Accused Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt, who allegedly took photos of blindfolded and gagged students with semen-tainted cookies or spoons held to their mouths, was back before a judge Wednesday as the court tried to decide whether there is enough evidence for the case to proceed, but was sent back to jail after a request to reduce his bail from $23 million to $1 million was rejected.
Berndt, 61, was arrested Jan. 30 and charged with 23 counts of committing a lewd act on a child. The children were between 7 and 10 years old; the alleged crimes took place between 2005 and 2011.
This time, Berndt showed up in court clean-shaven and with his hair cut short, grooming he says he was denied for his first court appearance. But that was the only thing that went his way at the hearing.
Berndt's attorney Victor Acevedo said that Berndt's $23 million bail was excessive. "That's the functional equivalent of no bail to probably everyone in the state of California," Acevedo said. Acevedo said that the bail should be reduced because Berndt has no criminal record, but L.A. Superior Court Judge Marcelita Haynes shot the request down.
“There’s evidence of emotional trauma in that some of the children have reported unspecified nightmares have come to public attention," the judge said. "Therefore the court sets the bail according to the bail schedule."
"I'm really disappointed that unfortunately we didn't get even somewhere near what I would consider to be reasonable under the circumstances," Acevedo said, according to NBC L.A.
Prosecutors also said that more photos have surfaced in the case. They said they're still going through "a lot" of photos.
Acevedo also asked for access to all of the photos in the prosecution’s possession. In all, about 600 photographs of students have been discovered in the investigation into Berndt’s alleged acts of lewd conduct.
Neither Berndt nor his defense attorney have had an opportunity to review the photos. Once again, the judge turned down the request.
"There are a lot of photographs where the children have not been identified," said L.A. County District Attorney's office spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons. Authorities are still investigating and trying to identify new potential victims.
Berndt's attorney asked for copies of the photos, but that request was also denied.
Acevedo told reporters outside court that Berndt has received threats while behind bars and that he fears for his client's safety in jail.
"He has been now moved ... to a different location within the county jail system, but even there he has been the subject of harassment by fellow inmates," Acevedo said.
The investigation into Berndt began over a year ago when a film processor turned over more than 40 photographs of children in a classroom with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered in tape to the authorities. Some pictures showed Berndt with his arm around the children or with his hand over their mouths, investigators said.
According to the Sheriff's Department, some of the photographs "depicted girls 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 there are also photos of children with a large live Madagascar-type cockroach on their faces and mouths.
Sheriff's officials said detectives found a blue plastic spoon and an empty container in a trash bin in Berndt's classroom. Both items tested positive for semen, and DNA testing matched it to Berndt, according to the Sheriff's Department.
Deputies also served a search warrant at Berndt's home, where they found more than 100 photos depicting children and similar to the batch of pictures initially turned over to authorities, according to sheriff's officials.
"Also recovered was a DVD of film depicting adult sexual bondage activity which mirrored the bondage-type photos of the children," according to the Sheriff's Department. "The adults in the bondage were not identified, and the images in that video are not a crime."
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for May 1. Berndt has pleaded not guilty.
This story has been updated.