Kobe Bryant crash, L.A. sheriff cover-up collide in court

About a year after Los Angeles County Assemblyman Doug Johnson took graphic photos of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crash scene that were then passed around, he became embroiled in another scandal.

Johnson knelt on the head of a handcuffed inmate for several minutes — another incident that sheriff’s officers tried to hide, fearing it would reflect “negatively” on the sheriff’s department.

They’ve become two of the most publicized scandals in the sheriff’s department during Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s tenure — and they’re now colliding in the courtroom.

LA County attorneys are trying to prevent Vanessa Bryant, who is suing the Sheriff’s Department for negligence and invasion of privacy for sharing photos, from introducing Johnson’s cover-up of the violent detention as evidence in her next trial Month.

Prosecutors argue that the violent incident and the cover-up have “nothing to do with” Bryant’s claims. But they said Bryant’s attorneys would not agree to bar questions about it at trial. So they want a judge to decide.

“The prison incident and LASD response are unrelated to the accident scene photos at issue in this matter,” prosecutors said in a filing on Friday. “The incident is not only irrelevant, but also highly inflammatory – it touches on one of the most contentious issues in our society, allegations of excessive use of force by police officers.”

County attorneys said in the filing that they called Bryant’s attorneys after the sheriff’s department’s handling of Johnson’s violent incident, first reported by The Times, became national news and asked if they would agree not to to address in court. Bryant’s attorneys, who could not be reached for comment Friday, declined, the filing said.

In both cases, the sheriff’s department tried to keep the alleged wrongdoing under wraps.

Days after the helicopter crash, the Sheriff’s Department received a complaint that a young Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy showed gruesome photos taken at the scene of the tragedy at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk.

Villanueva, through his subordinates, ordered the MPs involved to delete the crash photos rather than launch an investigation into the alleged wrongdoing. Just a day after The Times first reported the sharing of the photos, the sheriff’s department called for an investigation into the internal affairs, according to internal sheriff filings attached to a court filing.

Johnson said in a memo to his supervisor that he had a legitimate reason for taking the helicopter crash photos, which he immediately deleted. Portions of his testimony were also released in a court filing in Bryant’s case.

He testified that he hiked to the crash site where he searched for survivors and cordoned off the area from hikers. He said he then took 20 to 30 photos of the entire site to “document everything,” including serial numbers and remains of the victims, he testified.

He said he doesn’t think he’s ever written an account of what he’s documented. He also did not post the photos as evidence. He texted the photos to a command post deputy and AirDroped them to a fire officer.

From there, the photos spread.

When asked if he still had the phone he used to take the photos, Johnson said he lost it while gambling in Las Vegas the following year.

Shortly after the sharing of the photos became public, Johnson was transferred to the Sheriff’s Department’s Judicial Services Division.

About a year later, deputies were conducting routine searches of inmates at the San Fernando courthouse before their court appearances when they asked two inmates to be quiet.

As the pair continued to talk and laugh, Johnson ordered one of them, Enzo Escalante, to stop and face the wall. Escalante, 24, was awaiting trial on multiple charges including murder.

Security video obtained by The Times shows Johnson walking down a hallway just behind Escalante before leading him to a wall.

Escalante turned and punched Johnson in the face several times. Johnson and other MPs then took Escalante to the ground and positioned him face down.

After being handcuffed, Johnson kept his knee on Escalante’s head for three minutes.

Department officials were concerned at the time about the negative publicity that might come from an MP kneeling on the head of a handcuffed man, “given its nature and its similarities to the widespread use of violence by George Floyd,” according to one internal report of a critical commander of the cover-up.

The commandant, Allen Castellano, wrote in the July 2021 report that sheriff’s officers decided not to press criminal charges against the inmate who punched the deputy in the face in order not to draw attention to the incident. Sheriff’s officers waited until January — almost a year after the incident — to bring the case against the inmate to prosecutors.

Castellano and other senior sheriff officials have accused Villanueva of orchestrating the cover-up and lying about it, and have indicated in legal claims against the county that he viewed the video about five days after the March 2021 incident.

Villanueva claimed he didn’t see the video until several months later and acted immediately.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-17/sheriff-kobe-bryant-deputy-force-coverups Kobe Bryant crash, L.A. sheriff cover-up collide in court

Alley Einstein

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