Mark Berndt, 61, had taught at Miramonte Elementary School in South L.A.… (Los Angeles County Sheriff's…)
In the fall of 2010, a drugstore photo technician was running a batch of 35-millimeter film when a disturbing image tumbled out of the machine — a child, blindfolded with a white cloth and gagged with clear packing tape. From that first photograph, detectives spent the next year following a trail that led them to a South Los Angeles elementary school.
They say they found acts of staggering depravity.
There were more photos, it turned out — 400 more, traced to an apartment in nearby Torrance, then to a bustling schoolhouse in South Los Angeles. There, officials alleged Tuesday, a veteran third-grade teacher sought sexual gratification by spoon-feeding his semen to his students.
FULL COVERAGE: Mark Berndt
Mark Berndt, 61, a teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in the community of Florence-Firestone, was charged with 23 counts of committing lewd acts on children.
Additional charges are likely, authorities said: Berndt had taught at Miramonte since 1979, and though test scores indicate that he was an average teacher, he was such a fixture that parents kept in touch with him after their children grew up, frequently inviting him to birthday parties and quinceañeras.
Berndt, who was being held in lieu of $2.3-million bail, regularly told his students that they were going to play a "tasting game," in which children were blindfolded and, in some cases, gagged with tape, authorities say. The semen appears to have been ingested by the children on a blue plastic spoon and, according to one alleged victim's father, on cookies.
The alleged victims were boys and girls ages 7 to 10.
"This occurred in his regular classroom with his students," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott. "It wasn't done in secrecy. The only secret was what the 'game' was really about."
Berndt is also accused of placing a 3-inch-long Madagascar cockroach on his students' faces and mouths.
Much remains unclear about the case. The acts that Berndt is charged with committing took place between 2005 and 2010, though detectives said they were still trying to determine how far back the alleged abuse occurred.
They are also trying to understand why no one — students, parents or fellow teachers — ever reported anything suspicious about Berndt's class. School officials insist that they received no complaints about Berndt, something they say is alarming given the charges against him.
"I wonder how long he was doing this — and to how many kids," said Arianna Perez, the mother of two Miramonte students.
Parents were stunned by the revelations. They harbored deep feelings that someone could have done more, earlier, though school officials said they removed Berndt from the classroom immediately upon learning of the criminal investigation, even as detectives remained unconvinced that they could win a conviction in court.
DOCUMENT: Felony complaint against Mark Berndt
Kimberly Kirklin — a 32-year-old mother of six children, including three now enrolled at the school — was seething with rage. "These are our babies."
The neighborhood surrounding Miramonte Elementary is one of the poorest in Los Angeles County, peppered with used tire shops, tiny carnicerías decorated with images of Jesus and billboards advertising dentists who will yank a sore tooth for $49. The names of some nearby streets are known best because they have been appropriated by gangs — Avalon Boulevard, Compton Avenue.
Miramonte has struggled academically and is one of the last campuses in the school district to operate year-round because of overcrowding. But it was seen by many in the neighborhood as a refuge — even with gang graffiti covering the walls of an alley next to the tetherball courts.
The school's yellow and turquoise walls stood out, and students entered each morning through an arched doorway, beneath huge portraits of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. Parents volunteered at the school — and were surprised, on occasion, to learn that their kids were itching to return from school vacations.
"Our beautiful school — this was our community," Kirklin said. "It's devastating."
Kirklin put her arm around one of her daughters, 10-year-old Gia, who refused to go to school Tuesday. Kirklin said that she couldn't blame her and that she would try to enroll her in another school.
"I'm not going to force her. I can't bring her back," Kirklin said.
The case began when the CVS pharmacy photo technician — who was not named by authorities, but was praised for alertness — called the Redondo Beach Police Department about the initial batch of photographs.