LOS ANGELES — The teacher accused this week of taking bondage photos of his elementary school students was investigated in 1993, but prosecutors decided not to pursue the case, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office said Thursday.
The nature of the earlier probe of Mark Berndt, a 30-year teaching veteran, was not disclosed, but the decision to drop the case was made by the district attorney on February 23, 1994, the prosecutor said in a written statement.
“After careful evaluation, it was determined that the evidence was insufficient to prove a crime occurred,” the statement said. “A prosecutor cannot ethically file criminal charges if the evidence fails to meet the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Berndt, 61, faces more recent allegations. He sits in jail with his bond set at $23 million over 23 felony counts of lewd acts on a child.
Investigators waited more than a year before arresting Brendt, a teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in south Los Angeles, after finding bondage photos apparently taken in his classroom, but a sheriff’s sergeant says, “We always had our eyes on him.”
Although the probe began in October 2010, when a drugstore photo processor called police, Berndt was not taken into custody until this week. He was removed from the classroom in January 2011.
At least 23 children in the images have been identified, while another 10 are unidentified, said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Dan Scott, who supervised the investigation.
The 400 photographs collected by investigators show children blindfolded, with tape over their mouths, and some with suspected semen-filled spoons at their mouths, Scott 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,” authorities said.
The probe began when a CVS drugstore photo technician in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County told the Redondo Police department about finding disturbing images of blindfolded children in a processing order, Scott said.
Redondo police investigators called the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department on December 2, after determining the photos were taken in Berndt’s classroom.
“Immediately, our detective assigned to the case contacted school officials about our investigation, but we learned that students were off track and would not be returning until January 3rd,” Scott said.
A detective from the Sheriff’s Special Victims Unit visited Berndt’s classroom on Jan. 3 — when classes resumed after the holiday break — and separated the teacher from his students, Scott said.
“When Berndt was asked to leave, our detective conducted cursory interviews with the students in a very delicate manner to simply find how the class works,” said Scott, who added that authorities at the time had only potential evidence of misdemeanor charges based on the photo discovery.
Berndt refused to answer questions that day, Scott said. “Mr. Berndt invoked his rights to remain silent without counsel, therefore, once the students were cleared from the classroom, our detective immediately searched the classroom looking for evidence.”
The evidence they were seeking included the blue spoon seen in some of the photos of female students. Later testing convinced investigators the spoon contained Berndt’s semen.
“Beneath a classroom trash bin, our detective found a blue spoon and container similar to the one depicted in the photos,” Scott said. “We suspect those items were probably deliberately placed at the bottom of the trash bin.”
Sheriff’s investigators notified school authorities of their investigation on Jan. 7, 2011, and Berndt was placed on leave from his teaching job, Scott said.
“A few days later, we served a subpoena on Berndt’s residence and uncovered over 100 additional photos,” he said.
The spoon and small container recovered from the classroom were sent to a criminal laboratory for DNA testing. It took seven months for investigators to positively identify the sample as semen, Scott said.
“Once we determined the samples contained semen, we sent a surveillance team to follow Berndt around to obtain a sample of his DNA,” he said. Scott declined to reveal how authorities obtained Berndt’s DNA.
“It took us another six to seven months to process Berndt’s DNA and match it with the classroom DNA sample that tested positive for semen,” he said.
Processing the DNA, identifying the children in the photos and conducting in-depth interviews with potential victims was time consuming, Scott said in response to criticism over the year that passed before Berndt was arrested.
“We always had our eyes on him and there was never a chance he would get away from us,” Scott said.