A former South Los Angeles elementary school teacher was arrested after an investigation that began when a film processor provided authorities with nearly 40 photographs that depicted blindfolded children in a classroom with tape over their mouths.
Some of the images showed former teacher Mark Berndt with his arm around the children or a hand over their mouths, according to authorities. California State Penal Code requires film processors to report suspected child abuse.
Berndt worked for more than 30 years at Miramonte Elementary School, but was fired shortly after the investigation began about one year ago, according to the LA County Sheriff's Department. The 61-year-old man was arrested Monday at his Torrance home.
He remained jailed on $2.3 million bond. He is accused of felony molestation involving 23 children ages 7 to 10 years old.
"I am sickened and horrified by the behavior of Mark Berndt,'' said LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy. "This individual and his conduct do not reflect on the quality of the teachers who work so hard on behalf of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District."
An arraignment date had not yet been set, but Berndt could make his first court appearance Wednesday in Norwalk, according to sheriff's officials.
The crimes were committed between 2008 and 2010, according to sheriff's investigators.
The photos were taken during after-school programs for which the teacher volunteered, said the school's principal.
It wasn't until after Berndt dropped off the film at a South Bay photo lab, where technicians discovered the images and notified authorities, that the investigation was opened.
Berndt is seen in the photos, and a statement from the sheriff's department noted that "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. There are also photos of children with large live Madagascar-type cockroaches on their faces and mouths."
Investigators recovered a blue plastic spoon and empty container from the trash in the suspect's classroom. The items tested positive for semen, according to the sheriff's department.
"We ended up finding out through DNA that the white substance was bodily fluids from our suspect," said Lt. Carlos Marquez.
About 100 similar photos were found at Berndt's home, according to the sheriff's department. About 250 additional photos were recovered by Sheriff's Special Victims Bureau detectives from the film processing business.
Not all of the subjects in the photos have not been identified. Contact Sheriff's Special Victims Bureau investigators at 877-710-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org with information about the crimes.