In this undated police booking photo released by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department shows former Los Angeles teacher Mark Berndt, 61, who was arrested for felony molestation of 23 kids after photos surfaced. Berndt been charged with committing lewd acts with 23 boys and girls ages 7 to 10. AP Photo/ Los Angeles Sheriff's Department)
Authorities Reveal Past Complaint About LA Teacher
by Greg Risling
Los Angeles, CA (AP) - Deputies recommended in 1994 that an attempted fondling charge should be filed against a teacher now suspected of taking bondage-style photographs of children in his class, but prosecutors refused, saying there wasn't enough evidence, authorities disclosed Thursday.
The investigation came after a 10-year-old girl claimed elementary school teacher Mark Berndt reached toward her genitals during class and she pushed his hand away, sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott said.
The details of the 18-year-old case and other claims by two former students about strange behavior by Berndt surfaced just three days after his arrest.
The allegations raised further questions about why he wasn't disciplined by school officials, who have been lambasted by some parents for waiting a year to reveal Berndt was suspected of photographing children for sexual thrills.
Only parents of children identified as victims were told by authorities about the most recent investigation.
School officials and investigators said proper procedures were followed to investigate and build a case against the teacher.
Scott said the incident involving the 10-year-old occurred in September 1993 but wasn't reported by the girl's mother to officials at Miramonte Elementary School until the following January.
The Los Angeles Times said the girl realized the teacher's behavior was wrong and came forward to her mother after seeing an "Oprah" show about inappropriate touching.
School officials notified the Sheriff's Department, and the results of the investigation were sent to prosecutors with a recommendation to pursue a charge of committing a lewd act on a minor under the age of 14, Scott said.
"Based on what I read, it was a thorough and complete investigation," said Scott, who noted the investigator who handled the case has retired.
Sandi Gibbons, a district attorney spokeswoman, said in a statement the case was rejected because there was insufficient evidence to prove a crime had occurred. The statement did not elaborate.
Berndt denied the allegation at the time.
Earlier, two women who said they were former students of Berndt told the Times that complaints were made about his odd behavior as far back as 1990.
Marlene Trujillo, 30, said she and two other fourth-grade classmates told a school counselor that Berndt often moved his hands under his desk, near his lap, at the front of the classroom.
Trujillo said the counselor "just told us it's not very good to make stories up. She said it was our imagination. It was never talked about again."
Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. John Deasy told the newspaper he was struggling to determine how the alleged behavior went undetected for so long.
"How do I make sense out of the fact that this took place over a number of years and no one seemed to know about that?" Deasy said. "I'm definitely trying to understand how someone could not have known."
Berndt, 61, remained jailed on $23 million bail on felony charges of committing lewd acts on 23 boys and girls, ages 6 to 10, between 2005 and 2010. He could face multiple life sentences if convicted.
Using a cheap camera, Berndt is suspected of snapping nearly 400 photographs of Miramonte students, some with a giant Madagascar cockroach from a classroom terrarium on their faces.
Others were blindfolded or had clear tape over their mouths, and some were given sperm-laced cookies to eat as treats in the photo sessions that were treated like games, Scott said.
Some of Berndt's students defended him, saying he was a kind and generous teacher.
Angelica Zuniga, 16, now a high school junior was in third grade in 2003 when she had Berndt as a teacher. She said he never asked her or others to do anything strange or to play any inappropriate games.
"They're calling him `monster.' He's just not that kind of person," Zuniga said. "He was one of the most amazing teachers out there. He's dedicated his life to us and I want to stick up for him."
The latest investigation of Berndt began in the fall of 2010 when a film processor became suspicious about the photographs and turned them over to Redondo Beach police, who on Dec. 2, 2010, handed them over to the Sheriff's Department, Scott said.
Berndt, who taught at Miramonte for more than 30 years ago, was removed from classwork in January 2011 and fired within the month.
Associated Press writers Robert Jablon and Raquel Maria Dillon contributed to this report.
Los Angeles Teacher Charged with Molesting 23 Kids
Los Angeles, CA (AP) - Detectives say an elementary school teacher told the children it was a game, but once inside his third-grade classroom, he blindfolded them, gagged them and set cockroaches crawling on their faces.
And then, Mark Berndt photographed them, creating hundreds of images that would eventually lead to his arrest.
On Tuesday, Berndt, 61, was sitting in jail on charges that he committed lewd acts on 23 boys and girls, ages 6 to 10, between 2008 and 2010. None of them complained about Berndt's behavior, authorities said.
Police and school officials only learned of it when a film processor found Berndt's photos more than a year ago. Since the discovery, the school district fired Berndt and police put him under surveillance.
"If it wasn't for the film processor, this could still be continuing today," said Lt. Carlos Marquez of the Los Angeles County sheriff's department.
Berndt was arrested Monday at his home in Torrance and was being held on $2.3 million bail.
Some parents picking up their pre-kindergarteners at the school on Tuesday complained that officials at Miramonte Elementary School in South Los Angeles should have notified them when the photos were found.
"My concern is why, if the principal knew this in advance, why didn't he inform us?" said Gloria Polanco, the mother of a second- and a third-grader. "How long has he been doing this?"
The probe began after the film processor, who is required by state law to report suspicions of child abuse and molestation, turned over some 40 photographs to authorities.
About 400 photos were found at Berndt's home and at the photo lab during subsequent searches. It's not clear how many different children were pictured. At least 10 youngsters in the photos have not yet been identified.
Some photos showed Berndt with his arm around children or his hand over their mouths. Some photos showed children with live bugs the size of hissing cockroaches on their mouths or faces.
Others depicted girls with what appears to be a spoon up to their mouths as if they were going to ingest a clear-white liquid. Children were fed Berndt's semen from a spoon or on cookies, Marquez said.
Kids reported being fed something distasteful. A blue plastic spoon and container found in the trash in his classroom tested positive for his semen, authorities said.
Police recommended the children in the photos be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. There also may be more victims given the length of time that Berndt taught at the school, Marquez said.
Authorities could have arrested Berndt on misdemeanor charges when the investigation began but chose to build a stronger felony case, Marquez said. He could get a life sentence if he is convicted.
At first, neither the parents nor the children believed they had been molested, so there wasn't much reaction, according to sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore. It was only after the matter of the semen was raised that they became alarmed.
Berndt, who has no previous arrest record, was placed under surveillance and is not believed to have had contact with children during the investigation. The childless bachelor lives a few blocks from two parks and an elementary school.
As for surveillance of Berndt, Whitmore said, "It was routine. It wasn't 24-7. We knew his whereabouts."
The incidents occurred during school hours but not all the children were his students, Marquez said.
"The reason some of the kids are not his students, per se, is that during the lunch breaks or recess, he'd go out to the playground and entice them back to the classroom," Marquez said.
"They didn't know they were being violated in that manner," he said. "They just thought it was a game."
Berndt was a teaching assistant in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1976 and 1977 and he began teaching at Miramonte in 1979, according to a district work history obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
Berndt had no disciplinary actions on file and performed up to standards in his last five evaluations over the last decade, according to the document.
Miramonte Principal Martin Sandoval said he wanted to express his sympathy to the children's families.
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy said in a statement that he was notified of the investigation last January and removed Berndt from the classroom the same day. The school board then fired him, he said.
While Berndt may be long gone from the school, the incident has left its mark.
"My children won't be coming back here," said Kimberly Kirklin, whose teenage daughter was in Berndt's class three years ago. "He preyed on our innocents. He tainted a whole neighborhood."
Berndt is scheduled for an arraignment Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court. He has hired a lawyer and has made no statements to authorities, Whitmore said.
Associated Press writer Raquel Maria Dillon in Los Angeles and Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch contributed to this report.