Bail set at $23M in ex-teacher's molestation case
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Bail for a former elementary school teacher accused of taking bizarre photos of children in his classroom for a sexual thrill was raised Wednesday to $23 million, as parents questioned why they weren't notified when the pictures were found more than a year ago.
Mark Berndt, 61, appeared in court for the first time after being charged with committing lewd acts involving 23 boys and girls, ages 6 to 10, between 2008 and 2010.
The tall and graying Berndt, represented by public defender Liz Braunstein, seemed calm in court as he spoke only to acknowledge his identity and birthdate and agreed to have his arraignment put over to Feb. 21.
He has made no statements to authorities, said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.
Deputy District Attorney Ana Maria Lopez requested the increase in bail from the initial $2.3 million amount. District attorney's spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said the initial bail figure was an error because the presumptive bail is $1 million per count.
The investigation of Berndt began when a film processor in Redondo Beach found more than 40 photos more than a year ago, according to the Sheriff's Department, which was given the case by Redondo Beach police in late December 2011.
Sheriff's investigators went to the school and found it was closed for the holidays, Gibbons said.
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy said he was notified of the investigation last January and removed Berndt from the classroom the same day. The school board then fired the teacher, Deasy said.
Berndt was placed under surveillance by authorities then arrested Monday at his home in Torrance. He could face life in prison if convicted.
Investigators have provided few other details about the timing of the investigation.
"If it wasn't for the film processor, this could still be continuing today," said sheriff's Lt. Carlos Marquez.
Some parents picking up their pre-kindergarteners at the school on Tuesday complained that officials at the 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.
At first, neither the parents nor the children believed they had been molested, so there wasn't much reaction, according to Whitmore. It was only after the matter of the semen was raised that they became alarmed.
Berndt, who has no previous arrest record, 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.
"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."