Photo store discovered teacher's disturbing images, officials say
A Miramonte Elementary School teacher arrested and charged with lewd acts on 23 children was brought to the attention of authorities discovered after a photo processor in Redondo Beach noticed images of young children blindfolded and gagged with cockroaches on them and consuming liquid from a plastic spoon, authorities said.
Mark Berndt, 61, is charged with lewd acts on 23 children and was taken into custody Monday. He told the children the spoon contained something sugary and sweet, and authorities believe the substance was his semen, said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Dan Scott.
Berndt was fired in March and was being held Tuesday on $2.3-million bail following his arrest at his Torrance home, where he lived alone.
Scott said the alleged acts were uncovered when Berndt gave 35-mm film to the photo processor in October 2010, and the photo store in turn alerted Redondo Beach police, who immediately initiated an investigation.
"Fortunately for everyone, this individual was very observant and realized what was was going on," Scott said. "I give them a lot of credit for going to the Redondo Beach police."
Film processors are mandated to report suspected child abuse under California law.
Scott said a spoon recovered from a trash bin in Berndt's classroom is a key piece of evidence. He said Det. Marvin Jaramillo early in the investigation visited Berndt's classroom, saw the spoon in the trash and retrieved it.
"The recovered item tested positive for semen," Scott said.
Through further investigation, the suspect’s DNA was obtained and tested, and officials said it matched that of the DNA found on the spoon.
Scott said Berndt, a 30-year teacher, portrayed the bondage and spoon as part of a game that he played regularly in his classroom.
"This occurred in his regular classroom with his students," Scott said. "It wasn't done in secrecy. The only secret was what the game was really about."
"Based on what we found, it was done for sexual gratification," he continued. "The semen and the bondage was a sexual experience for him, and that is why it is a lewd act."
Berndt's arrest culminated a yearlong investigation by the L.A. County sheriff's special victims unit. The 23 alleged victims are both boys and girls and ranged in age from 7 to 10.
-- Richard Winton
Photo: Mark Berndt. Credit: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department