LOS ANGELES – The investigation into a former third-grade teacher charged with committing lewd acts on students could be hampered by the flood of civil cases related to the scandal and public statements made by alleged victims, according to Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives.
Investigators told the Los Angeles Times (http://lat.ms/zGXadU) they are concerned that Mark Berndt's defense team could use statements by alleged victims and their attorneys to point out inconsistencies and to suggest that they have a financial motive for accusing the teacher.
The charges against Berndt, 61, were made public Jan. 31. He faces 23 counts of lewd acts upon children, ages 6 to 10. Since the charges were announced, civil attorneys say they are representing more than 60 victims, the Times reported. Earlier this week two alleged victims appeared with their attorney on the "Dr. Phil" television show.
"The lawyers are making it that much more difficult," William McSweeney, chief of detectives for the Sheriff's Department, told the newspaper. "It is going to raise issues of credibility."
The civil attorneys have made claims about Berndt that are not contained in the original charges, including some accusations — repeated on "Dr. Phil" — that Berndt fed the alleged victims cookies with his semen on them.
Investigators say that although they suspect Berndt fed his semen to some students during "tasting games," they have no evidence to prove it.
Last week, one attorney suggested that another teacher at Miramonte was involved in the Berndt case. The department took the unusual step of publicly stating the teacher was not a suspect in the case.
Berndt's attorney has declined requests to discuss the case.
The civil attorneys say new alleged victims are continuing to come forward. Detectives are still investigating and are urging families to contact the Sheriff's Department before seeking private counsel.
In interviews with the Times over the past two weeks, plaintiffs' attorneys and some parents are have provided details and added new allegations that go well beyond the criminal complaint.
Prosecutors have the advantage of physical evidence, in the form of hundreds of photographs that Berndt allegedly took of his students.
At least two families said they were so disturbed by the photos that they raised concerns at the school. But there is little indication that the children complained about what was going on in Berndt's classroom.
"It's a grotesque form of eroticism," attorney Matthew McNicholas, who represents six alleged victims, told the Times. "That's why, for the most part, it doesn't register with these kids. . They just don't know how to comprehend it."
Meanwhile, superintendent John Deasy sent a video message to all 85,000 employees of the LA Unified School District, saying the allegations at Miramonte don't diminish their work.
"Just because a few members have done terrible things," Deasy said in the video posted Saturday by the LA Daily News, "that does not reflect on the amazing teachers, leadership and classified staff I see every day at LAUSD."
The four-minute video, titled "Breaking the Silence," encourages employees to learn from what Deasy calls the "tragedy" at Miramonte Elementary — starting with a review of the district's child abuse training.
Deasy also explains the status of the Miramonte staff and faculty who were replaced while the district investigates the allegations. The removed staff members have been relocated to a new, unopened high school nearby.
Deasy says they are being interviewed by police and district investigators and counselors, and attending professional development classes.
All will have the chance to return after the investigation, Deasy said.
Information from: Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com