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Ex-Reporter Appears in Court to Face Sex Count

October 11, 2006|Joe Mozingo | Times Staff Writer

In shackles and handcuffs, former Los Angeles police spokesman Roderick "Rod" Bernsen appeared in a federal courtroom Tuesday to face a felony count of "abusive sexual contact" during an encounter with two 12-year-old boys in a cruise ship sauna.

Bernsen, 58, also a former Fox 11 news reporter, was arrested on board the Diamond Princess after it docked in Long Beach on Saturday at the end of a weeklong cruise to Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

The single criminal count alleges that Bernsen spanked the bare buttocks of one boy, and touched the other's penis with his toe. His lawyer, James Epstein, downplayed the allegations. "He's shocked and devastated by these charges, minor as they are," he said.

The count carries a statutory maximum of two years in prison, according to Assistant U.S. Atty. Patricia Donahue. Prosecutors have until Nov. 13 to return with a grand jury indictment, which could contain different charges, or to drop the case.

Bernsen was released on $850,000 bond and ordered to stay away from children. In court, he sat behind glass gazing at former colleagues in the news media, mostly with a pained expression, but at one point clowning with a court artist he knew by briefly covering his face with his hands and then laughing.

According to the arrest affidavit, the two boys, cousins and part of an extended family taking the cruise together, first encountered Bernsen in the Lotus Spa sauna Sept. 30. Children were not allowed in the sauna, but it was not monitored.

Bernsen was naked. He introduced himself and chatted about golf, eventually showing them a scar from a back injury that he said prevented him from playing sports, the boys told FBI Special Agent Julie Viana, according to the affidavit.

"John Doe 2 explained that he was surprised when Rod stood up, since he was naked.... It appeared to John Doe 2 that Rod was purposefully sticking out his buttocks to the boys," Viana wrote in the affidavit.

"The boys were uncomfortable ... " she wrote. "As they left the sauna Rod tried to arrange a time when the three of them could meet again."

The boys went to the steam room later, where Bernsen allegedly talked to them about puberty and questioned them about erections while "holding and rubbing his own penis with his hand." As the boys left to take a shower, Rod spanked John Doe 2 "hard enough to sting," according to the affidavit.

Wearing only towels, they then moved to the sauna, where Bernsen shortly thereafter arrived naked, authorities allege. As one of the boys walked out, arranging his towel, Rod touched the adolescent's uncovered penis with his big toe, the affidavit said.

The boys allegedly had three more encounters with Bernsen before one of their mothers confronted the older man and accused him of saying inappropriate things to the children. She then reported to security what the boys had told her, including the touching, the affidavit said.

Later that day, Bernsen went to ship security too, said nothing inappropriate had happened, but promised to stay away from the boys. A Princess Cruise Lines executive called the FBI that day to report "a possible sexual assault of two 12-year-old boys by a 58-year-old man." The FBI waited until the ship docked five days later to question and then arrest Bernsen.

Outside the court building Tuesday, Bernsen's lawyers questioned why the boys would repeatedly return to the sauna after such allegedly disturbing behavior. "They kept sneaking back in," Epstein said.

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joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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