Vanessa Bryant sobbed in a Los Angeles court Wednesday as her attorney described how sheriff’s deputies and firefighters shared photos of her late husband Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna’s mangled remains after they were killed in a helicopter crash in 2020.
The 40-year-old widow, who wore a fitted black suit and still had a band on her left ring finger, cried into a tissue as the court heard that one deputy even referred to her loved ones as “piles of meat” in a deposition.
“Jan 26, 2020 will always be the worst day of Vanessa Bryant’s life,” Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li, said to the jury during opening statements. “County employees explored and took pictures as souvenirs. They poured salt into an unbearable wound.”
Bryant’s federal invasion-of-privacy-suit trial launched Wednesday in federal court more than two years after the NBA Hall of Famer was killed along with the couple’s 13-year-old daughter and seven others in a January 2020 helicopter crash in Calabasas.
She is seeking an unspecified millions in damages in her suit against Los Angeles County over graphic snapshots of the wreck that were allegedly passed around by first responders.
The photos were shared on “at least 28 [Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies] devices and by at least a dozen firefighters,” some of whom touted the photos like trophies “in a bar while pantomiming dismemberment and showing off the photos over cocktails at an awards gala,” Bryant’s lawsuit alleges.
Li said that one of the deputies who responded to the crash site walked around the wreckage and snapped close-up photos of the NBA legend’s dismembered body parts.
One deputy took a firefighter up and down the crash site where he identified possible body parts and the firefighter took pictures, Li said.
In one deposition heard in court, Det. Scott Miller said the pictures were sent to him and he asked his wife if she wanted to see the gruesome pictures, but she said no.
“I told her there were piles of meat,” Miller said in an interview and then laughed loudly in the recording.
Vanessa Bryant broke down after hearing the crass comment.
Miller continued to say that Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and others in his department were confronted about deputies sharing the pictures at a bar and with family, but Villanueva denied knowledge of a complaint lodged to his department.
Li said a man who was at a bar in Norco, Calif when he happened to see Deputy Joey Cruz shared the pictures on his iPhone with a bartender. Li played a video of the encounter, which showed the bartender wince and step back in shock when he looked at the phone screen.
Moments later, Cruz was seen laughing at the bar. The man who witnessed Cruz sharing the photo reported it to the sheriff’s office, he said.
Around the same time, Li said, a county firefighter’s wife also reported to fire officials that several first responders were sharing and discussing the graphic crash photos at an awards show.
Capt. Matthew Vander Horch emailed his superiors about the complaint and said he would look into an investigation, Li said. However, the Sheriff’s Department intervened and stopped the investigation, Vander Horch said in a deposition.
The sheriff’s deputies were told to erase everything in their phones and buy new ones, the attorney claimed.
Villanueva was questioned a month after the crash over reports that his deputies were sharing photos. The sheriff said it was not uncommon that deputies would take pictures of the dead bodies at incidents and collect them as keepsakes in “death books.”
In a separate video, Villanueva clarified that only coroners and National Transit Safety Board officials should be permitted to take photos of these types of incidents for investigation purposes only, and that no one else is allowed to.
“When this type of behavior is tolerated, it creates a culture of callousness,” Li told the jurors, who were selected on Wednesday.
Attorneys representing Los Angeles County wrote in a trial brief that there is no evidence that the images were shared publicly.
US District Judge John Walter John Walter consolidated Bryant’s lawsuit with a similar claim filed by Orange County financial adviser Chris Chester, who lost his wife Sarah and their 13-year-old daughter, Payton, in the accident.
Chester also struggled to keep his composure as his attorney, Jerry Jackson, described the horrific way his wife was found by first responders.
Jackson said Sarah and Peyton’s bodies were found 100 feet away from the main impact site in a ravine. Sarah’s torso was sliced open at the waist and her organs, her private parts, colon, fallopian tubes and intestines were strewn all over the bushes in the ravine and the surrounding areas.
The violent scene was among the photos shared by several sheriffs and fire personnel, Jackson said.
“On Mr. Chester’s darkest said he thought someday, somewhere, somehow, those responsible … will face justice,” Jackson said. “Today is that day.”
Jackson said the devastated father has had a hard time dealing with his wife and daughters deaths and had turned to drinking at one low point.
Judge Walter indicated that the trial would take about a week and would be broken up into two phases, according to City News Service.
The first phase of the trial would address Bryant’s federal claims that the taking and dissemination of photos by county personnel violated their constitutional rights. The state law claims would be argued during the second phase.