LOS ANGELES – More witnesses are expected to be called to the stand Friday in the federal civil trial of a lawsuit brought by Lakers star Kobe Bryant’s widow and another family whose loved ones perished in the January 2020 helicopter crash that took nine lives.
The plaintiffs allege that Los Angeles County’s first responders took gruesome 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.
At the time there was no standing law regarding first responders taking such photos, however, a law was created, Assembly Bill 2655, making it a misdemeanor for first responders to take unnecessary photos at crime scenes. A bill sponsored by Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
“This is a very important piece of legislation,” Villanueva said. “It arose out of the helicopter crash in Calabasas, and it provides something very important: it’s peace of mind for the families, next of kin and those who perished in an accident.”
Villanueva said his department has policies against taking and sharing photos from crime scenes, but those policies alone have proven insufficient.
Vanessa Bryant and Irvine financial advisor Chris Chester are suing the county for unspecified millions of dollars for negligence and invasion of privacy over the photos, which the county contends were quickly destroyed, no longer exist in any form and never entered the public domain.
The plaintiffs say they continue to suffer emotional distress due to the possibility that pictures of their family members’ broken bodies will one day surface on the internet since, as one of their attorneys told the jury, “digital lives forever.”
On day three of the trial in downtown Los Angeles, Luella Weireter is expected to testify that she attended the Golden Mike Awards gala at the Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City in February 2020 and saw former Los Angeles County fire captain Tony Imbrenda display images of remains on his phone.
Defense attorneys are expected to argue in cross-examination that the witness never saw or received any crash site images, and has no personal knowledge of what was depicted in the photos.
Weireter was the second private citizen to submit a complaint to the county about law enforcement personnel displaying crash scene photos to members of the public.
On the first full day of testimony Thursday, Cerritos resident Rafael Mendez Jr. testified that he filed a citizen complaint with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on Jan. 28, 2020, almost immediately after hearing a bartender describe being shown gruesome cell phone images of Kobe Bryant’s remains by an off-duty deputy who had been on the scene of the crash that killed the Lakers standout and eight others two days earlier.
“I was in disbelief, disappointed, disgusted and angry,” Mendez told the 10-member jury. “And I felt I had to do the right thing and tell the sheriff’s department what I’d seen.”
Also on deck Friday is Adam Bercovici, a retired Los Angeles police lieutenant who has been designated an expert witness in public safety officers’ practices and policies, including those regarding death photos. Defense attorneys are expected to argue that the witness has no knowledge of Los Angeles County practices.
Bryant’s lawsuit has been consolidated for trial with that of Chester, who lost wife Sarah and 13-year-old daughter Payton in the Jan. 26, 2020 tragedy, and makes many of the same allegations as Bryant, whose husband and their 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, were killed.
Testimony has frequently been graphic and emotional, and Kobe’s widow has left the seventh-floor courtroom in tears several times. She is expected to testify at some point during the nine-day trial.
2UrbanGirls contributed to this report.