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Untangling Vanessa Bryant's Agonizing Legal Battle in the Aftermath of Kobe and Gianna's Deaths

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Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, started off normally enough for Kobe Bryant and his family.

The retired NBA star and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant, who already dreamed of playing ball for the University of Connecticut before going pro, made the short drive from their Newport Beach home to Orange County's John Wayne Airport, where a chartered helicopter awaited to whisk them up the California coast to Kobe's Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks. Gianna had a tournament and Dad was her team's coach.

They took off shortly after 9 a.m.

Back at the house, eldest daughter Natalia Bryant left for ACT prep class and Kobe's wife of 18 years, Vanessa Bryant, settled in for a morning with her two youngest girls, then-3-year-old Bianka and 7-month-old Capri.

At about 11:30 a.m., the family's assistant arrived at their residence. There had been an accident, she told Vanessa. There were five survivors, she added, but she couldn't say for sure whether Kobe and Gianna were OK.

Kobe Bryant's Family Album

That's how the first few moments of what quickly devolved into a nightmarish day were remembered by Vanessa in an Oct. 12, 2021, deposition she gave via Zoom in the course of her ongoing lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The case over illicit pictures taken by deputies at the crash site—barring further developments—is headed for trial.

According to the partially redacted transcript obtained by E! News, upon finding out there had been an accident, Vanessa immediately called her husband. Unable to get through, she then called her mother, Sofia Urbieta Laine, and asked her to come over to babysit Bianka and Capri because she had to get to Los Angeles right away. At the same time, she could see on her phone social media lighting up with "R.I.P. Kobe" posts.

She and the assistant got in the car and picked up Natalia, Vanessa telling the 17-year-old that if there were survivors, her dad and sister Gigi had to be among them, feeling so sure at the time that "they would be helping people" in the wake of an accident. Meanwhile, the sheriff's office wouldn't tell them anything over the phone.

Vanessa then tried to do exactly what Kobe had done so many times for himself and their family throughout his playing days and since his 2016 retirement in order to save time: charter a helicopter.

She recalled being informed at the airport that they couldn't fly her out in those weather conditions.

Kobe Bryant, Vanessa Bryant, Instagram
Instagram

Instead, L.A. Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, Gianna's godfather and one of Kobe's best friends (and his agent before joining the Lakers' front office), drove Vanessa and Natalia up to the L.A. County Sheriff's Malibu-Lost Hills station. The trip took about an hour and 45 minutes, and still when they arrived at around 1:30 p.m., per Vanessa's recollection, no one from law enforcement had given her any answers.

"And I kept asking if my husband and daughter were OK," she remembered in her testimony. "No one would answer me. They walked me into this
little closet area. It looked like a closet. It had a sofa and some kids' toys. And I waited there, and I said, 'Are they OK?' No one would answer me."

Eventually a pastor came into the room, she recalled, followed by L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and a woman who identified herself as a publicist. Vanessa asked her to leave so she could have more privacy.

Kobe Bryant Helicopter Crash: The Nine Lives Lost

The sheriff then confirmed to Vanessa that there had been no survivors, that her husband and daughter had been killed along with seven others onboard when their helicopter crashed into a fog-shrouded hillside in Calabasas. Gianna's teammate Payton Chester and her mother Sarah, teammate Alyssa Altobelli and her parents John and Keri, coach Christina Mauser and pilot Ara Zobayan, whom the Bryants had flown with many times, were all gone.

In the deposition, Vanessa remembered telling Villanueva right then that he needed to secure the crash site, her biggest fear being that people might take photos of the devastating scene. The sheriff said he would but she insisted he give the order that instant, so he excused himself. Upon his return, he told her, "All is good. The area is secured," both around the perimeter and from any drones or helicopters flying overhead.

Villanueva said he was going to hold a press conference, and Vanessa left the station through a back entrance, not wanting to be seen. Aside from a few social media posts, she didn't emerge again until she spoke at the Feb. 24 public memorial for Kobe and Gigi at Los Angeles' Staples Center, his home court for the 20 years he spent with the Lakers.

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And ever since beating a hasty retreat from the sheriff's station, Vanessa has been the keeper of her husband's legacy and estimated $600 million estate, a mom who's still caring for three daughters while mourning a fourth, and the one left to make business and legal decisions that affect all of their lives.

The 39-year-old has admirably not tried to pretend that her entire existence wasn't upended, that losing the man she married at 18 and a child wasn't as horrific as it sounded.

Two weeks after the crash, she wrote on Instagram, "I know what I'm feeling is normal. It's part of the grieving process. I just wanted to share in case there's anyone out there that's experienced a loss like this. God I wish they were here and this nightmare would be over. Praying for all of the victims of this horrible tragedy. Please continue to pray for all." Months later, on Kobe's Aug. 23 birthday she wrote a note to him, concluding, "I wish I could wake up from this horrible nightmare. I wish I could surprise our girls and welcome you and Gigi home to us."

Vanessa Bryant, Summer Vacation, Instagram
Instagram

But life has gone on for the family of four, who had to endure pandemic lockdown like everyone else starting in March 2020 before rejoining the world again with the vigilant support of extended family and close friends like Ciara, Monica, WNBA star Sabrina Ionescu and Kobe's former teammate Pau Gasol and his wife Catherine, who named their first child Elisabet Gianna Gasol.

Last May Vanessa and her two youngest girls (Natalia had her senior prom on the same night, but she got a trip to the Met Gala with her mom in September) went to Massachusetts for Kobe's posthumous induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where none other than Michael Jordan escorted her to the dais for her speech.

Vanessa Bryant, Kobe Bryant Hall of Fame
Instagram

Natalia has embarked on a modeling career and, before she started at University of Southern California last fall, Vanessa took her daughters to Europe and enjoyed her own whirlwind weekend with fellow VIPs at the Dolce & Gabbana runway show in Venice—a fabulous trip she admitted afterward she wasn't entirely sure she was up for. But, "It was so nice to enjoy life a little bit and think about everything I have on my plate," she wrote on Instagram. "This was so good for my soul."

Within the first year especially, the Kobe remembrances were nonstop, from the murals that cropped up in every corner of Los Angeles within weeks of his death and downtown buildings awash in purple and gold lights to the glut of social media posts that prompted Vanessa to start blocking fan accounts to, as she explained, "change the algorithm" because every time she checked Instagram Kobe content seemed to be the only things the explore function had to offer.

Amid the outpouring of grief, tributes and memories of both Kobe's storied career and Gianna's burgeoning star potential rolling in from all over the world, the Internet was also blanketed with news about the crash—some just stating the facts as they became known, but enough speculation to prompt Kobe Inc. executive Molly Carter to issue a statement Jan. 31 reminding the media that the family hadn't said anything yet, nor authorized anyone to speak on their behalf.

"These inaccurate reports only add unnecessary pain to a grieving family," she said.

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In February 2020, Vanessa filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Island Express Helicopters, which owned and operated the Sikorsky S-76 that went down, alleging that the pilot, Zobayan, made numerous errors before and after takeoff, not least of them opting to fly in the thick fog blanketing the southland that morning. The suit didn't request an exact amount, but estimated that Kobe's death cost hundreds of millions of dollars in lost potential income. Family members of the other six passengers aboard were also listed as plaintiffs.

Island Express had no comment on the litigation, other than to call what happened "a tragic accident." Last February the National Transportation Safety Board released its report concluding that Zobayan, likely under self-induced pressure to deliver for a good client, made the "poor decision" to fly unsafely in bad weather. The various parties reached a confidential settlement last July, the court filing stating, "Plaintiffs and Defendants jointly report that they have agreed to settle their claims in the above-entitled action."

Vanessa Bryant, Instagram
Instagram

Also in 2020, Vanessa's mother, Sofía, publicly called her daughter out in a TV interview that September, saying her daughter had ordered her to leave the home where she'd been living in nearby Irvine by March 2021 and took away her car (both assets provided for her by her late son-in-law). In a statement, Vanessa called her mom's behavior "beyond hurtful" and said she and her husband had been financially supporting Sofía for 20 years, and she still was, even though "she has not been physically present or emotionally supportive for my daughters and me after my husband and daughter passed away."

Sofía then sued Vanessa in December 2020, alleging that she'd served as an unpaid nanny and personal assistant for her daughter's family and that Kobe had promised to always look after her. "Unfortunately, Kobe Bryant's promise did not see the light of day as he is now deceased and Vanessa Bryant took each and every step she could to void and cancel all of Kobe's promises," the lawsuit alleged.

In a response, accusing her mother of trying to "extort a financial windfall," Vanessa insisted, "My husband never promised my mother anything, and he would be so disappointed in her behavior and lack of empathy." A notice of settlement was filed in August, the terms confidential.

Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

And before any of that, Vanessa's worst fear had come true: Photos of Kobe and Gianna's bodies had been surreptitiously taken at the scene.

According to her lawsuit filed in September 2020 and an amendment filed in March 2021, sheriff's deputies and a couple of firefighters had snapped the pictures on their phones and forwarded them to others, one of whom (a deputy trainee who had helped deal with crowd control at the site) was caught on a bar's surveillance footage showing his phone to a bartender two days after the crash. The bartender then told another patron that a deputy had just showed him photos of Kobe's remains, the suit alleges.

According to the Los Angeles Times, which first broke the story of the photos' existence in March 2020, the patron, a life-long Lakers fan and an admirer of Kobe as both basketball player and devoted dad, went home and found the "contact us" link on the L.A. County Sheriff's Department website, and wrote a note about what he just witnessed.

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The complaint further contends that, when Villanueva found out about the photos, he ordered his deputies to delete any and all images from their phones and computers—and assured there'd be no further disciplinary actions taken so long as everyone complied.

"That was my number-one priority, was to make sure those photos no longer exist," Villanueva told NBC News shortly after news of the photos first broke. "We identified the deputies involved. They came to the station on their own and had admitted they had taken them and they had deleted them. And we're content that those involved did that."

The sheriff also tweeted out his support for a statewide law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom that September making it a crime for first responders to take unauthorized photos of the deceased at an accident or crime scene.

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Villanueva may have thought his actions were sufficient, but Vanessa—again joined by family members of the other crash victims—sued him and the L.A. County Sheriff's Department for negligence and invasion of privacy. (Villanueva has since been dismissed as a defendant.)

"Faced with a scene of unimaginable loss, no fewer than eight sheriff's deputies at the crash site pulled out their personal cell phones and snapped photos of the dead children, parents and coaches," the suit, obtained by NBC News, alleges. Vanessa's lawyers have further alleged, per the Times, that the images circulated among at least 28 deputies and 12 firefighters, but it was impossible to say how many more could have seen them.

In the complaint, Vanessa contended that finding out those pictures existed, let alone had been passed around, caused severe emotional distress.

Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, Vanessa Bryant
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

In documents filed in opposition to the county's petition to have the suit dismissed, Vanessa argued that she was stepping up to do what needed to be done in Kobe's absence.

"He never would have let this happen and the wrongdoers never would have dared doing what they did," she charged, per the filing obtained by E! News, "and I feel it's now my job to protect [my family] by demanding accountability for the people who violated him and our little girl."

She also stated, "It infuriates me that the people I trusted to protect the dignity of my husband and daughter abused their positions to obtain souvenirs of their deaths, as though possessing pictures of their remains somehow makes them special."

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The sheriff's department has not denied the taking, sharing or deleting of the photos. Rather, they've pushed back against the allegation that Vanessa was traumatized expressly by those actions, since no one—including the Bryant family or members of the media—ever saw the pictures aside from a relatively tiny handful of people.

In her Oct. 12 deposition, Vanessa said she was told that there was a photo online that people were claiming was of Kobe's body, and that the county medical examiner told her the location in the picture matched where the remains were found. But when questioned, she did not know where the alleged image had come from and couldn't say it wasn't an official photograph taken by investigators that unfortunately made its way to the Internet.

Lawyers for the county have insisted that none of the deputies' photos made it online.

In November, U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles F. Eick ruled that Vanessa did not have to submit to the respondents' request for a psychological evaluation, but two weeks later she was ordered to turn over therapy records dating back to 2017 (but not 2010, as the county wanted).

Vanessa Bryant
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/Shutterstock

"Plaintiff has waived her psychotherapist-patient privilege by placing into controversy the reportedly extraordinary, continuing emotional distress allegedly resulting from Defendants' photograph-related actions or inactions," Eick wrote in his decision.

In her deposition testimony, Vanessa agreed with Skip Miller, counsel representing the county in the lawsuit, when he said he really wished he didn't have to be asking her to relive that horrible day.

"This is going to upset me," Vanessa declared. "I don't want to talk about this. I shouldn't be talking about this. If there weren't any photographs to begin with, I wouldn't be here today."

Asked what "emotional distress" meant to her in this case, she explained, "Not only do I have to grieve to the loss of my husband and child, but for the rest of my life I'm going to have to fear that these photographs of my husband and child will be leaked. And I do not want my little girls or I to ever have to see their remains in that matter. Nor do I think it's right that the photographs were taken in the first place because it's already tough enough that I have to experience this heartache and this loss. But now to live the rest of my life having to fear those photographs surfacing is something that I have to deal with every single day."

Asked if she'd ever experienced "anything close" to how this made her feel, Vanessa replied, "Nothing compares. Nothing's close to this. I
lost my husband and child. That was the worst thing imaginable."

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After she'd detailed her memories of the morning of Jan. 26, 2020, leading up to arriving at the sheriff's station, the lawyer again apologized for having to "put you through this."

Vanessa replied, "I shouldn't have to be going through this. It's not just a lawsuit."

That being said, asked what she wanted out of her legal action, the widow replied, "I want accountability."

"I don't want this to ever happen to anybody else," Vanessa explained. "I don't think it's right." She continued, "I just don't understand how someone can have no regard for life and compassion and, instead, choose to take that opportunity to photograph lifeless and helpless individuals for their own sick amusement."

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Pressed to further explain what exactly upset her so much if she herself hadn't seen the photos—Was it the idea of the deputy showing them to a bartender? Or a fire captain showing images on his phone to fellow guests during a cocktail hour?—Vanessa said, "I have my husband's and my daughter's clothing in my possession. And I can say that they—they suffered a lot. And if their clothes represent the condition of their bodies, I cannot imagine how someone could be so callous and have no regard for them or our friends, and just share the images as if they were animals on a street. We're not talking about—I really don't want to get into details. I can only say that their clothing represents a lot."

Gianna Bryant, Natalia Bryant, Bianka Byrant, Vanessa Bryant, Kobe Bryant
Vanessa Bryant / Instagram

L.A. County's Board of Supervisors has agreed to respective $1.25 million settlements for Christina Mauser's widower, Matthew Mauser, and siblings J.J. and Alexis Altobelli, who lost their parents and sister, but Vanessa and the family of Payton and Sarah Chester are pressing on with their litigation.

In her deposition, when Miller asked what sort of monetary damages she envisioned alongside the accountability she was seeking, Vanessa replied, "That's up to the jury."

And following U.S. District Judge John F. Walter's Jan. 6 refusal to grant the county's motion to have the lawsuit dismissed, it very well may be.

"The fact remains that the County did not cause Ms. Bryant's loss and, as was promised on the day of the crash, none of the County's accident site photos were ever publicly disseminated," Miller told E! News in a statement after the ruling. "The County did its job and looks forward to showing that at trial."

Vanessa's attorney, Luis Li, told E! News, "This has always been about accountability. We look forward to presenting the facts to a jury."