DNA key in case against L.A. teacher accused of classroom abuse
DNA evidence collected in the classroom of a teacher accused of gagging and blindfolding children and feeding them semen is considered central in the felony cases against him, a detective said.
Mark Berndt was charged Tuesday with 23 felony counts of lewd acts upon a child. The case began when photos of scenes in the classroom emerged. Berndt, 61, was fired as a teacher in March and was arrested Monday after a yearlong investigation.
Sgt. Dan Scott of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said the photos were perplexing because the children were smiling and appeared not to be in distress. Detectives went to his classroom, where they found a spoon in a trash bin that matched a spoon seen in the images.
They tested a substance on the spoon and found a DNA match with the teacher's semen, Scott said.
"We didn't have a felony until the semen was discovered," said Scott.
The photos showed students bound and blindfolded, some with large Madagascar cockroaches crawling on them, inside the school setting, Scott said. Scott said girls were allegedly photographed with a blue spoon holding a white substance near their mouths. Investigators said they believe that substance was Berndt's semen and that he had the girls consume it.
Investigators said they have recovered more than 400 images, and so far 10 children in those photos have not been identified. More than 80 children and staff Miramonte Elementary have been interviewed. Miramonte Elementary is in the Florence Firestone unincorporated area of Los Angeles County and is within the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Parents whose children attend the school expressed shock and betrayal over the news.
Kimberly Kirklin, 32, has six children, including three daughters who are still students at Miramonte. She said she quizzed each of them immediately after learning of the arrest of Berndt on the early Tuesday morning television news, and felt secure that they had never been subjected to any lewd activity.
Kirklin said her daughters refused to go to school Tuesday and that she could not blame them and would not force them to go. She said she would attempt to enroll her children in another school.
One woman's daughter was a student in Berndt's classroom when she was 7, three years ago. The mother said she trusted the teacher so much that she invited him to her daughter's birthday party and recommended that her friend's 14-year-old daughter volunteer in his classroom.
Her story is a common one, according to a district insider familiar with the investigation. Parents had so much trust in Berndt, a fixture at the school, that they invited him to birthday parties and stayed in touch long after their children left his class. He was the sort of teacher who’d be invited to quinceañeras — coming-of-age parties for girls, a tradition in the Latino community.
"Parents loved him," said the district source who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak. "But the investigators felt the relationship was unnaturally close to the children."
-- Richard Winton, Rick Rojas, Howard Blume, Scott Gold, Paloma Esquivel and Jeff Gottlieb
Photo: A reporter walks to Mark Berndt's apartment. Credit: Jae C. Hong / Associated Press