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Bail set at $23M for teacher in molestation case

February 1, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Bail has been raised to $23 million for a former South Los Angeles elementary school teacher accused of molesting students and taking bondage photos of them in his classroom.

Bail was originally set at $2.3 million, but prosecutors said that was a mistake. It was intended to be $23 million - $1 million for each count that he is charged with.

Mark Berndt, 61, made his first court appearance on Wednesday in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. He agreed to postpone entering his plea for about three weeks.

Berndt, who is being represented by a public defender, is accused of bizarre lewd acts on children at Miramonte Elementary School, where he worked for more than 30 years. He was arrested at his apartment on Monday after a lengthy investigation.

The sheriff's department said Berndt tried to develop photos at a drug store that showed young girls holding spoons containing white liquid up to their mouths. DNA tests on a spoon and container found in his classroom revealed Berndt's semen was on both items.

Berndt also allegedly fed some children cookies laced with his semen, and took photos of kids blindfolded with tape over their mouths. Some of them even had live large cockroaches on their faces.

One 9-year-old student at Miramonte Elementary said she wasn't in Berndt's class, but last year, he tried to lure her into his classroom.

"He just told me that he was going to take a picture of me with the cookie," she said. The girl said she never told her mother about what happened because she didn't think anything bad was happening.

Detectives said they have interviewed 23 boys and girls, ages 7 to 10, who are seen in the photos. The children said they thought they were just playing a game with the teacher in the classroom during recess and lunch breaks.

One mother said two of her children, ages 7 and 9, were among the alleged victims. She said her daughter wanted to visit Berndt in jail to ask why he would want to hurt his students.

LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy and sheriff's officials met with school staff on Wednesday morning to discuss the situation, and then afterward, another meeting was held for parents.

"They're apologetic, but the principal, Mr. Sandoval, he seems like he's about to have a nervous breakdown," said parent Kimberly Kirkland. "I can tell he's hurting really bad. I can tell it's taking an emotional toll on him."

The most pressing question fielded by the superintendent from parents and staff was why it took so long for parents to be notified about the situation.

Sheriff's officials said they needed that year to complete the investigation, and the key was the DNA evidence. It took several months to build their case; otherwise, officials would not have had a felony case against Berndt.

"It obviously took a long time because they had to track down these victims. They had photographs, but they did not have names," said Sandi Gibbons of the L.A. County D.A.'s Office. "It involved extensive questioning, extensive interviews, a lot of very good police work on this case."

The Los Angeles Unified School District fired Berndt last March when it was made aware of the investigation. The school district has launched its own investigation into how the alleged incidents could have gone on for so long.

Police said 10 children in the photos have not been identified. The alleged crimes happened between 2005 and 2010. Anyone with information is urged to contact the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department at (877) 710-LASS.

If convicted, Berndt faces life in prison.