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'I am leaving my marriage to finally be myself'

Jennifer Davis reached for the phone.

She no longer could contain feelings she had suppressed for so long.

Yes, she and her husband had what they wanted — children, a girl and a boy. Birthday parties and backyard campouts, songs and games — they did everything as a family.

But Jennifer realized something was missing. Talking about it with her husband just made him angry. He was depressed, drinking heavily. It was getting harder to pretend everything was okay.

How could she walk out now? How could she not?

Crying, she called her mom.

"First of all," Jennifer said, "I'm gay."

• • •

That phone call signaled the end of the apparently happy marriage of Jennifer and Oliver Bernsdorff.

Pattie Davis was sad about the breakup, but not shocked by her daughter's news. Years ago in high school, Jennifer was attracted to girls. Maybe that wasn't a phase.

Senior year, Jennifer wrote a poem about trying to find herself.

I wanted you to love me and I figured you probably loved yourself.

In all that time of marching to your drummer I never remembered why you said you liked me. I do now. It was because I marched to my own.

Then she found Bernsdorff.

Together, they created what seemed a perfect life. Married eight years, they had a beautiful wedding, then later declared their love again in a recommitment ceremony. They posted on their Web site intimate details of their married life and scads of photos, everybody beaming.

But below the surface, the marriage was violent. Now Jennifer was leaving, following her drummer — and leaving her abuser.

Bernsdorff refused to be left behind.

• • •

It was 1998 and Jennifer was 18, a shy senior at Charlotte High School in Port Charlotte. A big fan of singer Ani Defranco, her Yahoo screen name was jennlovesani.

Somewhere in cyberspace, she met a girl her age who lived in Clearwater. In a blip, they became a couple.

Jennifer drove up to see Tiffany Nashick, and Tiffany drove to Port Charlotte to see Jennifer.

Tiffany already had a boyfriend — Oliver Bernsdorff, then 28. She moved into his Clearwater apartment a year earlier after meeting him online.

Jennifer thought Bernsdorff was smart, charming. Weeks after meeting him, she moved in, too.

Jennifer's dad, Lloyd Davis, couldn't believe it. He and Pattie Davis had divorced years before, and Jennifer and her brother, Tim, lived with him through their teens. Now, his little girl, still just 18, was leaving home to live with another girl and a man a decade their senior.

The threesome spent most of their time going to the beach, watching movies, listening to music. They shared the same bed.

"We were one big happy family," Tiffany remembers. "It was a commune type of living.''

But as the months passed, Tiffany started sleeping on the couch. She moved out. Bernsdorff was hitting and kicking her, she says now.

Bernsdorff proposed to Jennifer. They married in June 1999 in a private ceremony. That December, they had a wedding on the pier at the Inn of the Bay in Dunedin. Jennifer wore a lacy white dress. Her mother walked her down the aisle. Jennifer's father, his relationship with his daughter still strained, did not attend.

• • •

Pattie Davis grew fond of Bernsdorff. An adult education teacher, he seemed a hard worker, gregarious, upbeat. She was tickled that he and Jennifer included her in their lives. They even took her on their vacation to Washington, D.C.

On Mother Day's 2002, they were picnicking with Pattie and Bernsdorff's mother, Jutta, at Myakka State Park in Sarasota when Jennifer pulled out a pair of T-shirts.

''Groovy Grandma,'' the shirts said.

Olivia Bernsdorff was born in December at Morton Plant Hospital. Bernsdorff took pictures. Pattie Davis cut the umbilical cord.

Jennifer threw herself into motherhood. She painted Olivia's tiny handprints on a plaster cast she had made of her belly when pregnant. She hung it on the wall of their new home, a ranch-style house on Powderhorn Drive in Clearwater.

She breast-fed Olivia until she was 2 years old and began teaching lactation classes. She encouraged other new mothers to be attachment parents, constantly carrying their babies. She talked up natural child birth, became a believer in homeschooling.

Jennifer didn't work after Olivia arrived. She took art classes online and earned an associate's degree from St. Petersburg College, then a bachelor's degree from the online school Excelsior College.

Bernsdorff, too, continued his schooling, earning a master's from the University of South Florida, then pursing a doctorate. Student loans and other bills mounted. The couple's debt ballooned to $350,000.

Outwardly, the Bernsdorffs seemed unburdened, carefree. They wheeled around in a brightly painted Toyota van they called their "Happy Bus.''

Their son, Magnus, was born Feb. 16, 2005, in a hot tub on the back porch at Powderhorn Drive. Both "groovy grandmas'' were there. Bernsdorff was in the water with his wife. Pictures of the birth soon were up on the couple's Web site.

• • •

Family friends started noticing changes after Magnus' birth. Bernsdorff banned TV, any items related to Disney, fast food.

Jennifer nurtured Magnus, just as she had Olivia. A second belly cast went on the wall.

But there were signs of tension.

Pattie Davis remembers the time little Magnus worked the room, toddling from one family member to another, giving out hugs. When he came to Bernsdorff, the child turned away.

"Daddy mean.''

• • •

In a long e-mail last Aug. 29, Jennifer told family and friends she was gay and leaving Bernsdorff.

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

She and Bernsdorff would get an uncontested divorce, she said, describing him as a "wonderful father.'' She was comfortable allowing him physical custody of Olivia and Magnus.

Not surprised by the break-up was Jennifer's father, Lloyd Davis. He had seen a side of Bernsdorff others had not.

Davis had not talked with his daughter for eight years. But in July, he sent her a birthday wish, a text message saying, "Happy Birthday, little girl.''

This time, she responded. "Thank you. But clearly I'm not a little girl anymore.''

Days later, Davis visited his daughter and son-in-law for the first time. He met his grandchildren.

When Jennifer left the room, Bernsdorff told Davis the marriage was in trouble. He confided he had told Jennifer she could bring a woman into the home if that would keep the family together. Davis just sat there.

Pattie Davis, too, saw troubling changes in Bernsdorff. "He would look at the blue sky and burst out crying,'' she said.

Labor Day weekend, Jennifer moved in to Pattie's apartment in Largo.

She also started dating Andrea Pisanello, 53, a social worker she had met at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Clearwater.

"It was the happiest I've seen her in a long time," Pattie Davis said.

Jennifer got a job at the Hospice of Florida Suncoast, where Andrea worked.

Bernsdorff was not happy. He incessantly phoned Jennifer, asking her to come back.

He told Jennifer and his mother he was battling depression. His mother now says he was "self-medicating'' with alcohol and was in "extreme emotional pain."

"He wanted his family," Jutta Bernsdorff said. "It was all he wanted in life. His dream of a family was broken. The most important figure is the mother figure and that was gone."

• • •

Jennifer stopped by the Powderhorn Drive home one Thursday evening in October to put the children to bed. As she left the bedroom, Bernsdorff shoved her against the wall. He put his forearm against her throat and angrily told her she upset the children by leaving. Jennifer freed herself and left.

She showed her mother the bruise on her arm. Pattie Davis never thought of her son-in-law as abusive.

"Mom, it's not the first time," Jennifer said.

Lloyd Davis heard about the incident and told Jennifer to report it to police and stay away from the house. Her brother Tim, who lives in Kentucky, told her to get a gun.

Jennifer kept trying to move forward. In late October she moved into a Largo apartment with Andrea. The next month, she got a new driver's license, changing her name from Bernsdorff back to Davis.

On Nov. 27, Jennifer called her brother again. Bernsdorff had just kicked her in the parking lot of a Clearwater McDonald's after she dropped off the children.

Go to the police, Tim told her. She didn't, but she sent Tim a text message: "You are the best brother ever. I love you and I'm sorry if we ever were wrong. I'm more grateful for you than you will ever know."

It was the last time he heard from Jennifer.

• • •

By December, Jennifer was scared but hopeful. She was planning Olivia's fifth birthday celebration. She bought a turtle pinata, stuffed it with candy. She had ornaments for the children to paint, games for them to play.

On Dec. 12, she met with a Largo police domestic violence counselor who gave her pamphlets about the importance of being safe around the holidays, when emotions run high.

At a domestic violence support group meeting the next night, she shook as she discussed her abusive marriage. The group ended their meeting with a raffle. Jennifer won. Her prize: a Christmas tree. The group facilitator helped Jennifer carry it to her car. She urged Jennifer to get a restraining order against Bernsdorff.

That day, Bernsdorff picked up a 9mm pistol at Clearwater Pawn and Loan.

• • •

The morning of Dec. 14, Bernsdorff drove to the Monterey Lakes apartment complex in Largo. Dressed all in black, he removed a screen from the window of apartment 2113 and climbed in, passing Andrea's 4-year-old daughter, Annie Rose, asleep on the living room floor.

He shot Jennifer seven times and Andrea twice.

Later that morning, police found the dead bodies of Olivia and Magnus in the bedroom of the Powderhorn Drive home.

Bernsdorff shot himself after he was pulled over by a Florida Highway Patrol trooper driving south on Interstate 275 near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

In February, Jennifer's family planted a white orchid tree at Largo Central Park in memory of Jennifer, Olivia and Magnus. A plaque at the base says "Live, Love, Laugh."

Pattie and Lloyd Davis are in therapy to help them make sense of the tragedy. Their daughter was so close to finally having everything she wanted. Now she was gone, along with the children she loved so much.

"She did everything she could to live the American dream," Lloyd Davis said. "But ultimately, she had to be who she was. & It cost her her life."

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

The Davis family is establishing a support group for families affected by domestic violence. To contact them, e-mail rememberjennandthekids@gmail.com.

'I am leaving my marriage to finally be myself' 04/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 11:48am]
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