Teacher charged in Miramonte sex scandal pleads not guilty
Must return for court hearing on March 28
A former South Los Angeles-area elementary school teacher who allegedly took photos of blindfolded and gagged students with a roach on their faces or spoons of semen held to their mouths pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges of committing lewd acts on nearly two dozen children.
Mark Henry Berndt, 61, is due back in court March 28 for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for him to stand trial. Berndt, who taught for more than 30 years at Miramonte Elementary, remains jailed in lieu of $23 million bail.
Berndt, who was arrested at his Torrance home on Jan. 30, is charged with 23 counts of committing a lewd act on a child between 2005 and 2011 involving 23 children who were 7 to 10 years old, according to the district attorney’s office.
Berndt’s attorney, Victor Acevedo, told reporters outside court that he has been informed that “the sheriff’s department in Twin Towers (correctional facility), which is where my client is currently housed, has essentially used the speaker system, the loudspeaker system, to identify him as a child molester to other inmates.”
“ ...We cannot have the sheriff’s department deputies acting in such a way to essentially put a bull’s-eye on his head, so to speak,” the defense lawyer said, noting that he is concerned for his client’s safety.
“My understanding is that it did name the particular dorm where he was at,” Acevedo said. “...Anyone accused of these charges that are in the custody of the sheriff’s department always runs the risk of their personal safety, for obvious reasons.”
Reached by phone after the brief court hearing, Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said, “We didn’t know anything about this. As soon as we heard it, we launched an investigation.”
Berndt’s attorney also said he wants an “entire copy” of the prosecution’s file on Berndt.
Deputy District Attorney Darci Lanphere told Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Marcelita Haynes that the prosecution had given the defense more than 200 photographs involving the alleged victims named in the criminal complaint, but had not turned over other photos.
“As you know, there’s a continuing investigation in this case and I really can’t discuss that any further,” Sandi Gibbons of the district attorney’s office told reporters outside the Metropolitan courthouse. “However, the discovery that is being provided to the defense involves the victims in this case. The judge has agreed to look in the camera (privately) at other photographs that the defense said they want. But, at this point in time, it’s either unidentified children or children who were identified later.”
Berndt was the first of two former Miramonte teachers to be charged within less than a week. The other, Martin Springer, 49, is charged with three felony counts of lewd act upon a child involving one girl, and is free on $300,000 bail while awaiting his next court appearance April 16.
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy said Berndt was removed from the classroom when allegations arose in January 2011, and he was fired from his job at Miramonte at the next school board meeting.
Deasy pronounced himself “sickened and horrified” by the behavior attributed to Berndt and said crisis counselors have been provided to the children and their families since the investigation began.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Dan Scott said the investigation began more than a year ago when a film processor turned over more than 40 photographs of children in a classroom with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered in tape. Some pictures showed Berndt with his arm around the children or with his hand over their mouths, he said.
According to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, some of the photographs “depicted girls with what appeared to be a blue plastic spoon, filled with an unknown clear/white liquid substance, up to their mouths as if they were going to ingest the substance.”
Authorities said there are also photos of children with a large live Madagascar-type cockroach on their faces and mouths.
Sheriff’s officials said detectives found a blue plastic spoon and an empty container in a trash bin in Berndt’s classroom. Both items tested positive for semen, and DNA testing matched it to Berndt, according to the sheriff’s department.
Deputies also served a search warrant at Berndt’s home, where they found more than 100 photos depicting children similar to the batch of pictures initially turned over to authorities, Scott said.
“Also recovered was a DVD of film depicting adult sexual bondage activity which mirrored the bondage-type photos of the children,” according to a sheriff’s department statement. “The adults in the bondage were not identified, and the images in that video are not a crime.”
Scott said detectives later found about 250 other photos at the film-processing business. More than 26 children were identified in the 390 total photos, but about 10 of them have not been identified.
More than 80 current and former students and school employees were interviewed during the investigation.
Berndt could face up to life in prison if convicted of the charges.
A Los Angeles federal jury awarded $6 million in damages to a Compton bus driver who claimed he was racially profiled by sheriff’s deputies who beat him after a traffic stop.
Following a three-day civil trial, a jury last Thursday found Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Sgt. Pablo Partida and Deputy Robert Martinez liable for excessive force and malicious prosecution against 33-year-old Deon Dirks.
Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said the award is “excessive” and the department will probably appeal.
LOS ANGELES, Calif.—Memorial services, prayer vigils and service projects were held across the Southland today to mark the 11th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The coroner’s office has determined that what appeared to be a set of lungs found on a sidewalk Sunday afternoon in the Compton area were from an animal.
A woman walking in an unincorporated area of the county made the discovery Sunday afternoon in the 13100 block of Avalon Boulevard, took a picture of what she found and in the evening contacted the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said Lt. Jack DeMello of the sheriff’s Century Station. It was the only call the department received about the organs, he said.
Another negligence lawsuit has been filed against Los Angeles Unified School District in which additional former Miramonte Elementary School students allege they were victims of lewd acts by a teacher fired in January.
Parents of about a dozen ex-Miramonte pupils brought the suit on behalf of themselves and their children in Los Angeles Superior Court. The complaint also alleges intentional infliction of emotional distress and names all seven members of the LAUSD Board of Education, as well as Superintendent John Deasy.
Authorities were still seeking the killer of a U.S. Army veteran gunned down while sitting in a car parked in front of his brother’s home in Lancaster.
The man—identified in broadcast reports as 30-year-old Nathen Taylor—was shot about 12:10 a.m. Saturday in the 700 block of West Avenue H-7 and later succumbed at a hospital, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reported.