LOS ANGELES — Authorities say the elementary school teacher told the children that it was a game. Once inside his third-grade classroom, they say, he blindfolded them, gagged them and set cockroaches crawling on their faces.
And then, Mark Berndt photographed them, creating hundreds of images that would eventually lead to his arrest, police say.
On Tuesday, Berndt, 61, was sitting in jail on charges that he committed lewd acts on 23 boys and girls, ages 6 to 10, between 2008 and 2010. None of them complained about Berndt's behavior, authorities said.
Police and school officials only learned of it when a film processor found Berndt's photos more than a year ago. After the discovery, the school district fired Berndt and police put him under surveillance. "If it wasn't for the film processor, this could still be continuing today," said Lt. Carlos Marquez of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Berndt was arrested Monday at his home in Torrance and was being held on $2.3 million bail.
Some parents picking up their prekindergarteners at the school on Tuesday complained that officials at Miramonte Elementary School in South Los Angeles should have notified them when the photos were found.
"My concern is why, if the principal knew this in advance, why didn't he inform us?" said Gloria Polanco, the mother of a second- and a third-grader. "How long has he been doing this?"
The inquiry began after the film processor, who is required by state law to report suspicions of child abuse and molestation, turned over about 40 photographs to authorities.
Searches of Berndt's classroom and home turned up about 400 photos depicting children, though the number of pictures may not be the same as the number of kids. At least 10 children in the photos have not been identified.
Some photos showed Berndt with his arm around children or his hand over their mouths. Some photos showed children with live bugs the size of hissing cockroaches on their mouths or faces.
Others depicted girls with what appears to be a spoon up to their mouths as if they were going to ingest a clear-white liquid. Children were fed Berndt's semen from a spoon or on cookies, Marquez said.
Kids reported being fed something distasteful. A blue plastic spoon and container found in the trash in his classroom tested positive for his semen, police said.
Police recommended the children in the photos be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. There may be more victims given the length of time Berndt taught at the school, Marquez said.
Authorities could have arrested Berndt on misdemeanor charges when the investigation began but chose to build a stronger felony case, Marquez said. He could get a life sentence if he is convicted.
Berndt, a childless bachelor with no previous arrest record, was placed under surveillance and is not believed to have had contact with children during the investigation. He began teaching at Miramonte in 1979.
Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent John Deasy said he was notified of the investigation last January and removed Berndt from the classroom the same day. The School Board then fired him, he said.