Smoke from helicopter crash
Smoke from the helicopter crash north of Malibu. Courtesy Los Angeles Sheriff

Testimony is expected to resume Monday in the federal civil trial of a lawsuit brought by Lakers star Kobe Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, and another family alleging misuse of photos from the scene of a January 2020 helicopter crash that took the lives of their loved ones and five others.

The plaintiffs allege Los Angeles County’s first responders took gruesome cell phone pictures of human remains at the remote Calabasas crash site for their own amusement as “souvenirs” and shared them with other law enforcement personnel and members of the public.

Vanessa Bryant, and Irvine financial advisor Chris Chester are suing the county for unspecified millions of dollars for negligence and invasion of privacy over the photos. Her husband and 13-year-old daughter Gianna and Chester’s wife, Sarah, and 13-year-old daughter Payton were among the nine people killed in the crash.

The county contends all images taken by sheriff’s deputies and firefighters were quickly destroyed, no longer exist in any form and never entered the public domain.

On Friday, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy who was among the first to arrive at the scene testified that he snapped 25 pictures on his cell phone at the site, a third of which contained close-up images of body parts, and sent the pictures to others.

Deputy Doug Johnson said he hiked for more than an hour through remote, brush-filled terrain to get to the accident scene. He searched the site for about 15 minutes looking for survivors, moved a handful of hikers away, and taped off the area before snapping photos to “document” the crash scene at the request of a deputy at the command post, he testified.

The plaintiffs say they continue to suffer emotional distress due to the possibility pictures of their family members’ broken bodies will one day surface on the internet since, as one of their attorneys told the jury this week, “digital lives forever.”

Under questioning by a lawyer for Bryant, Johnson testified he texted the 25 photos to the command post deputy and AirDropped them to a county fire supervisor, who is still unidentified.

As for the phone itself, he said he lost it the following year in Las Vegas.

Bryant’s and Chester’s attorneys contend that after Johnson sent the photos, the images spread to at least 10 others, some of whom allegedly displayed them for members of the public.

On the trial’s third day, Johnson said it never occurred to him that having death photos on his personal cell phone was inappropriate. He testified that it was “common practice” among law enforcement personnel to share and receive images of dead bodies.

The deputy told the fedral court jury in downtown Los Angeles that he had used his phone at crime and accident scenes to take photos “thousands of times.”

In the case of the helicopter crash — which immediately became huge news when TMZ reported the widely beloved basketball star and his daughter were among the victims — Johnson deleted all the photos he had taken, along with a text thread with the deputy at the command post, shortly after he arrived home that night, he testified.

“I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said on the stand, and admitted he didn’t recall ever learning at the academy that family members have rights regarding the death images of loved ones.

In cross-examination, the witness insisted “photographs are the most accurate and thorough way to document” accident sites.

Vanessa Bryant left the courtroom before Johnson’s testimony, which included descriptions of catastrophic injuries suffered by the victims.

Her lawsuit was consolidated for trial with that of Chester, who makes many of the same allegations as Bryant, stemming from the Jan. 26, 2020 tragedy.

Earlier Friday, a Los Angeles woman who lost two family members in the crash testified that while attending the Golden Mike Awards gala at the Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City in February 2020, she saw former Los Angeles County fire captain Tony Imbrenda display images of remains on his phone.

In tearful testimony, Luella Weireter said she lost her cousin and the relative’s husband in the crash, and was still grieving when she attended the awards ceremony. She testified that Imbrenda’s wife invited her to look at the photos of Kobe’s corpse on the fire captain’s phone.

She also said she heard another fire official say that night he had “just looked at Kobe’s burnt-up body and I’m about to eat.”

A few days later, Weireter drove to a Malibu fire station to file a complaint. She was the second private citizen to submit a complaint to the county about law enforcement personnel displaying crash scene photos to members of the public.

On Thursday, Cerritos resident Rafael Mendez Jr. testified he lodged a citizen complaint with the sheriff’s department on Jan. 28, 2020, almost immediately after hearing a bartender describe being shown gruesome cell phone images of Kobe Bryant’s remains by an off-duty deputy who had been on the scene of the crash.

“I was in disbelief, disappointed, disgusted and angry,” Mendez told the 10-member jury. “And I felt I had to do the right thing and tell the sheriff’s department what I’d seen.”

–City News Service