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Vanessa Bryant sues L.A. County sheriff over photos of Kobe Bryant crash site

Photos taken by deputies at the scene of the Kobe Bryant crash are at the heart of Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Vanessa Bryant has filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff Alex Villanueva over photos taken by deputies at the site of a helicopter crash that killed her husband, former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant; their 13-year-old daughter, Gianna; and seven others as they traveled to a girls’ basketball tournament in January.

The lawsuit, which cites emotional distress, negligence and invasion of privacy, was filed Thursday in the Superior Court of California. Vanessa Bryant filed a claim against the department, a necessary precursor to a lawsuit, in May.

“The Sheriff’s Department’s outrageous actions have caused Mrs. Bryant severe emotional distress and compounded the trauma of losing Kobe and Gianna,” her lawsuit states, according to the New York Daily News, which obtained a copy. “Mrs. Bryant feels ill at the thought of strangers gawking at images of her deceased husband and child, and she lives in fear that she or her children will one day confront horrific images of their loved ones online.”

The sheriff’s department supplied the following statement to The Washington Post: “Shortly following this tragic crash, Sheriff Villanueva sponsored legislation which now makes it a crime for public safety personnel to take or share non-official pictures of this nature. As a result of the swift actions we took under extraordinary circumstances, no pictures made it into the public arena. We continue to offer our heartfelt sympathies for the victims and their families.”

In March, the Los Angeles Times reported deputies had been accused of sharing graphic photographs of the hillside crash site, with one deputy reportedly showing an image in a bar. The Times reported that the department ordered deputies to delete the photos but did not initiate a formal inquiry or internal affairs investigation. Deputies were told, according to the Times, that they would face no discipline as long as they deleted the photos.

Vanessa Bryant’s attorney, Gary C. Robb, requested an internal affairs investigation into the accusations and the “harshest possible discipline,” according to a statement that Bryant shared on Instagram at that time. Shortly afterward, Villanueva said that as many as eight deputies who allegedly photographed, saw or shared graphic photos of the crash scene were ordered to delete the images.

“That was my number one priority, to make sure those photos no longer exist,” Villanueva told NBC News at the time. “We identified the deputies involved; they came to the station on their own and had admitted they had taken them and they had deleted them. And we’re content that those involved did that.”

Last week’s 21-page complaint describes a “devastated and distraught” Bryant meeting with Villanueva after the Jan. 26 accident in Calabasas and asking that the crash area be declared a “no-fly zone” to keep photographers away. The sheriff, the lawsuit states, assured her that deputies were securing the site.

“The biggest threat to the sanctity of the victims’ remains proved to be the sheriff’s department itself,” the lawsuit states, according to the L.A. NBC affiliate. “Faced with a scene of unimaginable loss, no fewer than eight sheriff’s deputies at the crash site pulled out their personal cellphones and snapped photos of the dead children, parents and coaches.”

Bryant’s lawsuit claims Villanueva directed a coverup and states “the gratuitous images soon became talked about within the department, as deputies displayed them to colleagues in settings that had nothing to do with investigating the accident. One deputy even used his photos of the victims to try to impress a woman at a bar, bragging about how he had been at the crash site. A bartender overheard this interaction and filed a written complaint with the Sheriff’s Department.”

The lawsuit alleges that deputies were asked to delete the photos but that the sheriff “did not conduct a standard investigation or collect, inspect or search the offending deputies’ cellphones to determine how many existed, whether and how they had been transmitted or whether they were stored” on the Internet.

Bryant is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. She previously filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Island Express, the helicopter company operator, and the estate of pilot Ara Zobayan.

In addition to Kobe and Gianna Bryant and Zobayan, the other victims of the crash were Sarah and Payton Chester; Alyssa, Keri and John Altobelli; and Christina Mauser. Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli were Gianna Bryant’s teammates.

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