Trial starts Wednesday over Kobe Bryant crash photos

They were caught sharing graphic photos saved on their phones from the helicopter crash that killed Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others.

Since then, almost all of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies involved in the scandal have been given new phones.

The deputy who took the photos said he lost his in Las Vegas. The trainee who showed the pictures to a bartender erased all the data on his phone. Others said they swapped out their phones as part of routine upgrades. An LA County firefighter, meanwhile, was found by his employer who had intentionally deleted the images to cover up his role in the wrongdoing.

The failure to preserve the electronic evidence to ensure the photos are not distributed beyond those employees will be a key component in Vanessa Bryant’s federal civil lawsuit against Los Angeles County, which is scheduled to begin Wednesday.

A bartender talks to a customer in surveillance footage

Surveillance footage from the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk shows a bartender speaking to Joey Cruz, left, a deputy trainee with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

The trial marks the culmination of a two-year legal battle surrounding one of the most publicized scandals in the sheriff’s department. The deputy who took the crash photos is also involved in another high-profile incident; He was caught on video kneeling on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes.

And at the center of the case is Bryant himself, Los Angeles sports king. The beloved Laker won five NBA championships and was an 18-time All-Star. He has graced magazine covers and television commercials, and has appeared in video games, television series and music videos. He won an Oscar. When he died, much of the city mourned.

“For decades, the county has tolerated the practice of officials and first responders taking and sharing images of people who have died without a legitimate purpose,” Bryant’s attorney Luis Li said in a statement. “This custom and practice deprives grieving families of their constitutional right to protect the privacy and dignity of their loved ones. We look forward to presenting our case in court.”

Mira Hashmall, an attorney representing the county, said in a statement that the county sympathizes with the families for their losses but that the case boils down to whether the photos were publicly distributed.

“The answer is no. From the time of the crash to the present day, the county has worked tirelessly to prevent its photos of the crash site from becoming publicly available,” she said. “More than two and a half years later, no photos of the county have appeared in the media , none can be found online, and the plaintiffs admit they have never seen them.”

The judge ruled to allow lawyers for Bryant and Christopher Chester – whose wife and daughter died in the crash – to question witnesses about the destruction of evidence. Chester’s case was combined with Bryant’s case.

“The lost information is critical to the sheriff’s department and fire department’s decision and the county’s liability,” US District Judge John F. Walter said at a recent hearing.

The families, Walter said, “were denied direct evidence of what the photos showed at the heart of this trial, what victims were photographed, how many photos were taken and shared, and the extent to which they were disseminated.”

Bryant and other families who lost loved ones in the crash are suing the county for negligence and invasion of privacy. The Board of Directors has agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle two of the lawsuits. But Bryant and Chester refused to come to terms.

Their trial together in downtown LA is expected to last about nine days. Bryant and Sheriff Alex Villanueva are scheduled to testify.

In the hours following the January 2020 crash, Bryant and Chester each met with Villanueva at the Lost Hills station in Calabasas.

Vanessa Bryant holds a hand over her heart as she speaks into a microphone.

In February 2020, Vanessa Bryant performs at a life celebration for her husband Kobe Bryant and their daughter Gianna.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Bryant said in a statement that she begged the sheriff, “If you can’t bring my husband and baby back, please make sure no one takes pictures of them.” She begged him to pick up the phone to secure the area. He went and came back, testified them and promised the area was safe.

But photos of the wreck were soon being passed around by his proxies via text and AirDrop.

Three days after the crash, the Sheriff’s Department received a complaint that a young deputy was showing photos of the carnage at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk.

That night, the bar recorded Joey Cruz showing the bartender his phone. Cruz, a trainee who had only been on patrol for two months, appeared to make a slanting motion with his arm.

Ralph Mendez sat in a booth nearby. He didn’t hear Cruz’s conversation, but the bartender told him the man was a deputy who had just shown him photos of Bryant’s remains.

Concerned, Mendez filed a complaint on the Sheriff’s Department website.

“There was a representative at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk who was at the Kobe Bryant crash site and showed pictures of his … body,” Mendez wrote. “He was working the day the chopper crashed… He’s a young deputy, shaved head with tattoos on his arm…”

The accusation reached Villanueva.

The sheriff, through his subordinates, promised the deputies involved that they would not be penalized if they came clean and deleted the photos.

The sheriff’s department did not request an internal affairs investigation until a day after The Times first reported the sharing of the photos, according to internal sheriff notes attached to a court filing.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva spoke to the media last month.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

According to a recently filed filing, Villanueva is expected to testify at trial about conversations with Bryant and Chester on the day of the crash, as well as his response to Mendez’s complaint and comments to news reporters.

Capt. Matt Vander Horck, the Lost Hills station chief at the time, said during a testimony that he was concerned about the sheriff’s order to delete the photos. Noting that a former sheriff had gone to prison for obstructing a federal investigation, he questioned whether the photos had any probative value.

Vander Horck, who is also expected to testify at the trial, said in the testimony that he raised his concerns but was ignored.

The fire department also took photos.

About three weeks after the crash, LA County Fire Department Captain Tony Imbrenda was at the Golden Mike Awards, which honored radio and television journalists, at the Hilton Hotel in Universal City.

During cocktail hour, Imbrenda showed his photos of the crash to other firefighters who were at the event with their spouses. A firefighter’s wife complained, according to internal fire department records filed with the court.

Around the time reports of photo sharing surfaced, Imbrenda deleted about 45 photos and directed eight to 10 others to do the same, he said in a statement.

The fire department found his actions were a self-serving “attempt to cover up his role in the reported misuse of the photos,” the judge said at a recent hearing.

LA County attorneys have dismissed Bryant and Chester’s claims, arguing that more than two years have passed and the photos were never leaked. “Every action was aimed at preventing harm, not causing it,” according to a recently filed filing.

It continues: “Since the photos have never been publicly distributed in the media, on the internet or otherwise, the plaintiffs’ case addresses their fear that photos may reappear in the future. But a pre-emptive, speculative lawsuit about what ‘may’ or ‘could’ happen fails legally.”

But Bryant’s lawyers say she’s afraid that one day she or her children will come across horrific images of their loved ones online.

“For the rest of my life, one of two things will happen: either close-up photos of my husband and daughter’s bodies will go viral online, or I will continue to live in fear of this happening,” Bryant said in a statement. Trial starts Wednesday over Kobe Bryant crash photos

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