A former elementary-school teacher who taught in a South Los Angeles school for 30 years was arrested on Monday on charges of inflicting bizarre abuse rituals on at least 23 young girls and boys, including blindfolding them, binding their mouths with masking tape, and placing cockroaches on their faces and mouths before photographing them.
The teacher, Mark Berndt, 61, was arrested in his home in Torrance, California, by members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office and charged with 23 counts of committing lewd acts upon a child. Bail was set at US$2.3 million, but the authorities said they would seek to raise it to US$23 million — US$1 million for each count.
The children were between the ages of seven and 10 when the incidents took place between 2008 and 2010, the authorities said. Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, said potential victims were being urged to come forward in an attempt to establish whether the alleged behavior had been going on earlier in the teacher’s career. He said five other people had come forward.
The sheriff’s office said the investigation began slightly more than a year ago when a film processor — complying with California law — turned over 40 photographs of children in a classroom, their mouths and eyes covered with tape.
Some of the photographs depicted Berndt with his arms around the children or covering their mouths with his hands. Others showed Madagascar hissing cockroaches crawling on their faces.
Berndt was removed from the classroom on Jan. 7 last year after school authorities were notified of the evidence, said John Deasy, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Berndt’s employment was terminated by the Los Angeles Board of Education in February.
Deasy said that crisis counselors had been provided to victims and parents.
One student at the school said Berndt had collected bugs and larvae. School officials said there was nothing in Berndt’s 30-year personnel record to suggest this kind of behavior.
“This makes me afraid, because the most important thing is to make sure my children are safe at school,” said Erendira Reyes, 38, who showed up at the Miramonte Elementary School, where Berndt taught, upon hearing of the arrest.
“When a person like that is at school and the administrators don’t know about it, I think that is a very serious problem,” she added.
Jesse Lizzaraga, 30, also turned up to find out if this was the same man who was his second-grade teacher. It was.
“He was actually kind of cool when I first met him,” Lizzaraga said. “I was shocked.”
Whitmore said that police closely monitored Berndt — who is unmarried and lives alone in a four-apartment complex in Torrance — “to make certain that he had no contact with children.”
He said the length of time between the discovery of the photos and the filing of charges was due to the complexity of the case, including attempting to identify the children in the pictures.
He said the final piece of evidence was finding a blue plastic spoon and a container in a wastebasket in Berndt’s classroom that contains traces of semen, which DNA testing established to be from Berndt.
Some of the photographs depicted a similar spoon being held under the nose of blindfolded young girls.
The police searched Berndt’s home and uncovered an additional 100 photographs and 250 more photographs were found at the film-processing establishment.