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California teacher pleads not guilty in student 'bondage' case

By Alan Duke, CNN
updated 5:38 PM EST, Tue February 21, 2012
Former Los Angeles County schoolteacher Mark Berndt, 61, faces 23 counts of lewd acts involving a child.
Former Los Angeles County schoolteacher Mark Berndt, 61, faces 23 counts of lewd acts involving a child.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Defense attorney asks no rush to judgment
  • Mark Berndt, 61, appears in court unshaven and silent
  • He lost his job in January 2011, then was arrested one year later
  • Police say his DNA matches semen found on spoons in his classroom

Los Angeles (CNN) -- A former southern California schoolteacher entered a not guilty plea Tuesday to allegations he bound young students, then photographed them with semen-filled spoons held at their mouths and three-inch cockroaches crawling across their faces, among other graphic depictions.

Authorities have said they have discovered roughly 600 images allegedly taken by Mark Berndt, 61, in his classroom.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Marcelita Haynes set the next hearing for March 28.

Berndt's lawyer is asking to see all of the photographs seized by investigators, but the district attorney's office has only given him copies of 200 photos of the 23 alleged victims who have been identified. The judge will consider if the remaining photos, including those where the children have not been identified, will be given to the defense.

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Berndt, wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, spoke only once during the short hearing, saying "not guilty."

The defense complained to the judge that Berndt was not allowed to shave before his court appearance.

"They are purposefully depriving him of this opportunity so he looks unkempt," rather than like a professional educator, his lawyer said.

Victor Acevedo also complained that jailers have identified Berndt as a child molester on the jail's speaker system.

"We cannot have the sheriff's department deputies acting in such a way to essentially put a bull's-eye on his head," Acevedo told reporters after the hearing.

The sheriff ordered an internal affairs investigation of the complaint Tuesday, sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said. Jail supervisors said they were unaware of the incident, Whitmore said.

Berndt's court-appointed lawyer pleaded with journalists outside court to "not to poison the well" against Berndt in the minds of potential jurors with their reporting. He reminded them of the Duke lacrosse rape case in which three players were accused of sexually assaulting an exotic dancer at a March 14, 2006, party.

"Everybody was basically guilty in the media and at the very end, when everything was found out, they dismissed all the charges against all of the lacrosse players," Acevedo said.

He vowed that he would mount a "very vigorous defense" of the former teacher.

Attorney Gloria Allred, known for taking high-profile, controversial cases, was in court to observe. She said she was recently hired by the parent of one of Berndt's alleged victims.

Dismissed by the Los Angeles Unified School District school board about a year ago, Berndt was arrested January 30. He appeared in court two days later, after which he was ordered held on $23 million bail -- $1 million for each of the 23 counts of lewd acts on a child that he faces.

All of those initial 23 victims were between 7 and 10 years old, and all but two of them were girls, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office said.

Since Berndt's initial appearance, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spokesman Sgt. Dan Scott said an additional 200 photographs purportedly taken by the longtime Miramonte Elementary School teacher had been found.

It is uncertain what, if any, additional charges Berndt may face as a result of that discovery or other developments in the investigation.

The law enforcement probe began when investigators found "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," according to the sheriff's department.

Some photos showed "children with large live Madagascar-type cockroaches on their faces and mouths." Others 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," said the sheriff's department.

Scott said that Berndt was arrested soon after lab testing matched Berndt's DNA with a substance -- later determined to be semen -- from a blue plastic spoon and an empty container from a trash bin in his classroom.

The young students "didn't realize they were victimized," said the sheriff's department spokesman.

"They thought they were being blindfolded and gagged as a game," Scott added. "And they were rewarded with cookies or spoons full of sugar, (but) they did not realize the spoon contained semen."

A search of Berndt's home found hundreds of photographs depicting children and a video showing sexual "bondage" activity that "mirrored the bondage-type photos of the children," investigators said.

Parent Bessy Garcia, the mother of two children who were among Berndt's alleged victims, spoke of betrayal.

"He wasn't only a teacher, he was our personal friend," she told CNN earlier this month. "He tricked us. We thought he was the best person in the world."

Los Angeles School Superintendent John Deasy said that Berndt was removed from his teaching job in January 2011, after school officials learned of the police investigation.

A teacher for 30 years, Berndt initially challenged the school district's decision to dismiss him. But he eventually dropped his appeal and resigned last spring.

His arrest this January precipitated a broader fallout, into the adequacy of safeguards for the school's students and the prospect of more victims.

Days after Berndt was taken into custody, another Miramonte Elementary teacher -- Martin Springer, 49 -- was arrested and charged with three felony counts of lewd acts with a girl under the age of 14. He has pleaded not guilty.

The school board subsequently shut Miramonte down for two days, during which the board reconstituted the entire staff in the 1,400-student school. Miramonte is located in unincorporated Los Angeles County within the Florence-Firestone area, about 6 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.

CNN's Casey Wian contributed to this report.

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