A former Los Angeles police sergeant who later worked as a Fox 11 news reporter was acquitted Monday of inappropriate sexual contact with two 12-year-old boys in a cruise ship sauna.
A federal jury cleared Roderick "Rod" Bernsen, 59, of two counts of abusive sexual contact during a trip last year aboard the Diamond Princess.
The boys told investigators that Bernsen, who was once the spokesman for the LAPD, tried to engage them in talk about puberty and erections while exposing himself to them. They said that Bernsen then touched one boy's penis with his toe as the child left the sauna and slapped the other's bare buttocks.
Bernsen said they were lying, possibly because he had had them barred from the sauna.
While he was elated at the verdict, the accusations alone were devastating, he said.
"My life will never be the same," said Bernsen, who now lives in Colorado. "I will have to live with the stigma every day of my life."
Assistant U.S. Attys. Elizabeth R. Yang and Patricia A. Donahue declined to comment on the verdict.
Both boys testified during the four-day trial at the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, as did an FBI behavioral analyst who had concluded that Bernsen either had had more sexual contact or none at all with the boys. The encounter "likely did not occur as described," according to a court document filed by the government.
Bernsen was arrested by the FBI in October after the ship docked in Long Beach at the end of a weeklong cruise to Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Federal authorities prosecute crimes at sea.
The trial began June 5. Each charge carried a statutory maximum of two years in prison, according to Donahue.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge S. James Otero made Bernsen stand up and face the jury. As the verdict was read, he swallowed hard and bowed his head, and then struggled to restrain a smile.
He hugged his family and attorneys, Alan Rubin and James Epstein, a long-time friend who took the case pro bono.
"There was so much evidence that Rod was innocent," said Epstein. "But until you hear those words, you're scared to death."
Rubin said Bernsen, a father of two adult children, had no history of improper conduct with children.
"If he was a child molester, would he have gone to the one part of the cruise ship where children were not allowed?" Rubin asked.
Bernsen said he was "incredibly frightened" waiting for the verdict.
"I've had people shooting at me and I wasn't this nervous," he said.
He said more needs to be done to ensure that children do not make false allegations against adults.
"Even an acquittal by a jury will never trump that charge," he said. "I'm ashamed to tell people my name. Think about that. If you Google my name, you'll see why."