Portrait of a troubled man

Published May 2, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

For nine months, prosecutors have tried to build a case that Brian K. Rosenfeld is a sadistic serial killer _ a nurse gone bad who bounced from nursing home to nursing home, murdering as he went. They've scrutinized hundreds of medical files. They've dug up bodies in at least three states. They've salted away a jailhouse informant who says Rosenfeld has admitted to as many as 23 killings.

So far, they have charged him only in one death.

Rosenfeld, 33, has pleaded innocent. He waits without bail in the Pinellas County Jail. As is common in criminal cases, he has refused all interviews.

But acquaintances portray Brian Rosenfeld as a troubled man. Misfortune and poverty marked his childhood. Discord trailed him in later years. Court documents and interviews over the last four months provide these details:

His sickly mother died when he was a teen-ager, leaving him to care for younger brothers and sisters. As a young man, he watched his first steady lover waste away with a rare digestive disease.

Estranged from his family because of his homosexuality, he consistently sought out companions who were many years his senior.

He blamed his mother's Catholicism for weakening her through nine childbirths. Yet after his lover died, he became confirmed in the church and briefly interviewed to become a Franciscan monk.

Where he worked, potent tranquilizers and painkillers disappeared. One friend said he fed tranquilizers to his house plants and once slipped a dose into her coffee as a joke.

Coworkers and acquaintances describe him as callous. One New York man whom Rosenfeld befriended told investigators that Rosenfeld convinced him he had contracted AIDS. For five months, the New York man let Rosenfeld live with him and give him drugs. Later, the man discovered he didn't have AIDS.

"A good boy'

Marie Agnes Rosenfeld was in her early 30s when a rare kidney disease began draining her strength. When doctors suggested a warmer climate, her husband, Lewis, quit his job at a Staten Island institution for the mentally retarded, loaded the family in their car and headed for sunny Florida.

First they moved to the Miami area, where Rosenfeld said he tried to support the family by gambling at the dog track. When that failed, they tried the West Coast.

"Some jerk told me that the cost of living in St. Petersburg was much cheaper then any of the Florida cities," the elder Rosenfeld says. "So I listen to this dummy. The only thing I did find was that rents were cheaper."

In 1969, the Rosenfelds rented a three-bedroom home in Shore Acres. He got a job selling ice cream out of a van and their family grew.

It was a tough time. By 1973, the Rosenfelds were raising nine children, including an infant, on Social Security disability payments.

Things got worse. On Dec. 20, Rosenfeld took his 37-year-old wife to Bayfront Medical Center with a terrible headache. After 11 days, she died.

The youngest, a girl, was only 3 months old. Brian and his sister Debbie became surrogate parents. Neighbors recall Brian often walking down the street lugging a young sibling under each arm.

"Brian was a good boy," his father says. "He helped raise his brothers and sisters. If it wasn't for him and my oldest daughter, this family wouldn't be a family."

The Rosenfeld children played barefoot and dressed in wrinkled, sometimes torn clothing, neighbors said. "They looked like little ragamuffins," said Cleke Lawton.

"They did have an awful childhood," says Lawton. "They used to bring the baby up here and I'd try to mother her as best I could. There were so many children. They just had to shift for themselves and the house was always dirty. . . . I'd give them cookies when they came. Boy would they eat them."

Brian befriended one neighborhood teen-ager who had been severely burned, said David Floener, a childhood friend of Rosenfeld's. While other children were cruel to the boy, Rosenfeld was always kind, Floener said.

"I think the kid was mainly on Brian's level. With his burns, he was kind of made a wallflower. Brian was kind of like a big brother."

Floener said he is baffled by the murder charge against his friend. He said Rosenfeld didn't believe in mercy killing, thinking that new technology could eventually save lives.

"We had talked about living wills," Floener said. "He didn't like them. . . . (Brian's attitude was) just a matter of time before they find a cure."

In the mid-1970s, Lewis Rosenfeld moved his family to Pinellas Park.

Neighbors said the children were well-behaved, but there were troubling signs.

Eric, now 24, was arrested on charges of grand theft, resisting arrest without violence and selling marijuana. He could not be reached for comment.

Lewis, 34, was charged with retail theft, disorderly conduct and attempted burglary. He currently lives in a St. Petersburg boarding home. When contacted about Brian, he said only, "We didn't get along."

Mark, 29, had one teen-age theft arrest and now lives in Largo as a homeowner and family man. He declined to comment about his childhood, except that he grew apart from Brian because of Brian's homosexuality.

Brian Rosenfeld's high school days appear unnoteworty. His yearbooks don't list a single activity. Teachers at Dixie Hollins High School said they can't recall him.

When he enrolled in St. Petersburg Junior College, he made one good friend _ Lee Wade, a widow who had returned to school at age 54.

"I was in the cafeteria, sitting at a table to myself. I felt Brian looking at me," Wade remembered. "He was like a little boy. He was very animated and wanted to talk, talk, talk. We became fast friends."

For 18 months, Rosenfeld drove Wade to school. He seemed attentive, she says, often bringing her a sweet roll and reminding her to put petroleum jelly to her cheeks to make them shiny.

But she also thought he was strange.

"There was no warmth, even though he was so good to me," Wade said. "I'm talking about the warmth that comes from your eyes. You felt something that was inhumane."

Wade said she feels guilty about one turn in Rosenfeld's life. By then 19 or 20, Rosenfeld had told her he was gay but not experienced. She encouraged him to move to New York, where his oldest brother lived. A young man shouldn't be tied down at home, she said.

When he returned a year later, they met again.

"He kept telling me about all these wild parties he went to," Wade said. "I didn't want to hear about my little Brian getting mixed up in these things. He didn't need me. That's the last I saw of him."

By then, Rosenfeld had begun working as an orderly in nursing homes.

Troubling times

"I love taking care of people," he later wrote to state licensing authorities. "So many of these patients in the hospital have not one person in their lives that are willing to listen and talk with them. I sit, talk, listen to my patients."

Some coworkers remember differently.

At Rosedale Manor, on 54th Avenue N, fellow orderly Wesley Cherry said Rosenfeld sometimes snapped patients' catheter tubes and bent their fingers back until they screamed in pain. Another time, Cherry said, Rosenfeld shoved a banana down an elderly man's throat "like a Veg-O-Matic."

When Cherry and another aide complained, Rosenfeld was fired.

In 1981, he was charged with posing as a nurse with a phony license. He also began a stormy, on-and-off friendship with Ernestine Wildfeuer, a nurse 10 years his senior. They were not sexually intimate, she said, but Brian took her out to dinner, was good to her two children and promised to marry her. "We were going to be one big happy family," she says.

Rosenfeld had loved his mother deeply, Wildfeuer says, and would get depressed around Christmas holidays, the anniversary of her death. He also "hated his father with a passion," Wildfeuer says, and was bitter at the Catholic Church for not taking care of the family after his mother's death.

"Brian lost his adolescence," she said.

Rosenfeld often used drugs left over from the nursing home, she said. And he was fascinated with the tranquilizer Mellaril. He used it for plant food and once slipped some into her coffee, Wildfeuer said. "It tasted bitter. I said, "What did you put in here?" He said, Mellaril, and I spat it out."

In 1982, Rosenfeld announced that he had found someone else, Wildfeuer said, and for several years she lost contact with him.

Rosenfeld's new companion was Morris Beauchamp, a mental health counselor 15 years older than Rosenfeld. They had met in New York and lived together in northeast St. Petersburg for several years. According to Beauchamp's brother, the two men had a loving, supportive relationship.

"They were both caring people, and they cared for the people they worked with," said Harold Beauchamp, a Tampa resident.

Morris Beauchamp did the cooking and helped pay the bills while Rosenfeld studied for his nursing degree, Harold Beauchamp said. In 1987, Morris became ill with a rare digestive disease that doctors could not initially diagnose. He would regurgitate food and began to lose weight.

Rosenfeld tended to him at home, but Beauchamp got thinner and weaker. By the time doctors discovered the problem, Beauchamp was too weak for surgery and died.

Meanwhile, Rosenfeld's work troubles continued.

At Greenbrook Nursing Home, Rosenfeld feuded with aides by liberally dispensing laxatives to patients, creating cleanup work for the aides, said nurse Bruce Dibell. Some aides became so angry they spray-painted Rosenfeld's car, Dibell said. Rosenfeld bought a new car and kept it parked nearby at Edward White Hospital to keep the aides from discovering it, Dibell said.

Grace Simon remembers Rosenfeld's 1987 run-ins with her brother Carl Cohen, a Sunshine Village patient who suffered from Lou Gherig's disease. Cohen's mind was sharp, she said, but he couldn't talk. He communicated by pointing to letters on a handboard and spelling out words.

Once, her brother complained that Rosenfeld had taken away his emergency bell, Mrs. Simon says.

Another time, she says, she arrived for a visit and Rosenfeld rushed into the room and said, "I didn't do it." Her brother furiously grabbed the letter board and spelled out, "He's lying." Then he spelled out words accusing Rosenfeld of trying to force a big pill down his throat, Mrs. Simon says. Any pill would have been improper because her brother was taking all nourishment and medication through a feeding tube.

Cohen died shortly after that incident and was cremated, Mrs. Simon said.

Rosenfeld was working at Sunshine when his lover Morris Beauchamp died. Rosenfeld renewed his friendship with Ernestine Wildfeuer, who was working there as a nurse. She was wary, she says, but "I loved him. He would take me out to dinner _ the Brown Derby, CK's, 94th Aerosquadron _ with the kids and spend over $100. When he is good, he can be so good."

When Beauchamp died, Rosenfeld took an interest in Catholicism, Wildfeuer said. He became confirmed in the church, with Wildfeuer as his godmother. He thought about becoming a monk, she said, and sent away for literature. One brother in a Franciscan order traveled from New York to St. Petersburg to interview Rosenfeld.

At the same time, she said, Rosenfeld continued to disdain religion. Several times, she said, he carried a tote bag into the United in Spirit store in Pinellas Park and shoplifted Bibles and religious artifacts. No arrests were made.

Another time, Wildfeuer said, Rosenfeld secretly sprayed-painted Satanic symbols and Die, You Pig on his own apartment building so the landlord would repaint the building a different color.

In late 1988, Rosenfeld was visited by Ken Klein, a friend from New York who became sick. Rosenfeld told coworkers that Klein had AIDS and that Rosenfeld would nurse him in New York.

"Brian said Ken had lots of money and was going to give him money for helping him," Wildfeuer says.

Klein could not be reached for comment, but in his statement to Pinellas Sheriff's Detective Chuck Vaughn, Klein gave this account:

Klein came to Pinellas at New Year's. When he was hospitalized for three days in St. Anthony's Hospital, Rosenfeld convinced him he had suffered a heart attack and had tested positive for AIDS.

After leaving the hospital, Klein stayed with Rosenfeld for five weeks, letting Rosenfeld administer medication. Then the two men moved to Klein's home on Long Island for five months.

Eventually Klein consulted his personal doctor, who said he didn't have AIDS and had not suffered a heart attack.

A suspicious death

After falling out with Klein, Rosenfeld returned to St. Petersburg and began working at Colonial Care nursing home in Kenneth City. In September of 1989, a tipster called state abuse investigators to say that Rosenfeld had killed a 93-year-old stroke victim.

Kenneth City police were alerted and interviewed a nurse's aide who said she saw Rosenfeld inject something into the man's feeding tube.

At noon, the nurse's aide said, Rosenfeld came back in the room, checked the man's eyes and said, "How about that, nice and glassy." Then he laughed, she told police.

That evening, the man died.

Kenneth City police closed their investigation in two days after concluding that the aide held a grudge against Rosenfeld. Neither police nor the medical examiner's office saw any need to perform an autopsy.

Early last year, Rosenfeld moved to Tierra Pines nursing home in Largo, where he was fired for stealing painkillers from patients. Police charged him with theft, which he admitted to, but by then he had already landed another job at Rosedale Manor.

Before long, suspicions and rumors were rampant.

Colleagues accused him of giving patients too many laxatives as retribution against aides he disliked. There were suspicions that he misused medication.

Then on July 29, two aides on the overnight shift called Rosenfeld in to treat 80-year-old Muriel Watts, a comatose patient who was running a fever.

After Rosenfeld put pink Tylenol in her feeding tube, the aides later told police, he did something they had never seen before. He took a large syringe full of brown liquid and shot it into the feeding tube. Some of the liquid splattered on Mrs. Watts' gown and spilled out her mouth.

The aides said Rosenfeld told them Mrs. Watts was hemorrhaging, and that the liquid spilling out was blood. He wrote on her medical chart that she was bleeding from the mouth and had blood in her bowel and urine. A few minutes later, Mrs. Watts was dead.

Shaken, the aides reported the incident to Beverly Dibell, the nurse in charge that night. She retrieved Mrs. Watts' catheter bag from the garbage and found no signs of blood. Within hours, nursing home officials called in the authorities.

An autopsy of Mrs. Watts revealed that she had ingested enough of the tranquilizer Mellaril "to kill a large elephant," authorities said.

On August 23, detectives picked Rosenfeld up at his Gandy Boulevard apartment complex to take him to the sheriff's department for questioning.

According to their report, Rosenfeld had one request as they left. He wanted to leave a key so someone else could enter the apartment.

When they asked why, he said, "In case I get arrested."