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Bernsdorff's twisted letter plots family's murders

On Dec. 6, Oliver Thomas Berns­dorff sat down at the computer in his Clearwater home and laid out a chilling plan to murder his family.

In the letter, he said he and his ex-wife, Jennifer Davis, 27, had "sociopathic tendencies" that had conditioned their preschool children to be "future time bombs."

"It is in the best interest of society and follows natural law that the aberrations — Jennifer, the progeny and myself included — be eliminated," Berns­dorff wrote.

"The children are beautiful, and were lovely, peaceful creatures, but have now been conditioned/traumatized into future time bombs," he added. "Though this act may be viewed as depraved and evil, it does, in fact, leave the world a better place.''

Bernsdorff's letter, released Tuesday by Largo police, offered the first glimpse into the mind of a man who killed his own children: Olivia, 4, and Magnus, 2.

Also included in his grisly plan was the murder of his ex-wife's new girlfriend, Andrea Pisanello, 53, and his own suicide.

In other letters and notes he wrote before the Dec. 14 murders, Bernsdorff, 36, described his rage, desperation over financial problems, past alcohol abuse and mental health problems that included a diagnosed bipolar disorder.

Bernsdorff, who taught GED classes for Pinellas County schools, also said he and his wife had committed crimes such as income tax evasion, drug use and getting a false driver's license. He did not mention the child pornography police later found on his home computer.

"The battle between good and evil, so to speak, within me is over, and I recognize the fall-out from my past," Bernsdorff wrote in a letter to his brother. "Feel check-mated and left with little options. I want to be a good man. I want to live an honest life. I want to teach my children about character, but I think I may have just screwed this up to the point of not being able to fix it."

Bernsdorff's explanation for the murders stunned Jennifer's father, Lloyd Davis, 54.

"I'm thoroughly convinced that he was a sociopath," said Davis, who lives in Port Charlotte. "It made me sick to see what we saw. I'm almost speechless."

Jennifer's mother, Pattie Davis, said in an interview last month that she still couldn't understand why Bernsdorff had killed Olivia and Magnus.

"I can't believe how somebody who says how wonderful his children were and such amazing human beings they were, how he could do this," said Pattie Davis, 53. "If all he wanted to do is hurt Jenn, why did he have to do this to the kids?"

Bernsdorff's mother, Jutta Berns­dorff, said she didn't want to discuss the information released by police.

"I know my son, I know what happened," she said. "I knew Jenn, and I think I want my son to be at peace and I want our family to be able to mourn without any outside sensationalism."

Tampa forensic psychologist Sidney Merin, who said he has examined roughly 650 murderers or suspected murderers, said the Bernsdorff writings are those of a grossly unhinged man.

Bernsdorff appeared to loathe himself from an early age and clearly exhibited antisocial tendencies, Merin said. He also showed signs of being psychotic and delusional, Merin added.

That combination allowed Bernsdorff to take truths about himself and falsely project them onto others.

"It's not me, it's them," Merin said of Bernsdorff's attitude. "So by golly, what I plan to do is just fine."

Largo police, who led a multi-agency investigation of the murders, also released new details about the shootings, including information about Bernsdorff's abusive behavior leading up to the shootings and a more complete chronology of events.

Shortly after 6 a.m. the morning of the shootings, Bernsdorff appeared on a surveillance video at the Dodge Store in Dunedin trying to buy beer. Apparently unsuccessful, he went to his mother's house in Clearwater and took beer from the refrigerator.

Bernsdorff then went to the Monterey Lakes Apartment on Ulmerton Road in Largo. Dressed all in black, he removed a screen from the window of Apartment 2113 and climbed inside.

Inside, Bernsdorff walked by Pisanello's 4-year-old daughter, who was asleep on the living room floor, and into the bedroom. He shot Pisanello twice and Davis seven times as they lay in bed.

Bernsdorff's children were killed at the family's home on Powderhorn Drive in Clearwater. Each had been shot more than once. Clearwater police said they couldn't determine whether Berns­dorff killed the children before or after he killed his ex-wife.

About 10:30 a.m., a Florida Highway Patrol trooper began to tail Bernsdorff's van after receiving 911 calls about an erratic driver on Interstate 275 near the Sunshine Skyway.

Near Exit 5, the van plunged into thick mangroves alongside the road. Inside, authorities found Bernsdorff dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the right temple. An autopsy showed he had a blood-alcohol level of .16 percent, twice the level at which Florida law presumes someone to be impaired.

The murders followed the breakup of Bernsdorff's eight-year marriage to Davis and an escalating pattern of violence against her.

In August, Bernsdorff filed for divorce. Desperate to leave what she told others was an abusive relationship, Davis did not contest the divorce, and he received custody of the children. After the split, according to family members, he kicked her and pinned her to a wall, his forearm across her throat.

But she was gathering her strength, counselors said, to try to get her children back. The night before the shootings, the facilitator of a domestic violence group urged Davis to get a restraining order against Berns­dorff. He killed her less than 12 hours later.

Bernsdorff talked to the same support group facilitator and blamed his ex-wife for his troubles, including money problems. He left the marriage $350,000 in debt. That included his mortgage, plus $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.

Beneath Bernsdorff's body in the van, authorities found one last handwritten note. He wrote, "The events of today are a direct result of &" and then went on to divide the blame between himself and his ex-wife.

Among his list of reasons: fear, lust, stress, dishonesty and rage.

Times staff writers Will Van Sant, Mike Donila and Eileen Schulte contributed to this report.

>>fast facts

Time line

Aug. 29: Jennifer Davis sends an e-mail to friends and family members announcing that she's gay and leaving her husband, Oliver Bernsdorff.

Oct. 26: Davis and her new girlfriend, Andrea Pisanello, move in together at the Monterey Lakes Apartments in Largo.

Oct. 30: Bernsdorff sends an e-mail to a friend telling him he's on the edge: "I must tell you that though the children appear to be doing okay, all things considered, I am not. I feel this may just be my breaking point, and I struggle daily to keep some kind of balance."

Dec. 6: Bernsdorff writes a letter on his computer laying out his plan to kill his wife, her girlfriend and the two children.

Dec. 12: Davis speaks to a domestic violence specialist at the Largo Police Department to develop a safety plan.

Dec. 14, 6:08 a.m.: Bernsdorff is seen on a video at the Dodge Store in Dunedin, trying to buy beer.

6:08-6:30 a.m.: Bernsdorff is at his mother's house to take beer from the refrigerator.

6:35 a.m.: A witness at Monterey Lakes Apartments sees a man dressed in black walking near the apartment Davis shares with Pisanello.

6:41 a.m.: Multiple gunshots are heard coming from Apartment 2113.

6:47 a.m.: Largo police arrive and find Annie Pisanello, 4, crying. Davis and Andrea Pisanello are in bed, dead of multiple gunshots.

7:22 a.m.: Bernsdorff calls a family friend and tells her not to pick up his children, Olivia and Magnus, for school because he is keeping them home to do "something fun."

10:07 a.m.: Clearwater police arrive at Bernsdorff's residence at 2068 Powderhorn Drive and find Olivia and Magnus dead.

10:26 a.m.: A Florida Highway Patrol trooper attempts to pull over Bernsdorff, who is driving erratically on Interstate 275 heading south toward the Sunshine Skyway. Bernsdorff swerves off the road into a thicket of mangroves. He is later pronounced dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Bernsdorff's twisted letter plots family's murders 04/01/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 4, 2008 10:02am]
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