The photos were transmitted from a sheriff’s deputy phone screen to a bartender in Norwalk. They were shown to firefighters at an awards gala at the Hilton Hotel in Universal City. They were shared from one MP to another while the men played the Call of Duty video game.
There were close-ups of the carnage of the helicopter crash that killed Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others. And now they are at the center of a heated civil lawsuit that began Wednesday over how widely the images went viral and the pain they brought to two families who lost loved ones in the crash.
Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester – whose wife Sarah and daughter Payton were killed in the Jan. 26, 2020 incident – sat at the plaintiffs’ table in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom as their attorneys made emotional opening statements.
First responders “took pictures of broken bodies,” Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li, told a packed courtroom before a jury on the first day of the federal trial. “They took close-ups of limbs, of burned flesh. That shakes the conscience.”
As her attorney described the carnage, Bryant buried her face in her hands and wiped her eyes with tissues.
“She will forever be haunted by what they did,” Li said.
Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ general manager and close friend of the Bryants, began testifying Wednesday afternoon and cried a lot from it. He said Bryant was appalled at the news that photos had been taken and shared.
Neither Bryant nor Chester have ever seen the photos, their lawyers said, but they live in fear that one day they will – when they least expect it. Li and Jerry Jackson, Chester’s attorney, argued that it was impossible to say how far it had spread because the county had failed to take adequate steps to preserve and examine the phones of all employees who shared the grim images .
“Like a virus, these pictures spread across the county, and we don’t know and they don’t know what happened after they spread,” Li said. A firefighter who received the photos has never been identified.
“They can show up anytime, anywhere without warning,” Jackson said.
Attorneys representing Los Angeles County allege the photos were necessary to identify the helicopter and let other first responders know the extent of the wreckage so they could properly contain the scene. And when sheriff’s officers got wind that the photos had been inappropriately shared, they acted quickly, said Mira Hashmall, an attorney representing the county.
“These images are nowhere,” Hashmall told the jury, adding that they were never posted online or in the media, or seen by the families.
She said Deputy Doug Johnson hiked more than a mile through thick fog and 1,250 feet to the Calabasas crash site. She said Johnson would testify and explain why his documentation was necessary.
“He’ll explain why that wasn’t gossip,” Hashmall said.
Johnson was involved in another high-profile incident, in which video showed him kneeling on the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes. This episode and how it was handled by the department is the focus of a grand jury investigation.
Hashmall’s argument that the photos were taken for legitimate purposes is at odds with what Sheriff Alex Villanueva said. In an interview that Li played for the jury, Villanueva said the only agencies that had any reason to take photos that day were the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates plane crashes, and the coroner’s office.
The case emerged from a Times investigation that revealed MPs had shared graphic photos of the crash site.
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.
Li played to the jury security video taken at the bar that night, showing Deputy Joey Cruz — a trainee who had been on the beat for only two months — showing the bartender his phone. The bartender looked at the screen and turned away. When he returned later, the two men were talking and laughing.
The bartender told Ralph Mendez, who was sitting at a stand nearby, that he had just seen Bryant’s remains on the deputy’s phone.
Concerned, Mendez filed a complaint on the Sheriff’s Department website that got as far as Villanueva.
The department had tried to keep the scandal under wraps by telling MPs they would not be fined if they came clean and deleted the images, rather than launching a formal investigation.
Hashmall said the sheriff took decisive action to prevent the photos from getting out. “He chose what he saw as the only option,” Hashmall said. “He thought about those families. … He felt like every second counted.”
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 agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle two of the lawsuits.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-08-11/kobe-vanessa-bryant-sheriff-photo-sharing-trial Vanessa Bryant is ‘haunted’ by the sharing of Kobe crash photos, attorney says