Posted: Friday, November 15, 2013 11:01 am
A former South Los Angeles-area elementary school teacher who took photos of blindfolded and gagged students with semen-tainted cookies or spoons held to their mouths pleaded no contest Friday to 23 counts of committing lewd acts on children and was sentenced to 25 years behind bars.
Ex-Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Henry Berndt, 62, of Torrance, committed the abuse between 2005 and 2011. The charges involved 23 children who were 7 to 10 years old.
As part of his plea agreement, Berndt will also be required to register as a sex offender for life. He was given credit for 755 days he has already served in jail since his arrest in January 2012.
During the court hearing, defense attorney Manny Medrano said his client was remorseful for his actions.
“He taught for over 30 years, your honor,” Medrano said during the court hearing in downtown Los Angeles. “He was a dedicated educator. He was well-respected by his teaching peers at that school. He was loved by many of [his] students and the parents of those kids, your honor. And indeed, since his date of arrest … he’s received a multitude of letters, supportive letters, from former students and the parents of those kids.”
Medrano also insisted that Berndt never touched children in a sexual manner.
District Attorney Jackie Lacey said a key result of the plea deal was preventing the young victims from being forced to testify in court.
“A school ought to be one of the safest places in America,” Lacey said. “This plea spares these young victims the anguish of testifying at a trial and sends an unmistakable message to those who would dare take advantage of our children that justice will prevail.”
One parent said during the hearing that Berndt should be burned at the stake, but Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George Lomeli said the 25-year sentence could amount to life behind bars.
“Berndt did ask for less time than what the D.A. offered. The court was not inclined to go along with that,” Lomeli said. “Understand that he is of a certain age, and the time that’s going to be imposed by this court, 25 years, could potentially — coupled with his age — amount to a life sentence in this matter.
“I know that you mentioned … you would like to see him burned at the stake. Obviously I don’t have the power to do that, nor would I do that at this point, but understand he’s getting 25 years, not what he was asking for,” the judge said.
The 2012 arrests of Berndt and another former Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, led to a community outcry and an overhaul of the management of the school. Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy replaced the school’s entire staff, although most eventually returned to work at the campus.
A series of lawsuits and claims were filed by alleged victims against the LAUSD, which so far has paid out nearly $30 million in settlements. Dozens more claims are pending.
Springer is still awaiting trial on three counts of committing lewd acts on a child.
Berndt was arrested following a roughly yearlong investigation. School district officials said Berndt was removed from the classroom when the allegations against him first arose in January 2011 and the district moved to fire him, but he resigned before he could be terminated.
Sheriff’s officials said the investigation of Berndt began when a film processor turned over more than 40 photographs of children in a classroom, with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered in tape. Some of the pictures showed Berndt with his arm around the children or with his hand over their mouths, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
A sheriff’s sergeant said some of 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.” Some photos also showed children with a large roach on their faces, sheriff’s officials said.
Sheriff’s officials noted that detectives found a blue plastic spoon and an empty container in the trash in Berndt’s classroom. Both items tested positive for semen, and DNA testing matched it to Berndt, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
Deputies also served a search warrant on Berndt’s home and found more than 100 other similar photographs depicting children, sheriff’s officials said. Detectives also found about 250 other photos at the film-processing business, sheriff’s officials said.
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