Judge rejects bail reduction in L.A. school child sex abuse case, citing victims' nightmares

Story highlights

  • A Los Angeles County judge says some of the young victims are having nightmares
  • Los Angeles elementary teacher Mark Berndt is charged with 23 counts of lewd acts on a child
  • The judge rejects a request to reduce Berndt's bail from $23 million to $1 million
  • Berndt transferred to another jail after his attorney complains about jailers' harassment
A Los Angeles County judge rejected Wednesday a request to reduce the $23 million bail of a former elementary school teacher charged with 23 counts of lewd acts upon students.
Judge Marcelita Haynes also rejected a request by the public defender for former teacher Mark Berndt to view prosecution photographs of other schoolchildren whom authorities are investigating as possible additional victims.
Berndt, 61, who taught at the Los Angeles school district's Miramonte Elementary School, pleaded not guilty in February 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.
In rejecting public defender Victor Acevedo's request to reduce bail to $1 million, Haynes said in court there was "evidence of emotional trauma in that some of the children have experienced unspecified nightmares."
The judge said she weighed "the sophistication of the offenses and the alleged injuries to the victims," the allegation of "the exchange of bodily fluids," and the defendant's position of trust with "particularly vulnerable" victims in making her decision.
Acevedo argued the $23 million, $1 million for each of the 23 offenses, was unconstitutional because "that's the functional equivalent of no bail." Berndt, wearing an orange jumpsuit, was seated beside his attorney during the hearing.
Acevedo also argued that Berndt has no criminal record, is not a flight risk, and had taught at Miramonte Elementary for more than 30 years.
After the hearing, Acevedo told reporters he was disappointed the judge declined to reduce Berndt's bail.
"Mr. Berndt wouldn't even be able to go out of his home" if he were released on bail because of the case's widespread publicity, he said.
Acevedo also expressed concerns about the judge's courtroom remarks about the victims' nightmares, saying the comment could hurt his case.
"That's news to me," Acevedo said. "Who has been feeding these kids information" of what was allegedly occurring in the photographs?
Meanwhile, Los Angeles County authorities have transferred Berndt to another detention facility after Acevedo complained in February that jailers identified Berndt as a child molester on the jail's speaker system.
The Los Angeles County sheriff has already ordered an internal affairs investigation of the complaint, and the administrative review is ongoing, spokesman Steve Whitmore said Wednesday. Jail supervisors have said they were unaware of the incident, Whitmore said.
Berndt is still experiencing harassment from other inmates after the relocation, Acevedo said.
The next court date is May 1 to schedule Berndt's preliminary hearing, the judge said.
Meanwhile, the California state auditor is going to carry out an emergency $300,000 audit of the Los Angeles Unified School District's negligence in managing and documenting child abuse claims, said State Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, who sponsored the performance audit proposal.
The incident at Miramonte and similar allegations of child sex abuse at other Los Angeles public schools prompted the audit, Lara said.
The audit should be complete in seven to nine months, Lara said.
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.
All the 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.
Authorities have said they have discovered roughly 600 images allegedly taken by Berndt in his classroom.
Since Berndt's initial appearance, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spokesman Sgt. Dan Scott said an additional 200 photographs purportedly taken by Berndt have 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 investigation 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.
Los Angeles School Superintendent John Deasy said 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 in January precipitated a broader fallout over 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 age 14. He has pleaded not guilty.
The school board subsequently shut Miramonte for two days, during which the board reconstituted the entire staff in the 1,400-student school. Miramonte is in unincorporated Los Angeles County within the Florence-Firestone area, about 6 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.