A former South Los Angeles-area elementary school teacher who allegedly took photos of blindfolded and gagged students with a roach on their faces or spoons of semen held to their mouths pleaded not guilty today to charges of committing lewd acts on nearly two dozen children.
Mark Henry Berndt, 61, is due back in court March 28 for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for him to stand trial. Berndt, who taught for more than 30 years at Miramonte Elementary, remains jailed in lieu of $23 million bail.
Berndt, who was arrested at his Torrance home Jan. 30, is charged with 23 counts of committing a lewd act on a child between 2005 and 2011. The charges involve 23 children who were 7 to 10 years old, according to the District Attorney's Office.
Berndt was the first of two former Miramonte teachers to be charged within less than a week of each other. Martin Springer, 49, was charged with three felony counts of lewd act upon a child involving one girl, and is free on $300,000 bail while awaiting his next court appearance April 16.
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy said Berndt was removed from the classroom when the allegations arose in January 2011. The school board quickly moved to fire him, but Berndt challenged his dismissal. He and the LAUSD eventually reached a settlement.
The superintendent said he was ``sickened and horrified'' by the behavior attributed to Berndt and has made crisis counselors available to the children and their families ever since the investigation began.
Sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott said the investigation began more than a year ago when a film processor turned over more than 40 photographs of children in a classroom with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered in tape. Some pictures showed Berndt with his arm around the children or with his hand over their mouths, he said.
According to the Sheriff's Department, 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." Authorities said there are also photos of children with a large live Madagascar-type cockroach on their faces and mouths.
Sheriff's officials said detectives found a blue plastic spoon and an empty container in a trash bin in Berndt's classroom. Both items tested positive for semen, and DNA testing matched it to Berndt, according to the Sheriff's Department.
Deputies also served a search warrant at Berndt's home, where they found more than 100 photos depicting children and similar to the batch of pictures initially turned over to authorities, 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 a 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.
More than 80 current and former students and school employees were interviewed during the investigation.
Berndt could face up to life in prison if convicted of the charges.
Read more at My Fox LA.