our Playtime Together, which hosted activities and birthday parties for toddlers. But after it folded, things seemed to go downhill, Brown said.

"Every time I saw him, he seemed very depressed," Brown said. "He was not the same Oliver I met in 2001."

Brown said she heard from others that the Bernsdorffs' divorce was getting ugly.

She saw them both at a child's birthday party a couple of weeks ago. Bernsdorff arrived first with the children.

"He seemed very upset and was saying that Jenn was spreading rumors about him that weren't true," Brown said. "And he was acting very much the victim."

He left a few minutes before Davis got there, Brown said. She hung out a short while. The children, usually upbeat, seemed "sullen and clingy." Davis got a call and looked disturbed. She grabbed some cupcakes and left.

About a month ago, Brown said she received an e-mail from Davis, saying, "Things are not what they seem," Brown said.

"People didn't understand why she would let him have the children. We couldn't understand it. I just thought it was so out of her character.

"We had no idea that she was that fearful. She was such a strong woman."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or 727 445-4155. Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4174.