Chris Chester, who lost his wife Sarah and their 13-year-old daughter Payton in the January 2020 helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and six others, testified Thursday that he is "fearful all the time every day" that the crash scene photos will leak to the public.
Chris, alongside Vanessa Bryant, is suing Los Angeles County for emotional distress and mental anguish after learning that crash scene photos — which included the victims' bodies — were publicly shared on at least 28 devices owned by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and by more than a dozen first responders.
The father of three — along with Payton, he and Sarah are the parents of twin boys, now 18 — spoke publicly about the crash for the first time in an emotional testimony. Chris, 48, said that Payton "was quite an accomplished basketball player" on her team with the Bryants' daughter Gianna. He explained that the weekend of the crash, he and Sarah decided that she would go with Payton to her basketball games, while Chris would go to the twins' lacrosse tournament. That morning, he said a brief goodbye to Payton and Sarah.
"Payton and I had a very close relationship. I gave her my rah-rah speech," he says, and then kissed Sarah and told them, "I'd see them tonight."
Facebook Payton and Sarah Chester
Chris said that ended up being the last time they ever talked. They typically would text throughout the day, but he started to worry when his last text went unanswered. He called Kobe's assistant, who said she lost communication with them, and left his sons' lacrosse tournament to drive out to the Lost Hills sheriff station. As they drove, news of the crash broke.
"Lots of things were going through my head, but I thought I was going to a hospital," he explained, thinking that Payton and Sarah would be injured, but still alive. But the station was alarmingly quiet, he said, and "I had started to get an eery feeling." He was taken to an area with the other families, including Vanessa, where they were eventually told that there were no survivors.
"It was heavy," he said. "My life will never be the same."
In the aftermath of the crash, Chris said he had spoken with the coroner about identifying the remains, to which she said, "It's not something you or anyone wants to see," which he understood to mean the scene was gruesome. Chris said he was also assured that all of the photos taken by the coroner and National Transportation Safety Board — who investigate aviation crashes — were procedurally secured.
That's why, when he first learned that members of the sheriff's department had taken and publicly shared photos from the crash scene, he was at first in disbelief. "It didn't seem plausible," he said. His feelings soon morphed into anger. While Chris felt "an empty sadness" after losing his wife and daughter, he said that when he learned that first responders were sharing photos he felt rage. "It was clearly something that brought the whole thing back."
Chris testified that he has suffered high anxiety at the thought of those photos ever leaking to the public. "I didn't even think they'd have photos," he said. "It never crossed my mind in my wildest imagination that sheriffs with cell phones would take photos and then share them."
This case has been "especially distressing" due to the many inconsistencies and level of uncertainty regarding the photos ever getting out, if they're still in existence or even how many there really are, he said. "It's fearful, the level of unknowns. I'm fearful all the time every day," he said, at the thought of them getting out.
Jae C Hong/AP/Shutterstock Vanessa Bryant
Chris, who said that he's struggled with depression since the crash and at times would turn to drinking, decided to join Vanessa's lawsuit because he wanted to get to the bottom of what happened.
"I wanted justice and accountability."
Chris said that when he buried Sarah and Payton, "I told Sarah to take care of Payton and I've got the boys and I'll see you again."
"I'm thankful every day that I gave Sarah a kiss that morning and said 'I love you.' " He continued: "The grief of losing a child…you're not supposed to outlive your kids."