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Flood of civil cases hampers Miramonte investigation

Detectives pursue inquiry into teacher Mark Berndt against a rising number of alleged victims, far beyond the 23 cited in criminal charges, making witnesses' credibility an issue.

February 18, 2012|By Sam Allen, Richard Winton and Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • A teacher newly assigned to Miramonte Elementary leads her students out to recess. Many fear that recent gains at the school will be lost in the chaos surrounding abuse allegations.
A teacher newly assigned to Miramonte Elementary leads her students out… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

For much of the last year, sheriff's detectives delicately and quietly investigated the case of Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt after discovering photographs of students gagged and blindfolded, some allegedly tasting his semen from a spoon.

But they proceeded gingerly, desperate to prevent rumors from spreading around the campus that could taint the testimony of children.

Those safeguards evaporated Jan. 31, when the charges became public and reporters and attorneys descended on the South Los Angeles school. The media circus reached new heights Thursday when two alleged victims — and their attorney — appeared on the "Dr. Phil" show.

Officials from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said they are concerned that Berndt's defense could use public statements made by alleged victims and their attorneys to raise inconsistencies and to suggest that they have a financial motive for accusing the teacher.

"The lawyers are making it that much more difficult," said William McSweeney, chief of detectives for the Sheriff's Department. "It is going to raise issues of credibility."

Prosecutors have charged Berndt with 23 counts of lewd acts against students, but civil attorneys involved in the case say they are representing more than 60 victims. And the number seems to grow by the day.

The attorneys are making accusations about Berndt that are not contained in the original charges, including some claims — repeated on "Dr. Phil" — that Berndt fed them cookies with semen on them.

"What was your cookie like?" Phil McGraw, the show's host, asked one young girl.

"It had something like saliva, and it was like slimy," replied the girl, whose face was not shown. She also said Berndt "shook her hard" when she told him she did not want to eat the cookie.

Sheriff's officials say that although they suspect Berndt fed students his semen, they have no evidence to prove he gave them the so-called semen cookies.

Last week, one attorney suggested that another teacher at Miramonte was involved in the Berndt case. The department took the unusual step of publicly stating that the teacher was not a suspect in the case.

Berndt's attorney has declined requests to discuss the case. But others agreed that the civil litigation can pose some challenges for prosecutors.

"You just sit there and cringe your teeth as a D.A.," said Robin Sax, a former Los Angeles County sex crimes prosecutor who is a legal analyst for Fox 11 News. The prosecutors "are watching a case unfold on television and they're stuck with whatever is said in public."

At the heart of the abuse scandal are hundreds of photos that Berndt allegedly took of his students. Those photos constitute physical evidence, which is rare in child sex-abuse cases.

In this way, the situation at Miramonte is significantly different from the infamous McMartin Pre-School case of the late 1980s, in which children accused the operators of wild acts of abuse.

The charges made national headlines, but over time, many came to believe that the child witnesses were asked leading questions in their initial interviews, then later were improperly coached before testifying. Critics contended that the coaching prompted them to believe things that were not true. Many charges were dropped and a jury in 1990 acquitted one defendant, while a case against the other ended in a mistrial.

Leonard Levine, a criminal defense attorney who specializes in sexual abuse cases, said the photos are a big advantage for prosecutors in the Miramonte case. But prosecutors must show that Berndt took the photos for sexual gratification.

The most sensational part of the prosecution narrative is the allegation that Berndt fed children semen.

According to school officials, photographs taken in Berndt's classroom showed a spoon containing a milky liquid; in some images, the liquid could be seen in and around the children's mouths. Several of the photos reviewed by The Times show children eating cookies with a light substance spread across the top.

In January 2011, a detective from the Sheriff's Department's Special Victims Unit secretly visited Berndt's classroom and found a spoon in a trash can that matched the one seen in the photos. That spoon and a small container, also recovered from the trash, tested positive for traces of semen, which was linked to Berndt through a DNA sample, officials said.

Dmitry Gorin, a former sex crimes prosecutor who has represented teachers charged in sex crimes, said prosecutors will have to persuade a jury that the white substance the students allegedly tasted was semen.

"The finding of the spoon with semen is some evidence, but by itself is insufficient to prove each count of child molestation to send the defendant away to prison for life," he said.

The civil attorneys say new alleged victims are continuing to come forward. Detectives are still investigating and are urging families to contact the Sheriff's Department before seeking private counsel.

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