Warning: This story contains descriptions that some readers may find disturbing.
LOS ANGELES – Vanessa Bryant sobbed and excused herself from a federal courtroom here Thursday as a former bartender from an area Mexican restaurant testified about being shown photos of body parts from the helicopter crash in January 2020 that killed nine, including her daughter Gianna and husband, Kobe, the NBA legend.
Bryant left the courtroom after the former bartender recounted how a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy trainee came to his restaurant and showed him photos from the crash scene two days after the accident.
They were gruesome.
“Did you see a human torso in the photo that you understood to be Kobe Bryant?” asked one of Bryant’s attorneys, Craig Jennings Lavoie.
“Yes,” replied the former bartender, Victor Gutierrez.
This was Day 2 of Bryant’s civil trial against Los Angeles County – a day that delved into graphic details from the crash scene and featured testimony from five witnesses, including the former bartender in Norwalk, California.
Gutierrez said the deputy trainee, Joey Cruz, asked him at his bar that night if he wanted to see a photo of Kobe Bryant’s body.
“Did you also see what appeared to be a girl in any of the photos?” Lavoie asked.
“They were just parts,” Gutierrez said. “I don’t know if they were men or women.”
Bryant cried, then got up, left and didn't return Thursday. She sued the county after the crash, accusing county sheriff’s and fire department employees of taking and sharing photos of her deceased loved ones from the crash scene despite not having a government reason for doing so. She is joined at the trial for this case by plaintiff Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the same crash and is suing the county for the same reasons.
Both are seated in front of a jury of six men and four women who will be tasked with determining whether their privacy rights were violated by the county’s conduct, even though the county says the photos were deleted soon after the accident and never were posted online.
After Wednesday's dramatic opening statements, Thursday's events gave the jury much to consider:
The bartender on video
The jury was shown several surveillance video clips from the bar in Norwalk on the night Cruz visited. Cruz is expected to testify next week, but Gutierrez gave his account of their interactions that night on Thursday.
The video, which did not include audio of their voices, showed the two looking at Cruz’s phone, and then Gutierrez reacting with laughter. After looking at Cruz's phone, the video also showed Gutierrez approaching other patrons at the restaurant and making hand gestures to his throat, head and torso as he spoke to them.
Lavoie suggested he was talking about the condition of the bodies he saw in the photos from Cruz.
But Gutierrez often testified he didn’t remember what he said that night to different people. One of the few things he said he did remember was that he never laughed about the photos.
“You gotta be psycho to do that,” he said. He instead suggested his laughter in the video might have been in reaction to something else he saw on Cruz's phone after he looked at the crash photos, such as an unrelated funny video.
Citizen complaint from bar
After Gutierrez testified, another patron at the restaurant that night took the stand. His name is Ralph Mendez Jr., a real estate investor who filed a complaint with the sheriff’s department after Gutierrez told people at his table about the photos shown by Cruz.
That complaint eventually led to this trial.
On Thursday, Mendez described his reaction to what Gutierrez told him that night.
“I was in disbelief of everything I heard,” said Mendez, who also described it as a “sense of betrayal” by Cruz, a law enforcement officer entrusted with protecting the community. Mendez filed his complaint on the sheriff’s website later that night from the driveway of his home.
Under the subject line “Kobe,” the complaint said, “There was a deputy at Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk who was . . . showing pictures of his decapitated body.”
Mendez later was contacted about the complaint by sheriff’s captain Jorge Valdez. But when a Los Angeles Times reporter asked Valdez about the complaint before it became public in February 2020, Valdez denied being aware of it.
Audio of that interview was played in court for the jury.
“I’m unaware of any complaint,” Valdez said in the audio from February 2020.
Asked his reaction to this in court Thursday, Mendez called Valdez a liar.
“He’s lying,” said Mendez.
Eliciting gruesome details
Earlier in the day, Bryant stayed out of the courtroom during testimony from a captain of the county coroner’s office, Emily Tauscher.
Unlike the sheriff’s and fire departments, the coroner’s office is not accused of misusing photos from the crash scene. But it did have more than 1,000 of them as part of its duties, leading Tauscher to the witness stand Thursday, where she shared graphic details about the mutilated condition of the victims after the high-velocity crash.
Her testimony underscored a cruel irony about this case. Bryant’s and Chester’s attorneys say their clients live in fear of these gruesome death photos reemerging one day and are haunted by the thought of that. But they also are eliciting graphic details from witnesses in open court about the photos and the condition of the bodies from the crash site – to the point that Bryant stayed out of the courtroom twice because of it.
This is being done for a reason, according to Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li.
“Because (county) defendants deny that photos taken and shared by their personnel depicted the remains of plaintiffs’ loved ones, and because they deleted those photos or failed to preserve them, plaintiffs must present witness testimony about what defendants’ photos depicted,” Li stated in a court document filed Wednesday.
Pelinka finishes testimony
The day began with about 40 minutes of testimony from Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, who initially took the stand Wednesday as the first witness of the trial.
He testified that Bryant expressed to him that if the crash photos are ever seen by her children “she didn’t know if she could go on.”
He said he did not see such photos, but if he did, “it would be an image I could never get out of my head.”
And he would want them gone forever.
“I would want them destroyed and removed from the universe,” Pelinka said.
The county has argued the photos don’t appear to exist anymore because they were deleted for similar reasons – to keep them from spreading further and to protect the victims' families.
An internal investigation found the photos went to the devices of 28 sheriff’s personnel, in addition to fire personnel, according to court records. Testimony about the fire department’s handling of these photos is expected Friday morning in a trial that could stretch across two weeks.
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant photos trial: Widow leaves during disturbing testimony