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Two Latinas have come forward in the case of a Los Angeles teacher who allegedly fed his students semen as part of a bizarre and stomach-turning food-tasting game.
Mark Berndt is being held on $23 million bail after police found nearly 400 images he took of children, some with a giant Madagascar cockroach on their faces, others with blindfolds or a spoonful of milky liquid placed near their lips. He faces felony charges for allegedly committing lewd acts on 23 boys and girls, ages 6 to 10, between 2005 and 2010. If convicted, he could receive multiple life sentences.
The acts allegedly occurred at Miramonte Elementary School, a low income school in Los Angeles where 98 percent of the students are Latinos, according to the school’s website. Berndt taught at the school for 30 years.
The two students who came forward told the Los Angeles Times that they alerted school officials about Berndt's odd behavior as far back as 1990.
Marlene Trujillo, 30, said she and two other fourth-grade classmates spoke with a school counselor about Berndt. They told the counselor he often moved his hands under his desk, near his lap, at the front of the classroom. She and other students also had seen a jar of Vaseline in one of his desk compartments.
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."
Trujillo's classmate, Nadine Martinez Rodriguez, said she also noticed Berndt's behavior. Martinez said she told her mother about it at the time but that her mother didn't take it seriously enough to report to school officials, the Times reported.
School officials tried to determine how the alleged behavior went on unsuspected 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?" Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. John Deasy told the Times. "I'm definitely trying to understand how someone could not have known."
Angry parents confronted school officials Wednesday, demanding to know why they weren't told for a year that Berndt was suspected of photographing children in class for sexual thrills.
Berndt was removed from classwork in January 2011 and fired within the month, but only parents of children identified as victims were told by authorities at that time of the investigation.
School officials and investigators said proper procedures were followed to prevent anything that might harm efforts to investigate and build a case against the teacher.
"That's cool and fine but the detectives' children don't go here," said Cheremoya Dupree, 38, whose two children attend the school and were not victims. "I want them to tell the truth ... because I don't think we got that."
Miramonte Principal Martin Sandoval told reporters that he followed proper district procedure.
The investigation 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.
The photo sessions were treated as a game and some children were given sperm-laced cookies to eat as treats, said Sgt. Dan Scott said. Berndt didn't sell or share the photographs but did give copies to some children, Scott said.
"It was like a souvenir," Scott said.
Investigators began trying to track down the children, but learned the year-round school was on break until Jan. 3, 2011, Scott said.
On that day, investigators went to the class, where Berndt refused to be questioned without an attorney, Scott said.
An investigator then found a blue spoon apparently hidden in a trash can that appeared to be the one seen in the photographs, but it took months before analysis determined there was semen on the spoon and more time before DNA testing matched it to Berndt, authorities said.
Only then was there enough evidence of a crime to charge Berndt, Scott said.
Meanwhile, investigators kept trying to identify children in the photographs, some of which apparently dated back to 2005.
"Up until two weeks ago, we were still working to identify children," Scott said.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.