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Few believed warnings before father's deadly rampage

Oliver Thomas Bernsdorff began acting strangely in the days before murdering his family, dressing all in black and sometimes wearing robes and head wrappings.

The odd behavior prompted his co-workers with the Pinellas County School District to start referring to him as "Taliban Tom."

While many acquaintances expressed shock over Bernsdorff's actions in the days after the grisly killing rampage, police documents released over the last two days suggest he was becoming increasingly unhinged.

Bernsdorff, 36, told several friends he was depressed and had been diagnosed as bipolar. They said he was distraught by his recent divorce from Jennifer Davis, 27, and some expressed fear he could do something dramatic.

But no one expected the events of Dec. 14, when Berns­dorff murdered Davis and her new girlfriend, Andrea Pisanello, 53, in their Largo apartment. He also killed his two children, Olivia, 4, and Magnus, 2, before shooting himself.

According to the police documents:

• Bernsdorff dated a woman he met online during the final three months of his life. After an incident where he kicked his ex-wife while picking up the children from a visitation, he became paranoid that police would come for him, according to the girlfriend, Melissa Redding. At one point, he also told her that he had two options: to take the children and flee the country, or to kill them, his ex-wife, her new girlfriend and himself.

• The day Bernsdorff picked up the 9mm semiautomatic pistol used in the murders, he declined the pawn shop owner's offer of a gun lock and pamphlet on gun safety and children, leaving them both on the counter.

• Bernsdorff, a GED teacher in Pinellas County for 13 years, was disliked by his co-workers and apparently hated women, according to a school district employee interviewed by police.

• Bernsdorff told one of his co-workers that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder about a year ago. A doctor put him on medication, but Bernsdorff didn't like the way it made him feel and stopped taking it after three weeks, she said.

Bernsdorff also told the co-worker, Nancy Hopp, he had been abusive toward his ex-wife about two months before the murders. He said he picked her up by the neck and carried her out of the house by the throat when she refused to leave.

She told Clearwater police she was expecting "drama" from Bernsdorff but thought he would simply lock himself up for treatment.

• In September, Bernsdorff told Deanna Michael, a University of South Florida professor who was on his doctoral committee, that he was on medication for depression. Bernsdorff told her the depression started a year ago when his family was having financial problems.

The revelations raised questions about why no one tried to intervene or report Bernsdorff to the police before the murders.

Pattie Davis, Jennifer Davis' mother, said she didn't think anyone took Bernsdorff seriously.

"Everyone knew he had been depressed and that he was having a hard time with the divorce," said Pattie Davis, 53. "I never thought he would ever, ever harm the kids. I'm sure everyone who heard the threats thought they were idle boasts."

But the people closest to Jennifer Davis and Pisanello urged them to use caution.

Megan Szczepanik, 32, Pisanello's former partner and the mother of a 4-year-old child they had together, voiced concerns about her safety. She asked Pisanello to move back in with her and suggested Davis find a shelter.

"I asked (Pisanello) if she truly ever felt they were in danger," Szczepanik said Wednesday. "But the extent of the violence, it's nothing I would have thought possible."

Perhaps most chilling was Bernsdorff's behavior in the days leading up to the murders. After weeks of agitation and paranoia, Bernsdorff became eerily calm, Redding told police. On Dec. 11, they met for dinner. Bernsdorff told her: "It's like a switch or something clicked and I feel right."

At 6:48 the night before the murders, he talked with Redding on the telephone.

He told Redding that he "can't continue to live his life afraid."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

Few believed warnings before father's deadly rampage 04/02/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 3, 2008 2:01pm]
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