• BREAKING NEWS ABC shows live and on-demand -- Download the WATCH ABC app!

LA teacher arrested for molestation; allegedly put cockroaches on kids' faces

January 31, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
A former Los Angeles elementary school teacher has been arrested for felony molestation of nearly two dozen students, accused of gagging children and putting live cockroaches on some of their faces. Deputies say the crimes were committed on campus.

Mark Berndt, 61, worked as a third grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in South Los Angeles for more than 30 years. He was arrested at his home in Torrance on Monday, and on Tuesday, he was charged with 23 felony counts of lewd acts upon a child.

Twenty-three boys and girls between the ages of 7 and 10 years old have been identified as victims for alleged crimes that were committed between 2005 and 2010.

An investigation started more than a year ago when a film processor turned over 40 photographs to authorities. The pictures depicted children in a classroom with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered with tape. Similar photos were found at Berndt's residence.

Berndt was seen in photos with his arm around the children or with his hand over their mouths, police said. Some children even had live large cockroaches on their faces and mouths.

"When we interviewed the children, they had no idea what was going on," said Lt. Carlos Marquez of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "They thought it was a game. It wasn't until we uncovered all the evidence that we figured that he was doing it for sexual gratification."

The pictures also showed some girls holding blue plastic spoons filled with clear, white liquid up to their mouths. Authorities said that early in the investigation, they found a plastic spoon and an empty container in Berndt's classroom. DNA tests revealed that it contained Berndt's semen.

Berndt allegedly fed some of the children cookies laced with his semen.

A neighbor who only wanted to be identified as John said he has known Berndt for 20 years, and several months ago, he saw him on the beach with a young girl.

"He told me it was a student. And he's telling me, 'Isn't she beautiful?' And you know what? I was even thinking about calling the police, but I didn't," he said.

At Berndt's home, police found 100 more photographs of children and a DVD showing adult sexual bondage activity that mirrored the things the children were subjected to.

"This is an unfortunate incident that has occurred at our school, and I'd like to express my deepest sympathies to the families of those victims," said Miramonte Elementary School Principal Martin Sandoval.

Berndt was fired by the Los Angeles Unified School District in March 2011 after the investigation began. School officials said crisis counseling and support have been provided for more than a year to the victims and their families.

"This is a despicable situation. Anybody who would violate the trust of young people like this is scum in my opinion," LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy said. "Obviously the man's in jail. I hope he stays there for the rest of his life and then some."

Parents on Tuesday expressed their concern for what allegedly occurred on campus.

"I'm angry. I'm disgusted. I'm sad," said parent Kimberly Kirklin.

Ten children have yet to be identified from the photos. Anyone with information is urged to contact the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department at (877) 710-LASD.

Berndt's bail was set at $2.3 million. He was scheduled to be arraigned on Wednesday.