LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva was the first witness called to the stand in the trial brought against the County by Vanness Bryant and Chris Chester over first responders taking accident photos of the victims of a deadly helicopter crash that killed nine passengers in Jan. 2020.
The lawsuits allege invasion of privacy and emotional distress due to fears the photos of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and Chester’s daughter Payton could end up in the public domain.
The county argues that all images taken by its sheriff’s deputies and firefighters were deleted upon orders of their superior officers, no longer exist in any form and never entered the public domain or appeared on the internet.
The sheriff recalled that, three days after the accident, the department received a citizen complaint about a deputy apparently displaying crash-site images at a Norwalk bar on his personal cell phone. Sheriff’s investigators immediately went to the bar and secured video surveillance footage, Villanueva said.
“The quicker this is addressed, you can keep all the horses in the barn,” he testified.
When it turned out that others had either taken or shared photos from the accident, he issued an order to the captains at the Lost Hills station that the photos “can never see the light of day — make sure that happens. And that’s what my staff did.”
Eight deputies involved in the photos were brought into the station, but some didn’t want to be interviewed without an attorney present. At that point, the sheriff said, he made a decision to grant them “amnesty” — freedom from discipline — if they turned in their phones and came in for interviews.
“I was looking at the clock,” Villanueva testified. “We needed to get them into the station immediately and get these photos under control. No discipline — that was the bargain … and it worked.”
After the initial inquiry had concluded, around Feb. 28, 2020, the story of the crash-scene photos shared by sheriff’s and fire personnel leaked into the media and an official internal affairs investigation opened, the sheriff told jurors.
Villanueva said he was “very surprised” when he found out the story had leaked.
“It indicated someone had broken the confidentiality of the investigation,” he testified, adding that the news coverage derailed plans for the department to approach the families separately and tell them what had transpired.
Asked about media interviews at the time, in which he said there were no policies in place at the time dealing with deputies taking photos at crash sites, the sheriff said Friday that the “entire incident was unprecedented.” But he indicated there were actually confidentiality and behavior policies in place that did cover the situation in January 2020.
The photos, Villanueva told an attorney for the plaintiffs, “were all deleted.”
But, questioned as to whether the taking of the pictures of body parts by deputies had caused added grief to the families of the victims, the sheriff answered, “yes.”
The defense has frequently pointed out during the trial — which began on Aug. 10 — that the photos have not surfaced online in the 2 1/2 years since the tragedy. Multiple county fire and sheriff’s personnel have taken the stand during the federal civil trial and told jurors they deleted whatever accident-site pictures they had on their cell phones. Attorneys for the county have argued that the deletion of photos permanently prevented their public dissemination.
Vanessa Bryant, 40, testified that first responders who took photos of her dead 13-year-old daughter Gianna “violated” the girl, and said she was “devastated” to learn that such images were snapped in spite of Sheriff Alex Villanueva assuring her the crash scene would be secured.
She said she continues to suffer from grief and anxiety at the thought of crash site photos surfacing someday. She said her biggest fear is the photos being published “and those photographs constantly being spread.”
“It’s like COVID. Once it’s spread, you can’t get it back,” she said.
Above all, she said, she wanted justice and accountability for her husband and daughter.
The plaintiffs contend Los Angeles County’s first responders took grisly cell phone pictures of human remains at the remote Calabasas crash site for their own amusement as “souvenirs” and shared them with other law enforcement personnel and members of the public.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs contend the images spread to at least 10 others, but there has been no evidence presented that the photos still exist or ever turned up in public.
2UrbanGirls contributed to this report.