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Disturbing photos of classroom 'game' led authorities to teacher accused in child sex abuse case (Updated)

Mark Berndt

L.A. Sheriff's Department

Revolting and disturbing details continue to emerge in the case of a 30-year Los Angeles teacher arrested under suspicion of committing lewd acts on 23 children, including tying them up, putting cockroaches on their faces, and possibly feeding them his semen from a spoon.

61-year-old Mark Berndt was brought to the attention of authorities in October 2010 when a photo processor in Redondo Beach reported images of young children gagged and blindfolded, covered with cockroaches, and consuming liquid from a spoon.

The former Miramonte Elementary School teacher, who was fired in March, was taken from his Torrance home by authorities on Monday following a year-long investigation, according to the Los Angeles Sheriff's department.

The suspect was a teacher of "average effectiveness," according to a Times analysis of standardized test scores,

Berndt worked for the L.A. Unified School District as a teaching assistant from September 1976 to June 1977, and began teaching at Miramonte in August 1979. No disciplinary issues are on file, and the reportedly met standard performance in multiple evaluations.

A key piece of evidence, a spoon recovered from a trash bin in Berndt's classroom early in the investigation, tested positive for semen and was a DNA match for Berndt, said officials. 

The bondage and spoon was allegedly part of a game that the suspect played regularly in his classroom. Said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Dan Scott, "This occurred in his regular classroom with his students...It wasn't done in secrecy. The only secret was what the game was really about," reports the L.A. Times.

The crimes allegedly occurred between 2008 and 2010, and involve 23 children, boys and girls, between the ages of 7 and 10. 

He is being held on $2.3 million bail. 

UPDATE 2:35 p.m. A parent at Miramonte Elementary says he was contacted by a sheriff's detective last spring when photos surfaced of his now 11-year-old son eating cookies with a white substance on them, the L.A. Times is reporting. Three of the photos taken by Mark Berndt focused on the boy's mouth, while many others were of young girls.

The father says a detective told him Berndt sold some of the pictures online, and claims Principal Martin Sandoval was repeatedly unavailable following the discovery of the photos. He also claims to have asked the school for counseling for his son who becomes defensive when asked questions about the photographs.

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