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Debt, divorce drove change

Bernsdorff's ideal of family crumbled. Experts say killers strive to keep control.

By DEMORRIS A. LEE and LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writers
Published December 23, 2007

Oliver Thomas Bernsdorff wrote of his "breaking point."

Jennifer Davis wrote friends in August that she was confident in her decision to allow Magnus and Olivia to stay with Bernsdorff.

Police investigating the shootings that wiped out an entire family nine days ago acknowledge they may never know what triggered the explosive rampage.

But they have identified some stress points in the life of their prime suspect.

Authorities say Oliver Thomas Bernsdorff, 36, shot himself on Dec. 14, a few hours after a pair of shootings that killed his two children, Olivia, 4, and Magnus, 2, his ex-wife, Jennifer Davis, 27, and her new roommate, Andrea Pisanello, 53.

To close friends, the shootings were a stunning departure from the kind, loving father they thought they knew well.

"I don't want people to assume that he's a bad guy," said Damita Williams, who met Bernsdorff in 1998. "More digging needs to be done before they can just pin this on someone who can't defend himself."

Still, some in Bernsdorff's inner circle have told investigators they began to see a change in him before the shootings.

"He had a different personality since the divorce," Largo police Sgt. John Trebino said. "People described him as withdrawn and depressed."

On Oct. 30, Bernsdorff, a GED teacher for Pinellas County schools, told a friend he was on the edge. "I must tell you that though the children appear to be doing okay, all things considered, I am not," he wrote in an e-mail sent from his computer at work. "I feel this may just be my breaking point, and I struggle daily to keep some kind of balance."

Bernsdorff also told an acquaintance in Clearwater that he would kill his family if he couldn't get them back together, police say. "Unfortunately, he didn't tell the right people," Largo police Chief Lester Aradi said.

He also complained of money problems, Aradi said.

Including his mortgage, he ended his marriage nearly $350,000 in debt. That included $50,000 in credit card bills and $27,000 in back taxes owed to the IRS. Bernsdorff, who was working on a doctorate, also had $168,000 in student loans.

In addition, Bernsdorff, who earned $44,470 a year, had recently started paying $1,000 a month for child care. In their divorce agreement this fall, Davis agreed to pay her ex-husband about $802 a month in child support, but fell $1,800 behind.

In the divorce, which Davis did not contest, Bernsdorff received custody of the couple's children and their Clearwater home.

Attorney James Stearns, who drew up the divorce for Bernsdorff, said the arrangement with the children was "atypical." Other than holidays, there was no structured visitation. All Davis had to do was give a two-hour notice that she wanted to see the children.

In August, Davis sent an e-mail to friends announcing the couple's decision to split up. She acknowledged she was gay and had someone new in her life.

But, she wrote, "I am not leaving my family to go & start a life with anyone else. I am leaving my marriage to finally be myself."

Davis added that "Oliver has recently, too, come to some realizations about himself & his life that are going to make him a better person. He is a wonderful father & I feel confident in my decision to allow Olivia & Magnus to stay in their house with him."

By the time she died, however, Davis had told domestic violence counselors that Bernsdorff had abused her from the start of their eight-year marriage. They said she was working up the strength to seek custody of her children.

Police, who continue to investigate, have not publicly identified any one factor or combination of circumstances as a catalyst for the violence.

"It's just so difficult to say," Trebino said. "Obviously, the marriage didn't end well, and there's the indication that they were in dire financial straits.

"But it's all speculative."

* * *

People who kill their families generally can be divided into two types, said Phillip Resnick, a professor of psychiatry and director of the division of forensic psychiatry at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland.

One type kills for what they come to see as altruistic reasons. The other does it out of a feeling of abandonment.

In cases of the first type, someone loses a job and can't support the family or believes the delusion that their family will be tortured.

"Taking the family to death will be less burdensome," said Resnick, who testified as an expert witness in the cases of Andrea Yeats and Susan Smith, both accused of killing their children.

In cases where a spouse feels rejected or invalidated, Resnick said women are at greatest risk the first two months after separation from a man.

To those killers, "losing them to death is preferable to losing them to desertion," Resnick said. "By wiping the family out, the man has some control over it and is still calling the shots."

And "familicide" typically is a male phenomenon, Resnick said. Women will usually kill themselves and their children but not their husbands. With men, 40 to 65 percent also kill their spouse. A gun is used in 95 percent of all familicides.

* * *

For Bernsdorff, the divorce was wrenching, say friends.

"The biggest thing that upset him was the breakup of his family," said Christopher Samuels of Dunedin. "It wasn't that she left him for a woman. I don't think that was a primary factor in all of this. His world was turned completely upside down and inside out." Samuels emphasized that he does not want to be seen as taking sides, but noted he never saw any signs of abuse in Bernsdorff's marriage.

After the divorce, Bernsdorff told him he was mainly upset that Davis was breaking the "marriage covenant," he said.

Samuels said he last saw Bernsdorff at a gathering at Bernsdorff's home on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

"He was definitely emotional," Samuels said. "He wasn't expecting what happened. He was almost still in a state of disbelief."

Bernsdorff had adored family life, friends said, because of his own barren childhood.

"He was an idealist when it came to family," said Ermin Tabakovich, 27, of Clearwater, who met Bernsdorff in 1999 while taking a GED class.

In a Father's Day speech at his church, the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, Bernsdorff said that as a child he rarely spent time with his workaholic father.

"One day a month, we had this little ritual," Bernsdorff said in June. "It was almost always the same: a movie, a Chinese restaurant, and a bookstore with an almost carte blanche spree on books. But I resented the other 29 days when he was not present to me. At some point, my parents divorced amicably, but I hardly noticed, as the amount of his presence in my life seemed unchanged."

At 13, Bernsdorff's father died. Disillusioned, Bernsdorff dropped two of the names his father had given him at birth, Basil and Schkolnik, and started going by "Tom."

"I was angry - that he had chosen what I perceived to be such a limited role in my life and then chose to booze himself to death, despite his doctor's warnings," Bernsdorff told fellow church members. "Angry that at a time when I really could have benefited from the guidance of a father, he had died. And so then, and in the years to follow, I rejected him and his name."

With his marriage in 1999 and with the birth of his two children, Bernsdorff appeared ready to do everything he could to be the opposite of his own father. He wrote of his devotion to his wife on a family Web site. He composed letters to his children in anticipation of their arrival.

In an October 2002 letter to Olivia, who was born in Dec. 20, 2002, Bernsdorff wrote: "In the world and society in which you are about to enter there is a tendency to identify a person by what they do. Soon my proud answer will be that I am a father - your father."

Those who knew Bernsdorff are still grappling with the idea that the family man they knew could be connected with such a horrific act.

"Oliver was a man who reached the deepest darkest recesses of his mind and soul," Samuels wrote in an e-mail to the Times. "Was he unbalanced to begin with? Yes, it is clear that he was. His actions could not have been those of an otherwise stable man. He felt hopeless, helpless, betrayed by his wife and others, and lost. He had no real faith in God or man."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Demorris A. Lee can be reached at or 727 445-4174. Lorri Helfand can be reached at or (727) 445-4155.

[Last modified December 22, 2007, 22:39:52]

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