A former South Los Angeles-area elementary school teacher who allegedly took photos of blindfolded and gagged students with roaches on their faces or spoons of semen held to their mouths was in custody Tuesday, facing multiple charges of committing lewd acts on nearly two dozen children.
Mark Henry Berndt, 61, who taught for more than 30 years at Miramonte Elementary School, was arrested Monday at his Torrance home and jailed in lieu of $2.3 million bail, according to the Sheriff's Department.
As more information about the teacher was unveiled Tuesday, one neighbor told the Los Angeles Times he saw Berndt riding a tandem bicycle along the waterfront in Hermosa Beach with a young girl, adding that he also frequently saw Berndt on the , “drinking beer and gawking at girls,” according to the Times.
Berndt was charged Monday with 23 counts of committing a lewd act on a child, said Jane Robinson of the District Attorney's Office. Authorities believe 23 children were involved.
Berndt is scheduled to appear Wednesday at the Metropolitan Branch Courthouse in Los Angeles for arraignment.
The 23 criminal counts involve children 7-10 years old, who were allegedly abused between 2008 and 2010, according to detectives.
Berndt was fired from Miramonte, located at 1400 E. 68th St., after an investigation began early last year.
LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy said Berndt was immediately removed from the classroom when allegations arose last year in January, and he was fired at the next school board meeting.
“I am sickened and horrified by the behavior of Mark Berndt,” Deasy said. “This individual and his conduct do not reflect on the quality of the teachers who work so hard on behalf of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.”
Sheriff's Department Sgt. Dan Scott said the investigation began more than a year ago when a Redondo Beach film processor gave more than 40 photographs of children in a classroom, with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered in tape, to the .
The RBPD turned over the photos and the investigation to the Sheriff's Department in December 2010, after officers discovered where Berndt taught, the Times reported.
Some of the pictures showed Berndt with his arm around the children or with his hand over their mouths, Scott said.
Some of the photographs “depicted girls with what appeared to be a blue plastic spoon, filled with an unknown clear/white liquid substance, up to their mouths as if they were going to ingest the substance. There are also photos of children with large live Madagascar-type cockroaches on their faces and mouths,” according to the Sheriff's Department.
Sheriff's officials noted that detectives found a blue plastic spoon and an empty container from the trash in Berndt's classroom. Both items tested positive for semen, and DNA testing matched it to Berndt, according to the Sheriff's Department.
More than 80 current and former students and school employees were interviewed during the investigation.
Deputies also served a search warrant on Berndt's home, and found more than 100 other similar photographs depicting children, Scott said.
“Also recovered was a DVD of film depicting adult sexual bondage activity which mirrored the bondage type photos of the children,” according to the Sheriff's Department statement. “The adults in the bondage were not identified, and the images in that video are not a crime.''
Scott said detectives later found about 250 other photos at the film-processing business. More than 26 children were identified in the 390 total photos, but about 10 of them have not been identified.
Deasy said crisis counselors have been provided to the victims and their families since the investigation began.
“The district takes each and every reported act of criminal and administrative misconduct seriously, and we will continue to aggressively pursue each case to determine the truth of the matter, and initiate the appropriate disciplinary measures,” Deasy said. “The district's efforts remain with ensuring that the victims and families in this case continue to receive the necessary support from LAUSD moving forward.”
Miramonte principal Martin Sandoval called the case “an unfortunate incident that has occurred at our school, and I'd like to express my deepest sympathy to the families of those victims.”
Anyone knowing the identity of other possible victims during Berndt's tenure at the school was urged to call the sheriff's Special Victims Bureau at 877-710-LASD or Crime Stoppers at 800-222-TIPS.
Patch editors Jacqueline Howard and Nicole Mooradian contributed to this report.