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Teacher bondage photos suspect investigated earlier

By Alan Duke and Stan Wilson, CNN
February 3, 2012 -- Updated 0138 GMT (0938 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The DA says Berndt was investigated in 1994, but prosecutors decided not to pursue the case
  • A sheriff's investigator says it took more than a year to make the present case against Mark Berndt
  • 400 photos show elementary school students blindfolded and gagged, the investigator says
  • The 30-year teaching vet sits in jail pending $23 million bond

Los Angeles (CNN) -- The teacher accused this week of taking bondage photos of his elementary school students was investigated in 1994, but prosecutors decided not to pursue the case, Los Angeles authorities said Thursday.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Sgt. Dan Scott, the lead investigator in the case against 30-year teaching veteran Mark Berndt, told CNN Thursday that in January 1994, the mother of a 9-year-old girl who went to Miramonte Elementary School, where Berndt taught, reported that her daughter had been fondled by Berndt.

"The 9-year-old girl reported that when she was sitting in the classroom in September of 1993, the teacher approached her and reached under the desk and attempted to touch or fondle her genital area," Scott said.

According to Scott, the girl said she had pushed Berndt's hand away; however, she did not report the incident until January of 1994, after watching a television show about sexual abuse.

When the girl's mother notified school officials, detectives interviewed Berndt but he denied the allegations, Scott said. "We had a credible disclosure from a child reporting a crime," Scott said.

On February 23, 1994, the district attorney in Los Angeles declined to file charges, according to a statement Thursday from the prosecutor's office.

"After careful evaluation, it was determined that the evidence was insufficient to prove a crime occurred," the statement said. "A prosecutor cannot ethically file criminal charges if the evidence fails to meet the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

Berndt, 61, faces more recent allegations. He sits in jail with his bond set at $23 million over 23 felony counts of lewd acts on a child.

Investigators waited more than a year before arresting Berndt, who was still teaching at Miramonte Elementary in south Los Angeles, after finding bondage photos apparently taken in his classroom. But Scott said, "We always had our eyes on him."

Although the probe began in October 2010, when a drugstore photo processor called police, Berndt was not taken into custody until this week. He was removed from the classroom in January 2011.

At least 23 children in the images have been identified, while another 10 are unidentified, said Scott.

The 400 photographs collected by investigators show children blindfolded, with tape over their mouths, and some with suspected semen-filled spoons at their mouths, Scott said.

Some photos show female students 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.

The probe began in 2010 when a CVS drugstore photo technician in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County told the Redondo Police department about finding disturbing images of blindfolded children in a processing order, Scott said.

Redondo police investigators called the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department on December 2, 2010, after determining the photos were taken in Berndt's classroom.

"Immediately, our detective assigned to the case contacted school officials about our investigation, but we learned that students were off track and would not be returning until January 3rd (of 2011)," Scott said.

A detective from the Sheriff's Special Victims Unit visited Berndt's classroom on January 3, 2011-- when classes resumed after the holiday break -- and separated the teacher from his students, Scott said.

"When Berndt was asked to leave, our detective conducted cursory interviews with the students in a very delicate manner to simply find how the class works," said Scott, who added that authorities at the time had only potential evidence of misdemeanor charges based on the photo discovery.

Berndt refused to answer questions that day, Scott said. "Mr. Berndt invoked his rights to remain silent without counsel, therefore, once the students were cleared from the classroom, our detective immediately searched the classroom looking for evidence."

The evidence they were seeking included the blue spoon seen in some of the photos of female students. Later testing convinced investigators the spoon contained Berndt's semen.

"Beneath a classroom trash bin, our detective found a blue spoon and container similar to the one depicted in the photos," Scott said. "We suspect those items were probably deliberately placed at the bottom of the trash bin."

Sheriff's investigators notified school authorities of their investigation on January 7, 2011, and Berndt was placed on leave from his teaching job, Scott said.

"A few days later, we served a subpoena on Berndt's residence and uncovered over 100 additional photos," he said.

The spoon and small container recovered from the classroom were sent to a criminal laboratory for DNA testing. It took seven months for investigators to positively identify the sample as semen, Scott said.

"Once we determined the samples contained semen, we sent a surveillance team to follow Berndt around to obtain a sample of his DNA," he said. Scott declined to reveal how authorities obtained Berndt's DNA.

"It took us another six to seven months to process Berndt's DNA and match it with the classroom DNA sample that tested positive for semen," he said.

Processing the DNA, identifying the children in the photos and conducting in-depth interviews with potential victims was time consuming, Scott said in response to criticism over the year that passed before Berndt was arrested.

On Tuesday of this week, Berndt was arrested at his apartment and booked on 23 felony counts of lewd and lascivious conduct.

"We always had our eyes on him and there was never a chance he would get away from us," Scott said.

Investigators interviewed more than 80 current and former students and school employees in the process of identifying the 23 boys and girls, then between the ages of 7 and 10 years old, as alleged victims in crimes that are believed to have been committed between 2005 and 2010, Scott said. About 10 children seen in the more than 400 images have not yet been identified, he said.

The young students "didn't realize they were victimized," he said.

"They thought they were being blindfolded and gagged as a game," he said. "And they were rewarded with cookies or spoons full of 'sugar.' They did not realize the spoon contained semen."

Investigators did not reveal the contents of the fluid to the children or tell them that the case involved child molestation allegations, he said.

The photographs also showed "a large 3-inch cockroach that would crawl on their face," Scott said.

The search of Berndt's home also found a video depicting adult sexual "bondage" activity "which mirrored the bondage-type photos of the children," investigators said.

Referring to the allegations against the former teacher, Los Angeles School Superintendent John Deasy said in a statement after the arrest: "I am sickened and horrified by the behavior of Mark Berndt. 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."

Berndt's public defender has not spoken to reporters about the case, which is set for arraignment on February 21.

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