Detectives fear comments could hurt L.A. teacher abuse case
A Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department official expressed concern Thursday that an investigation of lewd acts allegedly committed by two teachers at Miramonte Elementary School could be compromised by statements by attorneys representing alleged victims.
William McSweeney, the department's chief of detectives, said any attorneys -- or anyone else -- with information about the cases should talk to his detectives rather than hold news conferences.
"Why are these lawyers holding media news conference instead of presenting any evidence they have to investigators?" McSweeney said. "Who is that helping?"
"The lawyers are making it that much more difficult," McSweeney said.
He said such statements will make it likely that defense lawyers seeking to cast doubt on testimony in the case will cite the potential for families to benefit financially. "It is going to raise issues of credibility," McSweeney said.
There have been reports for days that third teacher at the school was under investigation and that another arrest was coming. But sheriff's officials denied this.
Sgt. Dan Scott said the Miramonte investigation was continuing but he said no other teachers were under suspicion at this time. An attorney representing the family of one of the alleged child victims has suggested that a third teacher might be involved in the case.
The news comes as authorities discovered 200 new photos allegedly taken by one of the teachers arrested last week.
The new photos were recovered late last week from a South Bay CVS pharmacy after a search of the drugstore's computer systems for photos from former teacher Mark Berndt.
It was same location that initially yielded 40 images in the fall of 2010 and led authorities to begin a more than a year-long investigation of the educator. When Berndt was arrested last week, authorities said they recovered a total of 400 photos gathered from various locations, including his home.
Scott said the new photos -- like the others -- showed children with mouths taped over, blindfolded and sometimes with them eating from a spoon or with a cockroach on them. He said there are some new children's faces in the batch of photos. Prosecutors allege that Berndt spoon-fed his semen to blindfolded children as part of what he called a “tasting game.”
Berndt was charged with 23 felony counts and was being held on $23 million bail. A second teacher, Martin Springer, was charged Monday with three counts of lewd acts upon a child. He was arrested Friday after girls at the school came forward with allegations. One of those girls has since recanted her claims, a law enforcement source said.
On Monday, Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. John Deasy announced he was removing the entire staff of Miramonte and replacing them with new personnel. Deasy said he took the action to help restore parent confidence in the school.
The Times has reported that several people said they complained about Berndt’s conduct over the last 20 years. Deasy said he’s launched investigations aimed at examining a possible "culture of silence” at the school in which “someone could have known something and then chose not to act."
When Berndt, 61, was arrested, school district officials said they had no record of any previous misconduct or complaints against him. But evidence of past warning signs has since emerged.
One former student said in an interview with The Times that during the 1990-91 school year a counselor told her and two other girls to stop inventing stories after a complaint that Berndt appeared to be masturbating behind his desk. In 1994, detectives investigated a complaint that Berndt had tried to touch a girl's genitals, though prosecutors deemed the evidence too weak to file charges.
And one father said that he complained in 2008 to the Miramonte principal after his daughter brought home photographs that Berndt had taken of her. In one image, she was eating a cookie coated with what investigators now suspect is Berndt's semen.
-- Richard Winton
Photo: Mark Berndt in 2003. Credit: Associated Press