The photos were flashed from a sheriff’s deputy’s 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 deputy to another while the men played the video game “Call of Duty.”
There were close-ups of the carnage from the helicopter crash that killed Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others. And now they’re at the center of a heated civil trial that began Wednesday over how far the images spread and the pain they brought two families that 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 of the downtown Los Angeles courtroom as their attorneys delivered emotional opening statements.
First responders “took pictures of broken bodies,” Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li, told jurors in front of a full courtroom on the first day of the federal trial. “They took close-ups of limbs, of burnt flesh. It shocks the conscience.”
When her attorney described the carnage, Bryant buried her face in her hands and wiped her eyes with tissues.
“She will be haunted by what they did forever,” Li said.
Rob Pelinka, general manager of the Lakers and close friend of the Bryants, began testifying Wednesday afternoon and wept through much of it. He said Bryant was horrified by the news that photos had been taken and shared.
Neither Bryant nor Chester ever saw the photos, their attorneys said, but they live in fear that someday they will — when they least expect it. Li and Jerry Jackson, Chester’s lawyer, argued that, because the county didn’t take proper steps to preserve and examine the phones of all the employees who shared the grim pictures, it’s impossible to tell how far they spread.
“Like a virus, these pictures spread throughout the county, and we don’t know and they don’t know what happened after they spread,” Li said. One firefighter who received the photos, he said, was never identified.
“They can appear at any time, at any place, without any warning,” Jackson said.
Lawyers representing Los Angeles County contend the photos were necessary to identify the helicopter and to convey to other first responders the extent of the wreckage so that they could properly contain the scene. And when sheriff’s officials got wind that the photos were shared inappropriately, they took swift action, said Mira Hashmall, an attorney representing the county.
“Those pictures are nowhere,” Hashmall told the jury, adding that they were never published online or in the media or seen by the families.
She said Deputy Doug Johnson hiked more than a mile through dense fog and up 1,250 feet of elevation to the Calabasas crash site. She said Johnson will testify and explain why his documentation was necessary.
“He’ll explain why this wasn’t gossip,” Hashmall said.
Johnson was involved in another high-profile incident, in which he was caught on video kneeling on a handcuffed inmate’s head for three minutes. That episode and how it was handled by the department is at the center of a grand jury investigation.
Hashmall’s argument that the photos were taken for legitimate purposes is at odds with statements made by Sheriff Alex Villanueva. In an interview Li played for jurors, Villanueva said the only agencies that had a reason to take photos that day were the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates plane crashes, and the coroner’s office.
The case grew out of a Times investigation that exposed that deputies had shared graphic photos of the crash scene.
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 the jurors a security video recorded at the bar that night, which showed Deputy Joey Cruz — a trainee who had been on patrol for just two months — displaying his phone to the bartender. The bartender looked at the screen and turned away. When he came back later, the two men talked and laughed.
The bartender told Ralph Mendez, who was sitting at a booth nearby, that he’d just seen Bryant’s remains on the deputy’s phone.
Disturbed, Mendez filed a complaint on the Sheriff’s Department’s website, which made its way up to Villanueva.
The department had tried to keep the scandal under wraps, telling deputies they wouldn’t be punished if they came clean and deleted the images, instead of launching a formal investigation.
Hashmall said the sheriff took decisive action to keep the photos from getting out. “He picked what he viewed as the only option,” Hashmall said. “He was thinking about these families. … He felt like every second mattered.”
Bryant and other families that lost loved ones in the crash sued the county for negligence and invasion of privacy. The Board of Supervisors agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle two of the suits.
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