Authorities fear comments may hurt Miramonte teacher abuse case
As authorities press a lewd acts case against a teacher at Miramonte Elementary School, a growing number of alleged victims have hired attorneys to pursue civil lawsuits against the Los Angeles Unified School District.
And there are questions about whether the civil litigation could hurt the criminal case.
Officials from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said they are concerned that teacher Mark Berndt's defense could use public statements made by alleged victims and their attorneys to raise inconsistencies and to suggest that they have a financial motive for accusing the teacher.
"The lawyers are making it that much more difficult," said William McSweeney, chief of detectives for the Sheriff's Department. "It is going to raise issues of credibility."
Prosecutors have charged Berndt with 23 counts of lewd acts against students, but civil attorneys involved in the case say they are representing more than 60 victims.
Berndt was arrested after officials discovered photographs of students gagged and blindfolded, some allegedly tasting his semen from a spoon.
The attorneys are making accusations about Berndt that are not contained in the original charges, including some claims — repeated last week when two alleged victims went on the "Dr. Phil" show — that Berndt fed them cookies with semen on them.
"What was your cookie like?" Phil McGraw, the show's host, asked one young girl.
"It had something like saliva, and it was like slimy," replied the girl, whose face was not shown. She also said Berndt "shook her hard" when she told him she did not want to eat the cookie.
Sheriff's officials say that although they suspect Berndt fed students his semen, they have no evidence to prove he gave them the so-called semen cookies.
Last week, one attorney suggested that another teacher at Miramonte was involved in the Berndt case. The department took the unusual step of publicly stating that the teacher was not a suspect in the case.
Berndt's attorney has declined requests to discuss the case. But others agreed that the civil litigation can pose some challenges for prosecutors.
"You just sit there and cringe your teeth as a D.A.," said Robin Sax, a former Los Angeles County sex crimes prosecutor who is a legal analyst for Fox 11 News. The prosecutors "are watching a case unfold on television and they're stuck with whatever is said in public."
-- Sam Allen, Richard Winton and Howard Blume
Photo: A teacher newly assigned to Miramonte Elementary leads her students out to recess. Many fear that recent gains at the school will be lost in the chaos surrounding abuse allegations. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times