Sheriff's Department under fire as trial starts over Kobe Bryant crash photos

Officials remove a body from the wreckage in Calabasas on Sunday where Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna were among 9 dead in a helicopter crash. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
First responders gather at the site of the helicopter crash in Calabasas that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others in January 2020. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
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They were caught sharing graphic photos they had stored on their phones of the helicopter crash that killed Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others.

Since then, nearly all of the Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies involved in the scandal have gotten new phones.

The deputy who took the photos said he lost his in Las Vegas. The trainee who showed the images to a bartender wiped his phone of all its data. Others said they replaced their phones as part of routine upgrades. An L.A. County fire captain, meanwhile, was found by his employer to have intentionally deleted the images to cover up his role in the misconduct.

The failure to preserve the electronic evidence to ensure the photos didn’t spread beyond those employees will be a key component in Vanessa Bryant's federal civil lawsuit against Los Angeles County, which is scheduled to start Wednesday.

The trial marks the culmination of a two-year legal fight over one of the most highly publicized scandals within the Sheriff's Department. The deputy who took the crash photos is also involved in yet another high-profile incident; he was caught on video kneeling on a handcuffed inmate's head for three minutes.

And at the heart of the case is Bryant himself. The beloved Laker won five NBA championships and was an 18-time All-Star. He graced magazine covers and television commercials, and was featured in video games, television series and music videos. He won an Oscar. When he died, much of the city mourned.

“For decades, the County has tolerated the practice of officers and first responders taking and sharing pictures of deceased human beings for no legitimate purpose," Bryant's attorney Luis Li said in a statement. "This custom and practice robs grieving families of their Constitutional right to protect the privacy and dignity of their loved ones. We look forward to presenting our case in Court.”

The county disputes that there's a long-standing practice of county employees sharing death images. But in a 2020 interview about the photo sharing, Villanueva said that "every police department struggles with the same thing where people take photos, and they're not evidence."

Mira Hashmall, an attorney representing the county, said in a statement that the county sympathizes with the families for their losses but that the case boils down to whether the photos were publicly disseminated.

“The answer is no. From the time of the crash to now, the County has worked tirelessly to prevent its crash site photos from getting into the public domain," she said. "Over two and a half years later, no County photos have appeared in the media, none can be found online, and the Plaintiffs admit they’ve never seen them."

The judge decided to allow attorneys for Bryant and Christopher Chester — whose wife and daughter were killed in the crash — to question witnesses about the destruction of evidence. Chester's case has been combined with Bryant's.

"The information that has been lost is crucial to a determination of the Sheriff's Department and Fire Department and the county's liability," U.S. District Judge John F. Walter said during a recent hearing.

The families, Walter said, "have been deprived of direct evidence of what the photographs at the heart of this lawsuit depicted, which victims were photographed, how many photos were taken and shared, and the extent of dissemination."

Bryant, and other families that lost loved ones in the crash, sued the county for negligence and invasion of privacy. The Board of Supervisors has agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle two of the suits. But Bryant and Chester refused to settle.

Their joint trial in downtown L.A. is expected to run about nine days. Bryant and Sheriff Alex Villanueva are expected to testify.

In the hours after the January 2020 crash, Bryant and Chester each met with Villanueva at the Lost Hills station in Calabasas.

Vanessa Bryant holds a hand over her heart as she speaks at a microphone.
In February 2020, Vanessa Bryant appears at a celebration of life for her husband, Kobe Bryant, and daughter Gianna. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Bryant testified in a deposition that she pleaded with the sheriff: If you can’t bring my husband and baby back, please make sure no one takes photographs of them. She implored him to get on the phone to secure the area. He left and came back, she testified, promising the area was secure.

But photos of the wreckage were soon passed around by his deputies via text and AirDrop.

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.

At the bar that night, surveillance footage recorded Joey Cruz showing his phone to the bartender. Cruz, a trainee who had been on patrol just two months, appeared to make a slashing motion with his arm.

Ralph Mendez was sitting in a booth nearby. He didn't hear Cruz's conversation, but the bartender told him the man was a deputy who had just shown him photos of Bryant's remains.

Disturbed, Mendez filed a complaint on the Sheriff's Department's website.

"There was a deputy at Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk who was at the Kobe Bryant crash site showing pictures of his ... body," Mendez wrote. "He was working the day the helicopter went down. … He is a young deputy, shaved head with tattoos on his arm. …"

The allegation made its way up to Villanueva.

The sheriff, through his subordinates, promised the deputies involved that they wouldn't be punished if they came clean and deleted the photos.

The Sheriff's Department didn't request an internal affairs investigation until a day after The Times first reported on the photo sharing, according to internal sheriff’s records attached to a court filing.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks to the media last month. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Villanueva is expected to testify in the trial about conversations he had with Bryant and Chester on the day of the crash, as well as his response to Mendez's complaint and his comments to news reporters, according to a recent filing.

Capt. Matt Vander Horck, head of the Lost Hills station at the time, said during a deposition that he was troubled by the sheriff's order to delete the photos. Considering that a prior sheriff had gone to prison for obstructing a federal investigation, he questioned whether the photos had evidentiary value.

Vander Horck, who is also expected to testify in the trial, said in the deposition that he voiced his concerns, but he was ignored.

Firefighters also got ahold of photos.

About three weeks after the crash, Tony Imbrenda, a captain with the L.A. County Fire Department, was at the Golden Mike Awards ceremony recognizing radio and TV journalists at the Hilton Hotel in Universal City.

During cocktail hour, Imbrenda showed off his photos of the crash to other firefighters, who were at the event with their spouses. A firefighter’s wife complained, according to internal Fire Department records filed in court.

Around the time reports of photo sharing emerged, Imbrenda deleted about 45 photos and instructed eight to 10 others to do the same, he said in a deposition.

The Fire Department determined that his actions were a self-serving "attempt to cover up his role in the reported misuse of the photos," the judge said at a recent hearing.

Lawyers for L.A. County have rejected Bryant and Chester's claims, arguing that more than two years have passed, and the photos never leaked. "Every action was aimed at preventing harm, not causing it," they said in a recent filing.

It continued: "Because the photos have never been in the media, on the Internet, or otherwise publicly disseminated, Plaintiffs’ case is about their fear that photos could resurface in the future. But a preemptive, speculative lawsuit about what 'may' or 'could' happen fails as a matter of law."

But Bryant's attorneys say she is afraid that she or her children will one day come across horrific images of their loved ones on the internet.

“For the rest of my life, one of two things will happen: Either close-up photos of my husband’s and daughter’s bodies will go viral online, or I will continue to live in fear of that happening,” Bryant said in a declaration.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.