A sheriff's deputy held onto Kobe Bryant crash site photos for 4 days and said that he and his colleagues shared photos because 'curiosity got the best of us'

·5 min read
Kobe and Gianna Bryant
A bronze sculpture honoring former Los Angeles Lakers NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna Bryant, and the names of those who died, is displayed at the site of a 2020 helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif, on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.(AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
  • Monday was the fourth day of Vanessa Bryant's trial against LA County for crash site photos of Kobe and Gigi Bryant.

  • Several key Los Angeles Sheriff's Deputies testified on Monday, offering patchy recollections and some regrets.

  • One LA Sheriff's Deputy said that he sent photos to two others because 'curiosity got the best of us.'

A Federal courtroom in downtown Los Angeles got an inside look as to why one Los Angeles Sheriff's Deputy waited four days to delete gruesome crash site photos from the helicopter crash that killed Kobe, Gianna Bryant, and nine others.

In that time, the up-close photos would be shared with at least five other law enforcement officers, one of whom admitted to sharing the photos at a bar.

Several LA sheriff's deputies who had a hand in the dissemination of the photos took the stand on Monday, as part of Vanessa Bryant's ongoing trial against LA County first responders who took and shared photos of the human remains from the crash that killed her husband, daughter and 7 others.

One of those deputies, Deputy Rafael Mejia, expressed regret and said that he shared the photos with other staff members because "curiosity got the best of us."

Mejia, who testified directly after two other deputies, said that he had received the photos from Deputy Raul Versales, who had helped him set up a makeshift command post at the base of the mountain where the helicopter crashed.

By 10:30 a.m. on the day of the crash, the command post knew of the possibility that Kobe Bryant was on the flight. By noon, Deputy Doug Johnson had sent Versales 30 photos of the crash, including photos of human remains. Johnson alleged that Versales had ordered him to take the photos, which Versales denied in court on Monday.

"I was surprised to receive them because I was not expecting them," Versales said. He then airdropped the photos to Mejia, who worked a 16-hour shift the day of the crash, and was stationed at the command post with Deputies Ruby Cable and his own trainee, Joey Cruz. By 9 p.m., he had shared the photos with Cruz and Cable.

Cruz went on to share the photos at a bar in Norwalk, California.

When asked why he shared the photos in audio of an internal LASD interview, Mejia said that "curiosity got the best of us."

"It's in our nature, as deputies," Mejia added.

The photos sat on Mejia phone for four days, nestled with photos of his family and friends, until he received a call from his superior on January 30, 2020, telling him that in light of the first citizen complaint, the Sheriff had ordered all personnel who reported to the crash scene to delete crash site photos. Four days later, and as the photos had already spread to at least five LASD staff member's personal phones, Mejia deleted the photos from his phone.

"Looking back, I wouldn't do it again," Mejia added.

In Versales' internal interview, audio showed that he turned his phone over to LASD investigators – one of whom claimed he "didn't know how iPhones work" – for a total of two minutes while they perused his texts and photo gallery. Cruz would then go on to show some of the photos to a bartender two days after the crash.

In their testimonies, Mejia and Versales offered shaky accounts of why they took and shared the photos, and what the photos depicted. They also said it was not the first instance where they had used personal cell phones to photograph gruesome accident or crime scenes.

On January 26, 2020, a helicopter transporting Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant, and the baseball coach John Altobelli and his family crashed near Malibu, California, as they were heading to a girls basketball game. All nine people aboard, including the pilot, Ara Zobayan, died in the crash.

In September 2020, Vanessa Bryant sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the county's fire department, the county as a whole, and eight officers for violating her loved ones' constitutional rights in the wake of reports that first responders took and shared up-close photos of remains at the January 2020 crash site. Chris Chester, whose wife, Sarah, and daughter Payton died in the crash, is also suing county workers on the same federal claims and has a consolidated nine-day trial alongside Bryant's against the county.

Vanessa Bryant's attorney Craig Lavoie backed Mejia into disagreeing with LASD Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who in a March 30, 2020 interview said that "there were only two groups of people that should be taking photos – the NTSB and the coroner's office."

Attorneys for the County have maintained that the first responders needed to take site photography to relay to the command post the nature of the scene, considering the crash, weather conditions and ensuing media frenzy.

In testimonies, the deputies spoke about how they received Performance Log Entries – a slap on the wrist typically reserved for shoddy grooming or attire – in the months following the incident, and after citizen complaints were filed about the photos being shown in public.

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