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Girl full of questions after surviving Largo shooting rampage

Andrea Pisanello holds Annie in this photo taken last year at the Lowry Park Zoo. Since the shootings, Annie has been in therapy.

Courtesy of Megan Szczepanik

Andrea Pisanello holds Annie in this photo taken last year at the Lowry Park Zoo. Since the shootings, Annie has been in therapy.

LARGO — Four months later, the 4-year-old who survived Oliver Bernsdorff's shooting rampage is a bit taller, but she remains every inch the angelic preschooler.

Dressed in brown shorts and a pink blouse, the blond girl giggled as she slid barefoot on the hardwood floor Thursday night.

"I'm surfing," Annie Rose Pisanello said.

Moments later, she said the kind of thing that reminds her mother how much innocence her daughter lost on Dec. 14.

"I forgot who shot Dre and Jen," she said.

"You forgot about Dre and Jen?" asked her mother, Megan Szczepanik.

"No, I don't know who shot them."

"You don't know who shot them?"

"I forget."

"Was it Oliver?"

"I just forgot."

• • •

That may be a good thing.

About 6:30 a.m. that day, Berns­dorff, 36, walked right by the spot in the living room where Annie had been sleeping. He went into the bedroom where Andrea Pisanello — the woman Annie had known as her other mom — was with her new girlfriend, Bernsdorff's ex-wife.

Bernsdorff shot and killed both Pisanello, 53, and Jennifer Davis, 27. Several miles away, he also shot his two children — Olivia and Magnus, 4 and 2 — at his home in Clearwater. And later, he killed himself.

That morning, Annie was at the apartment because Pisanello was Szczepanik's ex-partner. Szczepanik is Annie's biological mother. Pisanello was Annie's other parent.

Bernsdorff spared Annie, who has since been in therapy with a psychologist.

"She has done amazingly well," said Szczepanik, 32, a licensed clinical social worker at the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast.

In the weeks after the murders, Annie spoke incessantly to Szczepanik about what she had seen.

Bernsdorff walked by her on his way to the bedroom, Annie told her.

Annie had known him since she was a baby because Szczepanik, Pisanello and Annie attended church with Bernsdorff, Davis and their two children at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Clearwater.

That's why Annie was not afraid when she heard the gunshots, Szczepanik figures.

After Bernsdorff left, Annie wanted to go to the bathroom.

She called for "Dre" — Andrea.

When Pisanello did not come, Annie cried. She walked to the bed and shook Pisanello.

Largo police arrived minutes later. Annie helped officers identify Bernsdorff, his van, Davis and Pisanello. By 10 a.m., she led them to Szczepanik's home.

"Remember how you were so smart, and you told them where Mommy lived?" Szczepanik asked Annie Thursday night.

"Yes, Mommy," Annie answered.

Largo detectives credited Annie with saving them investigative time, Szczepanik said.

When Annie came to Szczepanik's home later on the day of the murder, she threw up.

A few days later, they both went to Racine, Wis., for Pisanello's funeral.

Szczepanik told Annie that they were going to say good-bye to Pisanello's body because she did not need it anymore.

She added that Pisanello would look as if she was sleeping in a special bed.

Annie put a Care Bear, Sleepy Bear, in the coffin.

• • •

Back in Largo, Annie had nightmares, Szczepanik said.

She was afraid of the police and of yellow tape. She asked whether the door and the windows were locked.

She constantly checked to make sure Szczepanik was nearby.

She asked Szczepanik to draw pictures of how a bullet killed her mother.

Szczepanik drew pictures of a bullet piercing a heart and a lung.

Annie drew her own pictures showing Pisanello with blood around her mouth.

Szczepanik wanted to know how much of the murder scene Annie had seen. So one day she went to the apartment about 6:40 a.m.

It was fairly dark, Szczepanik said. But Pisanello would have left a light on somewhere in the apartment because Annie could not sleep in total darkness.

Szczepanik also looked at crime scene photos. They showed Pisanello with blood around her mouth.

• • •

"One day out of the blue," Szczepanik said, Annie made a comment that made her mom think Bernsdorff may have spoken to the girl in the apartment.

"She said, 'I know why Oliver didn't shoot me,' " Szczepanik said. "I said, 'Why, honey?' And she said, 'Because Oliver loves children, and Oliver loves me.' "

Szczepanik has not told her that Oliver killed his own children.

"Her security was believing that she was safe because she was a child," Szczepanik said.

"To have to explain to her that Oliver killed her friends," Szczepanik said. "There will come a time when we tell her, but not now. I've told myself that if she asks me, I'll tell her the truth."

Szczepanik laments that Annie lost Pisanello, who had dreamed of legally adopting Annie one day.

Pisanello had a candle that she lit when she missed her own deceased mother.

Two weeks ago, Annie wanted to get that candle out and light it. That day, she and Szczepanik gathered up pictures of Pisanello.

They scattered them around the living room.

Annie brought out books.

"I want to read to Mommy," she said.

Jose Cardenas can be reached at jcardenas@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4224.

Girl full of questions after surviving Largo shooting rampage 04/04/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 8, 2008 1:34pm]
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