The widow of Kobe Bryant made a simple request last year when she first learned that that her husband and daughter had died in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles.
In a private meeting with Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, Vanessa Bryant told him, “If you can’t bring my husband and baby back, please make sure no one takes photographs of them. Please secure the area.”
Villanueva promised her he would, according to a transcript of her testimony last month in a pretrial deposition. But now that issue is a big point of dispute in Bryant’s lawsuit against the county over photos of dead bodies from the crash scene.
Did county first responders improperly destroy such photos and other evidence at the direction of Villanueva – evidence that her attorneys say they had a legal obligation to preserve?
Or did Villanueva keep his word to her and eliminate the likelihood of those photos being shared publicly by instructing employees to delete them?
On Monday, the two sides presented dueling arguments about this in a court document filed in federal court. It marks the latest flareup in Bryant’s lawsuit, which accuses county sheriff’s and fire department employees of improperly sharing photos of human remains from the crash scene.
“Sheriff Villanueva was keeping his promise to Bryant by making sure no photos got out,” the county said in a court document filed Monday. “The deputies, on and before January 30, 2020, deleted the photos from their phones — months before this dispute. Within two days, LASD interviewed 28 deputies, reserve deputies, sergeants, and civilian volunteers. The department determined that all personnel who had taken, shared, or received crash site photos had, in fact, deleted them. No one had sent a photo to anyone outside LASD.”
Bryant’s attorneys call it a “cover-up.” On Monday, they asked the court to sanction the county for destroying evidence her attorneys say it should have preserved – including photos and text messages in the aftermath of a crash that killed nine, including the NBA legend.
Bryant is suing the county defendants for invasion of privacy and is seeking compensatory and punitive damages to punish the deputy defendants and “make an example of them to the community.” The county’s position is that the crash-scene photos were taken for official government and investigative purposes, and were not publicly disseminated beyond isolated incidents at a bar and a banquet.
“By destroying evidence instead of preserving it to conduct a proper investigation, Defendants have prevented Plaintiffs from discovering how many other people saw graphic photos of their loved ones’ dead bodies,” said the filing submitted by Bryant’s attorney, Jennifer Bryant.
She has asked the court to grant an “adverse inference” at summary judgment and trial that “the lost evidence would have been unfavorable to Defendants and shown, among other things, further electronic dissemination of photos of Plaintiffs’ deceased loved ones” by county employees.
Her attorneys also want the court to issue an order precluding the county defendants from “presenting any theory denying electronic dissemination of the photos or disputing that the photos depicted each of the victims.”
Bryant is one of two remaining plaintiffs who lost loved ones in the crash and still have active lawsuits against the county over its handling of crash-site photos, along with Chris Chester, who also lost a spouse and daughter in the crash.
Two other families with victims in the crash reached a settlement with the county over the photos — $1.25 million each for the Mauser and Altobelli families. Each filed similar lawsuits against the county and had their settlements approved last week by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
But Bryant has not shown any apparent willingness to settle this anytime soon and is on course to have taken 40 pretrial depositions through her attorneys by the end of the month. In response, the county is fighting back, with plans to ask a judge to throw the lawsuit out of court in summary judgment before the case proceeds to trial in February.
Under the law, the county argued it did not have a duty to preserve evidence until Bryant submitted her tort claims several months after the crash of January 2020. But Bryant’s attorneys stated Monday that nine sheriff’s deputies discarded or wiped devices after this litigation began.
The county said some employees simply upgraded the phones and noted that both sides selected Kroll, an independent forensic company, to examine evidence in the case.
After reviewing over 20 devices, “Kroll confirmed that there are no photos containing victims’ remains and no evidence of public dissemination,” the county stated. “Bryant’s own expert, in support of this motion, opines that when photos are deleted they are, in fact, deleted.”
The controversy dates to three days after the crash, when the sheriff’s department received an e-mail from a concerned citizen who said that a sheriff’s employee had shown crash site photos on his phone to someone at a bar in Norwalk, California, according to the filing. That was deputy trainee, Joey Cruz, who showed the photos on his phone to the bartender.
The bartender “recalled seeing various body parts in the debris field,” according to the filing. “Deputy Cruz did not show the photos to anyone else at the bar, but he did try to show scene photos to his niece, who refused to look at them.”
After learning of the complaint, Cruz stated in a declaration that he deleted the photos.
The county contends in the document that Cruz was the only sheriff’s employee who showed photos to anyone outside the sheriff’s department.
At least three other county fire department employees also faced discipline over the photos, including two who were given notices of termination.
“If Defendants had the photos and all the relevant cellphones, they could conclusively establish that the photos were crash site photos taken for legitimate reasons by hardworking first responders at an extremely challenging scene,” the county stated. “Defendants would also be able to show that the photos were never sent to anyone outside of the County, and that they were deleted.”
U.S. District Judge John Walter weighed in on a similar issue last December, when he dismissed a negligence claim from Bryant’s lawsuit against Villanueva.
“It defies common sense that Sheriff Villanueva’s instruction to delete the photos would somehow increase the risk of public dissemination of those very same photos or that Sheriff Villanueva’s conduct would cause Plaintiff additional emotional distress,” Walter wrote in his ruling.
Bryant’s filing Monday noted that law enforcement officials know that the “first step in investigating a complaint is to preserve evidence and that destroying evidence is improper.”
“Yet that is exactly what Sheriff Villanueva himself ordered Department personnel to do after the Department received a citizen’s complaint that a Sheriff’s deputy was showing photos of the crash site at a bar in Norwalk,” her attorneys stated.
After a sheriff’s captain questioned whether the deletions were lawful, the sheriff demoted him, according the court document. Bryant’s attorneys also said that fire captain Tony Imbrenda “displayed his personal collection of crash-site photos at a public awards show” and then deleted them and told others to do the same after the controversy was reported in the news media.
“I decided to delete the photos,” he stated in a declaration filed in court Monday. “I did not want them to be misused, I advised others to do the same.”
The county’s outside counsel, Skip Miller, issued a statement Monday after the latest court filing:
“While the County continues to have the deepest sympathy for the grief Ms. Bryant has suffered, the request by her lawyers for sanctions is an attempt to distract attention from the fact that none of the routine investigative photos taken by County employees have ever been publicly disseminated.”