Deputies' Kobe crash photos didn't violate widow's privacy, county argues

In a federal lawsuit, Vanessa Bryant alleges that several deputies shared 'gratuitous photos' of the fatal crash


By Richard Winton
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — There was no invasion of Vanessa Bryant's privacy amid allegations that Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies shared grim photos of the helicopter crash that killed her husband, Kobe Bryant, their daughter Gianna and seven others, Los Angeles County lawyers said in seeking to dismiss a lawsuit by her.

In her federal lawsuit, Vanessa Bryant alleges that several deputies used personal cellphones "to take and share gratuitous photos of the dead children, parents and coaches" while at the crash scene Jan. 26, 2020.

Officials respond to the wreckage in Calabasas on Sunday where Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna were among 9 dead in a helicopter crash.
Officials respond to the wreckage in Calabasas on Sunday where Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna were among 9 dead in a helicopter crash. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The suit claims that one deputy took as many as 100 images, distributed them to other county workers and showed them in a Norwalk bar — despite assurances from Sheriff Alex Villaneuva that the Bryant family's privacy would be protected.

County lawyers are seeking to get the case dismissed, arguing that Bryant has no legal standing.

"The county does not condone this showing of accident site photographs and has taken corrective personnel actions accordingly," county lawyers wrote. "That does not mean, however, that plaintiff has viable legal claims. The two seminal cases involve public dissemination of pictures of human remains, and that did not occur here."

The county maintains that the photographs "were not given to the media and were not posted on the internet. They were not publicly disseminated."

County lawyers wrote in a brief filed last week that there is no legal basis for lawsuit claims of "hypothetical harm" and that "showing an accident site photograph to one member of the public cannot constitute an invasion of plaintiff's privacy."

The crash occurred last year in dense fog as the helicopter flew Kobe and Gianna Bryant and other players, coaches and parents from Orange County to Thousand Oaks for a youth basketball game. The pilot became disoriented by the poor visibility and crashed into the side of a hill in Calabasas, killing everyone on board.

In recent months, Vanessa Bryant has escalated her legal fight with L.A. County lawyers who have sought to keep secret the identities of the deputies who took the photos at the crash site. A federal judge sided with her, ruling that the names of law enforcement personnel accused of misconduct should not be kept from the public.

Bryant's attorneys filed an amended copy of the lawsuit she had brought against the county and the deputies that includes the names of four deputies. According to that suit, the deputies involved are Raul Versales, Rafael Mejia, Joey Cruz and Michael Russell.

The lawsuit alleges that Versales obtained multiple photographs of the crash scene while stationed at a makeshift command post near the site and shared them with others, including Mejia and a detective.

Mejia stored the images on his personal cellphone and shared them with at least two people, including a deputy who was controlling traffic at the scene, the lawsuit says.

In a memo dated Jan. 30, 2020, Mejia wrote that he received and sent the photos "to answer some questions regarding the color, numbers and identifying features of the aircraft as well as crash scene details," according to the lawsuit. But in an interview two months later, he admitted to investigators he had no legitimate reason to send the photos to the traffic deputy, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit alleges that Mejia also shared the photos with Cruz, a department trainee who then sent them to Russell. Two days later, while at his mother's home, Cruz showed the photos to his niece, according to court documents. That same day, at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk, he bragged about working the scene of the crash and was captured on the bar's security camera zooming in and out of the images while showing them to the bartender, according to the suit.

Shortly after seeing the photos, the bartender loudly boasted to restaurant employees and patrons that he had just seen a photo of Kobe Bryant's body and described the image in graphic detail, the lawsuit states.

Versales also sent the images to a sheriff's detective, court papers show.

As an indication of how casually the photos were shared in the department, "the detective could not even identify the name of the deputy who sent him the photos," the suit contends.

After learning that a complaint had been filed with the Sheriff's Department regarding the improper sharing of photos of victims' remains, Mejia, Cruz, Versales and Russell "negligently and/or willfully destroyed evidence" by deleting the photos from their cellphones, according to the complaint.

By doing so, Mejia "severely undermined the ability to verify any of his claims regarding his handling and dissemination of the photos," according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that Villanueva personally assured the NBA star's widow that deputies were securing the crash site to ensure her privacy.

"In reality, however, no fewer than eight sheriff's deputies were at the scene snapping cellphone photos of the dead children, parents and coaches," the lawsuit states. "As the department would later admit, there was no investigative purpose for deputies to take pictures at the crash site. Rather, the deputies took photos for their own personal purposes."

Times staff writer Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

(c)2021 the Los Angeles Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2021 Police1. All rights reserved.