Updated at the bottom: DNA tests show that Berndt spoon-fed the students his own semen.
A longtime South L.A. elementary school teacher was fired about one year ago, in January 2011, when he was reportedly found with hundreds of photos of his third-grade students -- bound, gagged, crawling with cockroaches and sometimes fed semen, according to KNX news radio.
LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy tells KNX that 61-year-old Mark Henry Berndt of Miramonte Elementary was immediately fired when district officials laid eyes on the nauseating photographs.
Berndt allegedly told the kids that it was all just a game -- but investigators from the Special Victims Bureau of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department tell reporters at Fox11 that the strange ritual was a "sex game" intended to fulfill the perverted sexual desires of the teacher.
Reports say that Berndt snapped up to 400 pictures of at least 23 children, ages 7 to 10 -- but those are just the victims who have been identified. Investigators have spent the last year probing the extent of the damage, and fear there may be many more victims who haven't come forward.
According to Fox11, the cockroaches were lured onto the children's faces by "putting sugar in their mouths," but KNX says the sugar was actually semen.
Academically, the veteran third-grade teacher scored below-average marks in the LA Times' 2009 teacher ratings. Miramonte is located in unincorporated Los Angeles, near South L.A.:
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A Twitter user named Mia says she had Mr. Berndt for 2nd and 5th grades. She says he was her favorite teacher, and that the allegations come as a huge shock. "He was obsessed with the Mojave desert, and drove a baby blue vw bug, he did take boy students on trips to the desert," the woman Tweets. Also: "The only thing I ever thought was out of the ordinary was his camping trips to the desert with the boy students."
Berndt is reportedly behind bars, held under $2.3 million bail. Sheriff's officials are planning to release more information within the hour. Updates to come as they're available.
Update: Gigi Graciette at Fox11, who broke this story, says Redondo Beach police were originally notified of a suspicious roll of film that Berndt took to get developed (apparently containing the kiddie porn). They then turned over the probe to the Sheriff's Department.
A spoon with Berndt's own semen on it was reportedly found in the teacher's classroom trash can. The photos showed the kids -- mainly females -- blindfolded with with their mouths taped shut.
It's sick," says Superintendent Deasy on the morning news. "It makes you sick to your stomach." He adds that cops are still trying to determine where and when the photos were taken.
So how did something this large-scale and monstrous get past administrators? "There was no student who ever came forward," says Deasy, looking disgusted and helpless.
The full story, via the L.A. County Sheriff's Department:
Sheriff's Special Victims Bureau detectives arrested 61-year old Mark Berndt, a teacher with over 30 years' experience at a South Los Angeles elementary school, on child molestation charges after conducting an extensive sex crimes investigation.
The investigation began over a year ago when over 40 photographs depicting children in a school classroom, with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered with tape, were turned in to law enforcement by a film processor. Film processors are mandated to report suspected child abuse under California law (11166 of the California State Penal Code).
Investigators learned that some of the photos depicted Suspect Mark Berndt with his arm around the children, or with his hand over their mouths.
In addition, 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.
Over 80 current and former students and school employees were interviewed during the extensive investigation. 23 boys and girls between the ages of 7 - 10 years old, have been identified as victims for crimes that were committed between 2008 - 2010.
A search warrant was served by sheriff's detectives on the suspect's home in the city of Torrance, which led to the discovery of over 100 more similar photographs depicting children. Also recovered was a DVD of film depicting adult sexual "Bondage" activity which mirrored the bondage-type photos of the children. The adults in the bondage video were not identified and the images in that video are not a crime.
An additional 250 photographs were later recovered by Sheriff's Special Victims Bureau detectives from the film processing establishment.
There were over 26 children identified in the 390 total photos. Approximately 10 children have not yet been unidentified.
Early in the investigation, Special Victims Bureau detectives recovered a blue plastic spoon and an empty container from the trash within the suspect's classroom. The recovered items tested positive for semen. Through further investigation, the suspect's DNA was obtained and tested, and determined that it matched that of the DNA profile found on the spoon and container.
For over 30 years the suspect was a teacher at Miramonte Elementary School, 1400 E. 68th St., Los Angeles (unincorporated Florence/Firestone area). Shortly after the investigation began, in March 2011, the suspect was terminated by the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Twenty-three felony counts of Lewd Acts Upon a Child, 288(a) of the California State Penal Code, involving 23 children were filed in Norwalk Superior Court on Monday, January 30, 2012, with bail set at $2.3 million.
Update No. 2: The big question that remains this morning: Why was Berndt allowed to walk freely among us for the year that it took the Special Victims Bureau to complete its probe?
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Lieutenant Carlos Marquez tells KNX that investigators were "monitoring" the ex-teacher in the months after he was fired. He argues that any immediate danger was mitigated by the school board's decision to kick Berndt off campus, and says the Sheriff's Department wanted to gather all possible evidence before making an arrest.
For instance, DNA testing on the spoon and container was only completed "a month and a half ago." But still -- why?
The department insists that the task was complicated enough to warrant the delay. Try telling that to the hundreds, even thousands, of horrified Miramonte parents whose children were exposed to Berndt in his 30-plus years at the elementary school.