By Evan Pondel
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A former Los Angeles elementary school teacher has been charged with lewd acts on 23 children, including putting cockroaches on students' faces and offering them spoonfuls of what may have been semen, authorities said on Tuesday.
Mark Berndt, 61, was arrested at his home in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance on Monday, accused of abusing nearly two dozen boys and girls between 2008 and 2011, said officials with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The children ranged in age from 6 to 10 years old.
Authorities began investigating Berndt over a year ago, after more than 40 photos depicting children in classrooms with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered with tape were turned over to police, said Sheriff's Department Sergeant Dan Scott of the special victims unit.
In one of the more disturbing elements of the case, some photographs showed girls being offered a blue plastic spoon that contained a clear or white substance. Authorities now believe that it may have been semen.
Early in the investigation, detectives recovered a similar blue spoon from the trash within the teacher's classroom, Scott said. It tested positive for semen.
Through further investigation, Berndt's DNA was obtained, tested and found to match that of the DNA profile found on the spoon, Scott said.
Investigators also uncovered photos showing children with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered with tape, the Sheriff's Department said in a statement.
In other photos, Berndt was seen with his arm around the children or with his hand over their mouths, Scott said.
And in some pictures children are seen with "large, live Madagascar-type cockroaches on their faces and mouths," the Sheriff's Department said.
Investigators have discovered a total of 390 photos in the case, and about 10 of the children depicted in the photos have not been identified, the Sheriff's Department said.
Also recovered was a DVD of film depicting adult sexual "Bondage" activity which mirrored the bondage-type photos of the children. The adults in the bondage video were not identified and the images in that video are not a crime.
For over 30 years, Berndt taught at Miramonte Elementary School in the Florence area of Los Angeles County, Scott said. Berndt was fired by the Los Angeles Unified School District in March 2011, shortly after the investigation began, Scott said.
It was not immediately clear why Berndt was not arrested until nearly a year after he was terminated. But the investigation involved interviews of over 80 current and former students and school employees, the Sheriff's Department said in a statement.
An attorney for the former teacher could not be reached for comment.
He was formally charged on Monday with 23 counts of lewd act upon on child, court records show. He is being held in a Los Angeles County jail in lieu of $2.3 million bail.
Berndt could potentially spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted on all counts.
(Writing By Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Paul Thomasch)