Kobe Bryant: What was at stake in Vanessa Bryant’s crash photo trial

Vanessa Bryant and fellow plaintiff Christopher Chester suing Los Angeles County for emotional distress

Graeme Massie
Los Angeles
Thursday 25 August 2022 02:37 BST

Kobe Bryant lawsuit: Bartender tells jury that LASD deputy showed gruesome crash photos at bar

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When Kobe Bryant’s helicopter smashed into a hillside outside Los Angeles in bad weather in January 2020, killing the basketball great, his daughter and seven others it shattered families and shocked his fans worldwide.

Now his wife Vanessa Bryant is suing Los Angeles County, who her lawyers have told a court “exploited the accident” and “poured salt in an unsealable wound.”

The Los Angeles Lakers legend, Gianna Bryant and the other seven victims died in the crash on 26 January 2020 when the helicopter came down as they flew from Orange County to a basketball tournament.

Ms Bryant’s lawyers have told the jury in the case that in the days after the accident, police and fire officials employed by the county showed off photos of the crash site that included the bodies of the victims.

“January 26, 2020, was and always will be the worst day of Vanessa Bryant’s life,” her lawyer Luis Li told the jury.

“County employees exploited the accident. They took and shared pictures of Kobe and Gianna as souvenirs. …They poured salt in an unhealable wound.”

Mr Li said that first responders at the scene in Calabasas, including those with the fire department, “walked around the wreckage and took pictures of broken bodies from the helicopter crash. They took close-ups of limbs, of burnt flesh. It shocks the conscience.”

Firefighters work the scene of a helicopter crash

And he added: “This case is about accountability. We’re going to prove to you that county employees took pictures and shared them widely.”

He told the court that the photos had been shared with so many people that it was impossible for officials to guarantee that they will not be leaked in the future.

Ms Bryant and fellow plaintiff Christopher Chester have not seen the photos but are suing the county for $75m for emotional distress and the threat that they will one day become public.

Vanessa Bryant leaving the federal courthouse in Los Angeles last week

Mr Chester, an Orange county financial adviser, lost his wife Sarah, and their 13-year-old daughter Payton, in the crash.

“Every single day since the county did what it did, Mrs Bryant and Mr Chester have the risk, have the fear, have the anxiety, have the terror that they might have to re-live the loss of their family members in the most excruciating way,” Mr Li added.

Also killed in the crash were John Altobelli; his wife, Keri Altobelli; their 14-year-old daughter Alyssa Altobelli; coach Christina Mauser; and the pilot, Ara Zobayan.

The families of Mauser and the Altobellis sued over the photos and settled with Los Angeles County last November for $1.25m each.

Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka

Rob Pelinka, Bryant’s former agent, was the first witness in the case. The NBA executive drove Ms Bryant to the Malibu Lost Hills station sheriff’s substation after the crash to meet with Sheriff Alex Villanueva.

Mr Pelinka described through tears his professional and personal relationship with Bryant.

“He’s still my best friend. And I feel so grateful because being friends with Kobe was like having a true superhero as your best friend,” he told the court.

And he described taking Vanessa to meet with officials, saying that “her first instincts were” to lock down the scene. “These are my angels, please,” Mr Pelinka described her saying.

“There were assurances passed onto us through the sheriff” that the crash site would be kept secure and the family’s “privacy maintained.”

Former Los Angeles County fire captain walks off the witness stand

Brian Jordan left the witness stand three times, telling the court that he had suffered extreme trauma from the crash.

Mr Jordan, who spent 35 years with the LAFD, told the jury that the images of what he saw at the scene of the crash “are going to haunt me forever.”

Mr Jordan took a string of photos at the scene, including images of a torso, an arm, and a hand with black skin tone.

He told the court he had been ordered by then-Deputy Chief Anthony Marrone to “Take pictures, take pictures, take pictures.”

Sheriff’s Deputy showed pictures to bartender

Deputy Joey Cruz told the court that he had shown photos, including those of human remains, to a bartender in Norwalk, California, just two days after the crash.

Deputy Cruz admitted there was no legitimate reason for him to have the photos but admitted also showing them to an adult niece and sending them to another deputy.

He was initially suspended for 10 days but appealed it and received a two-day suspension with no pay, and three days of paid training.

“I took it too far,” he told the jury of showing the photos to the bartender, who he described as a close friend.

Firefighter shared photos over cocktails at media awards ceremony

A Los Angeles County firefighter showed off the photos during the cocktail hour at an award ceremony a month after the accident, a witness told the trial.

Luella Weireter, the wife of an LA firefighter, said that the incident happened at the Radio and Television News Association of Southern California’s Golden Mike awards in February 2020.

She told the jury that she saw LA County firefighter Tony Imbrenda share photos of Bryant’s remains and other images with people at the event.

“I can’t believe I just looked at Kobe’s burnt-up body, and now I’m about to eat,” she testified hearing one firefighter say.

Ms Weireter is the cousin of Keri Altobelli, who, along with her husband John and daughter Alyssa, also died in the helicopter crash.

She said that two weeks after the event she filed a formal complaint with a battalion chief at a county fire station in Malibu.

Deputies’ phones wiped of graphic photos, says forensic expert

Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputies “violated fundamental forensic policies” when they deleted graphic photos from the site of the crash, the court heard.

Digital forensic expert for the plaintiffs, David Freskos, said that the data had been wiped from 28 devices belonging to staff at LA County Fire Department and LASD.

The court was also told that a separate forensic analysis conducted by tech firm Kroll Inc. in September 20201 showed that nine out of 11 LASD staff phones were new since the accident.

And he testified that the phone belonging to Deputy Joey Cruz, who has admitted showing off pictures to a bartender, had been reset to factory settings.

“Upon Kroll’s powering on the device to extract the data, the ‘Hello’ screen appeared,” investigators wrote, and added that the phone’s data was ”forensically unrecoverable.”

Christopher Chester testifies about anger at photos being shared

Christopher Chester, who lost his wife Sarah, and their 13-year-old daughter Payton, in the crash, told the court of his horror at officials sharing crash photos.

“I couldn’t construct a scenario where that would happen,” Mr Chester told the court. “I had largely insulated my family from the details (of the injuries suffered in the crash). Now, I thought there would be pictures of the remains (on the internet).”

He told the jury that he was not reassured that officials say they have deleted all of the pictures taken.

“I’m fearful every day. There’s been a lot of things that people thought didn’t exist, that have turned up on the internet,” he said.

Vanessa Bryant sobs as she testifies in court

Vanessa Bryant wept in a Los Angeles courtroom as she told a jury she was breastfeeding her youngest daughter when news reports about the photos taken by police and fire officials emerged.

Ms Bryant, 40, told the court that she had dashed outside her home so that her surviving daughters would not see her devastation.

“I felt like I wanted to run down the block and scream,” Ms Bryant reportedly testified on Friday.

“I can’t escape my body. I can’t escape what I feel.”

And she told the court that more than two years after the fatal accident that killed seven others, she still suffers panic attacks that photos of the bodies of her late husband and 13-year-old Gianna will publicly surface.

“I live in fear. I live in fear every day of seeing on social media and having these images pop up,” she testified.

“I don’t ever want to see these photographs. I want to remember them as they were,” she said.

And she added that she felt that she felt betrayed by county officials in the wake of the accident that shattered her family.

“I expected them to have more compassion...respect,” Ms Bryant testified. “My husband and my daughter deserve dignity.”

Under cross-examination from J Mira Hashmall, representing LA County, Ms Bryant said that she had not been diagnosed with having panic attacks or any other mental health disorder.

She told the court that she had not taken any medications for either condition. But she said that she had seen a therapist for 18 months following the crash, but not after that.

“I feel like sometimes it helps, but sometimes it’s completely draining,” she testified.

The jury has the case

The jury began its deliberations in the case on 24 August.

During closing statements, a lawyer for LA County reportedly argued that Ms Bryant was “out for revenge” because of her grief at the loss of her husband and daughter.

Jury decides LA County must pay Ms Bryant $16m

Los Angeles County must pay Ms Bryant $16m over graphic photos taken by officials at the scene of the fatal helicopter crash that killed the basketball great, the jury ruled.

The jury also ruled that the county must pay $15m to fellow plaintiff Christopher Chester, an Orange county financial adviser, who lost his wife Sarah, and their 13-year-old daughter Payton, in the crash.

The jury returned their verdict after around four-and-a-half hours of deliberations on Wednesday.

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