A third-grade teacher in South Los Angeles was charged with 23 counts of committing lewd acts on children.
LOS ANGELES — In the fall of 2010, a drugstore photo technician was running a batch of 35-millimeter film when a disturbing image tumbled out of the machine — a child, blindfolded with a white cloth and gagged with clear packing tape. From that first photograph, detectives spent the next year following a trail that led them to a South Los Angeles elementary school.
They say they found an act of staggering depravity.
There were more photos, it turned out — 400 more, traced to an apartment in nearby Torrance, then to a bustling schoolhouse in South Los Angeles. There, officials alleged Tuesday, a veteran third-grade teacher sought sexual gratification by spoon-feeding his semen to his students.
Mark Berndt, 61, a teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in the community of Florence-Firestone, was charged with 23 counts of committing lewd acts on children.
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Additional charges are likely, authorities said: Berndt had taught at Miramonte since 1979, and though test scores indicate that he was an average teacher, he was such a fixture that parents kept in touch with him after their children grew up, frequently inviting him to birthday parties and quinceaneras.
Berndt, who was being held in lieu of $2.3-million bail, regularly told his students that they were going to play a “tasting game,” in which children were blindfolded and, in some cases, gagged with tape, authorities say. The semen appears to have been ingested by the children on a blue plastic spoon and, according to one alleged victim’s father, on cookies.
The alleged victims were boys and girls ages 7 to 10.
“This occurred in his regular classroom with his students,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Dan Scott. “It wasn’t done in secrecy. The only secret was what the ‘game’ was really about.”
Berndt is also accused of placing a 3-inch-long Madagascar cockroach on his students’ faces and mouths.
Much remains unclear about the case. The acts that Berndt is charged with committing took place between 2005 and 2010, though detectives said they were still trying to determine how far back the alleged abuse occurred.
They are also trying to understand why no one — students, parents or fellow teachers — ever reported anything suspicious about Berndt’s class. School officials insist that they received no complaints about Berndt, something they say is alarming given the charges against him.
“I wonder how long he was doing this — and to how many kids,” said Arianna Perez, the mother of two Miramonte students.
Parents were stunned by the revelations. They harbored deep feelings that someone could have done more, earlier, though school officials said they removed Berndt from the classroom immediately upon learning of the criminal investigation, even as detectives remained unconvinced that they could win a conviction in court.
Kimberly Kirklin — a 32-year-old mother of six children, including three now enrolled at the school — was seething with rage. “These are our babies.”
The neighborhood surrounding Miramonte Elementary is one of the poorest in Los Angeles County, peppered with used tire shops, tiny carnicerias decorated with images of Jesus and billboards advertising dentists who will yank a sore tooth for $49. The names of some nearby streets are known best because they have been appropriated by gangs — Avalon Boulevard, Compton Avenue.
Miramonte has struggled academically and is one of the last campuses in the school district to operate year-round because of overcrowding. But it was seen by many in the neighborhood as a refuge — even with gang graffiti covering the walls of an alley next to the tetherball courts.
The school’s yellow and turquoise walls stood out, and students entered each morning through an arched doorway, beneath huge portraits of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. Parents volunteered at the school — and were surprised, on occasion, to learn that their kids were itching to return from school vacations.
“Our beautiful school — this was our community,” Kirklin said. “It’s devastating.”
Kirklin put her arm around one of her daughters, 10-year-old Gia, who refused to go to school Tuesday. Kirklin said that she couldn’t blame her and that she would try to enroll her in another school.
“I’m not going to force her. I can’t bring her back,” Kirklin said.
The case began when the CVS pharmacy photo technician — who was not named by authorities, but was praised for alertness — called the Redondo Beach Police Department about the initial batch of photographs.
According to a school official who reviewed the images, most of the children were photographed one at a time. All were fully clothed. In some cases, the children were smiling, and some of those who were photographed with tape over their mouths are believed to have applied the tape themselves. Some photographs showed a spoon containing a milky liquid; in some images, the liquid could be seen in and around the children’s mouths.
In January 2011, a detective from the sheriff’s Special Victims Unit secretly visited Berndt’s classroom and found a spoon in a trash can that matched the one seen in the photos. That spoon and a small container, also recovered from the trash, tested positive for traces of semen, officials said. Investigators then gathered a DNA sample from Berndt, which matched the DNA contained in the semen, they said.
Days later, detectives served a search warrant on his apartment in Torrance, where they recovered a DVD of adult films portraying scenes of bondage, as well as scores of additional photographs.
Berndt and his sister owned the small apartment complex where he lived, property records show. There, a neighbor described him as nervous and skittish. He was known to take camping trips alone and generally kept to himself, often listening to classical music inside his apartment, another neighbor said.
By early 2011, the school district was aware of the investigation — but the vast majority of parents were not. The district appears to have been in a bind. Law-enforcement officials insisted the school keep the investigation quiet, because they wanted to avoid what one investigator called “cross-contamination” of witness accounts.
It took months for detectives to identify the 23 known victims from the photographs and to interview them and their relatives.
Berndt was arrested Monday at his apartment, and most parents only learned of the case Tuesday, either in a recorded message left on their phones by Principal Martin Sandoval or in a letter sent home with students. Many parents insisted they should have been alerted earlier.
“I don’t understand why it took them a year,” said Jorge Ramirez, whose two children and nieces attended the school.
“At the very least they should have reached out to ask us for forgiveness,” said the father of one alleged victim. The Los Angeles Times is withholding the name of the father to protect the identity of his 11-year-old son.
School officials said they moved on the case swiftly and decisively. Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent. John Deasy said Berndt was removed from his classroom as soon as school officials learned of the investigation and was fired a short time later.
Berndt challenged the firing. But in June, he resigned from the district, which allowed him to keep lifetime health benefits provided by L.A. Unified. He also retains his state teachers pension.
In past instances, teachers accused of misconduct against students were suspended, not fired — and if there were no criminal charges or a conviction, they often returned to work.
In the Berndt case, even if the school’s hands were tied, the duration of the investigation and the suspicion that more victims might be found cast a chill over the neighborhood.
A dark parlor game spread through the streets, as parents huddled under front-yard orange trees and talked through wrought-iron fences, trying to determine if their children had been in Berndt’s class or had any exposure to him. Berndt, they said, was known to lock the door of his classroom while teaching.
Kirklin said she quizzed her three youngest children — the ones who still attend Miramonte — about whether they had ever witnessed any unusual behavior. None had, she said. But Kirklin hadn’t yet gotten around to asking her older children, one of whom said: “I had him.”
“What?” Kirklin erupted. “Why didn’t you say anything”
“He never did anything,” the 15-year-old girl said.
“Are you sure?” Kirklin asked.
Other parents said they were left trying to figure out how to explain the case to their children.
“I’m going to have to talk with them,” said Maria Salazar, the mother of two Miramonte students. “But I don’t have any idea what I’m going to say yet.”
It was unclear Tuesday whether the court had appointed Berndt a defense lawyer. United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union, said it would not be involved in the case and described the charges as “so abhorrent as to be incomprehensible.”
“On this assignment you see a lot of terrible things over the years,” said Scott, the sheriff’s sergeant. “But this is something none of us had seen before.”