The 2012 child abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary became the biggest and costliest in the history of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Police said third-grade teacher Mark Berndt conducted lewd classroom games with dozens of students. The district replaced all 85 Miramonte teachers for months to assure parents that their children were safe. So far, L.A. Unified has paid $30 million in civil settlements.
Obscured in the flood of publicity, however, has been the case of another third-grade teacher at Miramonte: Martin Springer, who came to the attention of investigators as they questioned students.
Springer's criminal trial is scheduled to begin this week.
Only the outlines of the case against Springer are known, gleaned largely through a preliminary hearing and civil claims against the district filed by 13 alleged victims in the wake of his arrest.
There is one accuser in the criminal case — a girl who said Springer touched her leg on several occasions. He has pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of committing a lewd act. If convicted, he faces up to 12 years in prison.
In pre-trial legal filings, prosecutors described the contact as "minimal" and wrote that there was no evidence that Springer threatened the girl. Nonetheless, they pointed out, "some pedophiles are capable of limiting their behavior as needed" and use "the most minimal touching to achieve sexual gratification."
Prosecutor Alison Meyers declined to discuss details of the case.
The school district has fired Springer, now 51, and moved to strip him of his state teaching credential. It already has paid six children $470,000 each to settle their claims involving the teacher.
Springer's lawyer, John Tyre, said that innocent behavior had been "blown out of proportion" because of the Berndt case.
"There is nothing to indicate that there was any sexual intent," he said during the preliminary hearing, suggesting that Springer's accuser and her family may be motivated by financial gain.
He told The Times that Springer had been a teacher at the school for 26 years and had no complaints about his behavior until the frenzy over Berndt.
"It comes down to a witch hunt," he said.
The Miramonte scandal came to light after a drugstore photo technician developed a batch of 35mm film and noticed some suspicious images — children blindfolded, gagged with tape or posing with a white liquid on their mouths.
The photos belonged to Berndt, who was arrested after a yearlong investigation. Police said he fed students cookies topped with semen. In November he pleaded no contest to 23 counts of committing lewd acts and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
After his arrest, school officials asked students to write about their feelings. That led detectives to a fifth-grade girl, who told them she and a friend had been touched by Springer in the third grade.
The friend told investigators that at the time of the alleged incidents, she had been helping Springer in his classroom during recess several days a week.
On up to a dozen occasions when she approached him with questions, the girl testified during a preliminary hearing, Springer would crouch in front of her and — for about five seconds — place his hand on the back of her leg, between her knee and the bottom of the rear pocket of her pants.
The girl's father testified during the preliminary hearing that he took her to the LAPD's 77th Street Station after one alleged incident but that detectives told him there wasn't enough evidence to take action. The girl returned to Springer's class the next day and continued to help him at recess.
Now 12, the girl testified that she sometimes was scared of Springer and that the touching made her uncomfortable, although she also said in court that it wasn't that big a deal.
Her friend who wrote the original diary entry later recanted to investigators about having been touched.
Sgt. Peter Hahn of the L.A. County sheriff's special victims unit said detectives interviewed 102 children, including several with pending civil cases, but were unable to support more criminal charges. "We talked to everybody in his classes," he said.
The criminal case against Springer will be a tricky one for prosecutors to make, according to legal experts. The difficulty lies in proving a sexual intent when the alleged touching was not overtly sexual. Intent is usually established through a pattern of activity, character witnesses or other circumstantial evidence.
"If all they have is one kid saying, 'He touched the back of my leg,' that may not be enough," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School.
At the preliminary hearing, a detective testified that he questioned Springer before his arrest and asked him if he had any sexual intent while touching female students. "He said he was uncomfortable answering that question," the detective said.
Tyre said his client was simply surprised by the interrogation.
Meyers, the prosecutor, said that not all the evidence has been presented. "You cannot judge a case based on the preliminary hearing," she said.
Last July, her team filed three misdemeanor charges of child annoyance, to offer jurors an alternative to finding guilt on the felony counts. Each new charge carries a maximum jail sentence of one year.
Michael Kraut, a former L.A. prosecutor, said the new charges suggested the criminal case against Springer is weak.
Under California law, child annoyance does not have to involve touching and can be used to cover any sexually motivated conduct — a leer, a text message or suggestive comments. The victim does not have to be bothered by it, but a reasonable person would be.
"I'm highly skeptical," Kraut said about the criminal case.
A conviction on any of the charges would require lifetime registration as a sex offender.
Other allegations against Springer have come up in the civil cases filed against the school district.
A 26-year-old woman has alleged that when she attended Miramonte, Springer would press himself against her while in a sexually aroused state, hug her and walk around campus holding her hand.
In a suit filed in October, a man accused Springer of molesting him in a locked classroom two or three times a week between 1996 and 1998. It also alleges that Springer would call the boy to his desk and force him to view computer images he had taken of himself masturbating.
Springer threatened to have the boy's family deported to Mexico if he told anybody, according to the lawsuit.
John Manly, an attorney representing five boys who allege that Springer fondled their genitals, said the $470,000 settlements paid to other children lend credence to allegations against the teacher.
"That's a lot of money," he said. "That should tell you a lot."
But Daniel Kolodziej, who is representing Springer in his fight to keep his teaching credential, said the district's willingness to pay large settlements was inviting questionable claims. "Everybody is looking for a payday," he said.
District officials said that all of the settlements were based primarily on sworn statements by the alleged victims and their families. L.A. Unified officials interviewed Miramonte teachers and staff and found no evidence of sexual misconduct by Springer, district spokesman Sean Rossall said.
Still, flooded with civil complaints involving Berndt, the district agreed to include claims naming Springer in a deal to settle 61 cases last year.
Rossall said the district moved relatively quickly on the payouts because "we wanted to do everything possible to help that community and continue to move forward."
Three of the settlements — including one to the accuser in the criminal case — involved allegations against both teachers, although investigators have found no connection between Springer and Berndt other than working at the same school.
Three other settlements were based on accusations against Springer alone.
One of those alleged victims would say only that Springer was a "bad man" and that "there were stories in the news" about what he did, according to district records reviewed by The Times.
But his family concluded from his behavior — accumulating absences at school, touching a male cousin in a questionable manner and becoming increasingly angry — that Springer had engaged in "sexual molestation" between 2008 and 2010, according to the records.
When detectives interviewed the boy, he did not accuse the teacher of anything, Hahn said.
He said detectives did not question the boy's older brother, who also received a settlement. The brother's claim alleged that Springer sexually molested him between 2007 and 2012 but offered no details.
USC law professor Tom Lyon said that under different circumstances, the district would have been less likely to quickly settle cases naming Springer.
"Berndt swept everybody up into this horror," he said.
Times staff writers Howard Blume and Richard Winton contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times