Teacher in Molestation Case Investigated as Early as 1994 [Updated]
[UPDATED Feb.02| 11:12 a.m. PST: Officials revealed Thursday new details in the case against a former South Los Angeles teacher arrested earlier this week on sexual abuse charges.]
Authorities revealed that the 61-year-old elementary school teacher Mark Berndt was previously investigated in 1994 for allegedly trying to fondle a 10-year-old girl. The incident occured in 1993, but was not reported to the victim's elementary school until January of 1994. The young girl claimed that Berndt reached toward her genitals during class and she pushed his hand away.
The school notified the Sheriff's Department, which investigated Berndt. He denied the accusation and sent the case to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, which declined to file charges.
He remains in jail on $23 million bail on charges that he committed lewd acts on 23 children ages 6 to 10. He could face multiple life sentences if convicted.
Berndt was terminated last year after several photos surfaced of children doing sexual bondage acts in the classroom. According to the Sherrif's Department, the crimes were committed between 2005 and 2010.
"We obviously believe it just didn't start magically in 2005, so yes, it could go back as far as the 30 years he's been teaching here or longer," said Sgt. Dan Scott.
The children appear with blindfolds over their eyes and tape covering their mouths and some of the photos depict Berndt with his arms around the children or hands over their mouths.
Several young girls are shown holding a blue plastic spoon in their hands with a clear substance later identified as semen. The photographs were turned into law enforcement by a film processor, who, under California law, is required to report suspected child abuse.
Over 40 photographs were turned in to police, which launched an extensive investigation against the suspect. Detectives recovered physical evidence early on, including a blue spoon identical to the one featured in the photographs, along with an empty container that tested positive for semen. Later DNA testing indicated a positive match between Berndt's DNA and the DNA found on the recovered items.
A search warrant on Berndt's home resulted in the discovery of over 100 similar photographs of children and a DVD film displaying adult sexual bondage activity, but the images in that video are not a crime. In addition, the film processor submitted more photographs, for a total of 390 photos.
More than 26 children can be seen in the photos, and while some have been identified, police are actively trying to identify at least ten more.
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent, John Deasy, commented on the investigation, saying "the district takes each and every reported act of criminal and administrative misconduct seriously, and we will continue to aggressively pursue each case to determine the truth of the matter, and initiate the appropriate disciplinary measures."
He stated that the victims and their families have been provided with crisis counselors.
Some parents are angrily turning to the LAUSD for answers, demanding to know how Berndt's actions weren't discovered earlier.
"He was a pervert," one parent told ATVN. "And they didn't know? Who's the people checking them from the district?"
Another student's parent, Rene Thompson, commented, "I'm thinking they were trying to protect the teacher and the school instead of protecting the children [by not telling anyone]. I'm doing a transfer right now. Actually I found a better school down the way."
Deasy announced Wednesday that the LAUSD is now launching an investigation of its own.
Sandi Gibbons, Director of Communications from the LA District Attorney's Office, announced earlier today, "The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department investigated allegations against Mark Berndt involving a September 1993 incident. On Feb. 23, 1994, the evidence was presented to the District Attorney's Office. After careful evaluation, it was determined that the evidence was insufficient to prove a crime occurred. All District Attorneys in California follow uniform standards in filing criminal cases. A prosecutor cannot ethically file criminal charges if the evidence fails to meet the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt."
Berndt will be back in court on February 21.