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$23 million bond set for teacher accused of 'bondage' photos of kids

By Alan Duke, CNN
updated 12:56 PM EST, Wed February 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: A public defender represents Mark Berndt, a 30-year teaching vet
  • The chilling accusations are a stunning betrayal for many parents
  • Officials: The children were told they were playing a game
  • About 10 kids seen in the more than 400 images have yet to be identified

Read more about this story from CNN affiliate KABC

Los Angeles (CNN) -- Bond was set at $23 million Wednesday for a Los Angeles elementary school teacher who allegedly took bondage photos of more than two dozen students in his classroom -- $1 million for each of the 23 counts he faces of lewd acts on a child.

The 400 photographs collected by investigators include some showing suspected semen-filled spoons at the children's mouths, a sheriff's investigator said.

Mark Berndt, 61, appeared briefly before a Los Angeles judge for his initial court appearance Wednesday morning, represented by a court-appointed public defender.

His next court appearance was set for February 21.

Authorities arrested Berndt at his home Monday, and charged him with the 23 felony counts.

"I feel for those parents and for those babies -- those helpless babies," Wanda Mosley, a resident who lives near Miramonte Elementary School, told CNN affiliate KABC.

Former teacher charged with molestation

The chilling accusations were a stunning betrayal for many parents.

"I'm angry. I'm disgusted. I'm sad," Kimberly Kirklin told the station.

The probe started when a film processor gave investigators "over 40 photographs depicting children in a school classroom, with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered with tape," a Los Angeles County Sheriff's statement said.

"Investigators learned that some of the photos depicted suspect Mark Berndt with his arm around the children, or with his hand over their mouths," it 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," the statement said.

Other photos showed "children with large live Madagascar-type cockroaches on their faces and mouths," it said.

Investigators, who interviewed more than 80 current and former students and school employees, identified 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, it said.

The young students "didn't realize they were victimized," sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott 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 (but) they did not realize the spoon contained semen."

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

A search of Berndt's home found more than 100 more similar photographs depicting children and a video depicting adult sexual "bondage" activity "which mirrored the bondage-type photos of the children," investigators said.

The film processor later gave investigators an additional 250 photographs, authorities said.

About 10 children seen in the more than 400 images have not yet been identified, they said.

The investigation began more than a year ago, officials said.

"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 sheriff's statement said. "The recovered items tested positive for semen."

The arrest came soon after lab testing matched Berndt's DNA with semen found on the spoon, Scott said.

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 30-year teaching veteran was removed from his job at the south Los Angeles on January 7, 2011, the day the sheriff's department told the school district about the investigation, Los Angeles School Superintendent John Deasy said.

"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," Deasy said in a written statement.

CNN was not able to identify or reach Berndt's lawyer until Wednesday's initial hearing.

A neighbor who identified himself as "John" to CNN affiliates told KTLA that he had known Berndt for years.

"I said 'My God, he's been kind of freaky all these years I've known him. The way he talks and moves. I said, 'I'm not surprised.'"

CNN's Stan Wilson contributed to this report.

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