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Vanessa Bryant, L.A. sheriff spar in court over Kobe Bryant crash photos

Vanessa Bryant, center, the widow of Kobe Bryant, leaves a federal courthouse in Los Angeles. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
5 min

LOS ANGELES — Vanessa Bryant, the widow of Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, took the witness stand here Friday morning, describing panic attacks and sleepless nights suffered since she learned that deputies and firefighters had used personal cellphones to take and circulate pictures of the victims of the 2020 helicopter crash that killed her husband and daughter along with seven others.

“I broke down and cried,” Bryant said of the day in February 2020 when she first learned of the dissemination of the grisly photos taken a month earlier and then shared by a deputy with a buddy at a bar and by a firefighter at a gala, among other instances. “I just felt like I wanted to run down the block and scream.”

Bryant’s testimony, in a federal courthouse a few miles from the downtown arena where her late husband led the Lakers to five championships, marked the emotional climax of a legal saga that has escalated since shortly after the January 2020 crash. The case has raised questions about how the alleged misconduct was handled by top officials for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and Fire Department.

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Bryant, often testifying through tears, said she lives in fear that photos of the remains of her loved ones will surface on social media and blamed authorities for circulating images she said they should have never taken in the first place.

“They violated her,” Bryant said of her daughter Gianna, 13, “taking advantage of the fact that her daddy couldn’t protect her because he was at the morgue.”

Bryant’s fellow plaintiff in the civil rights lawsuit, Chris Chester, previously had testified that learning about the dissemination of the photos had led to “grief on top of grief.” He dismissed the idea, advanced by county attorneys, that first responders had taken and shared photos for legitimate reasons.

“It never crossed my mind, in the wildest imagination, that someone with a personal cellphone with a Los Angeles Dodgers sticker on that back” would take photos at the rugged accident scene above Calabasas, Calif., and share them with others, Chester said.

But Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who also testified Friday, maintained that a deputy who took cellphone photos — some of which were close-ups of body parts — and then shared them with others was concerned with recording the scene before it was trampled by firefighters or onlookers.

Attorneys for Bryant and Chester challenged Villanueva with recordings of previous media interviews in which the sheriff stated there was no legitimate reason for his deputies to have taken cellphone photos at the scene and referred to “death books” in which police collect pictures as illicit souvenirs of their career.

“I tell the truth as best I know it at the time,” said Villanueva, who is facing a challenger in a runoff election. He defended his handling of the scandal, which included granting “amnesty” to any deputies who deleted the photos from their phones — instead of attempting to preserve them as evidence of misconduct.

Villanueva said his primary goal was making sure the photos didn’t disseminate further. “You can’t have the accountability and risk the photographs getting out,” Villanueva said. “You have to pick one of the two. And we made the right choice.”

The trial, which will enter its third week Monday, has had a few bruising moments for county officials.

A retired fire captain, who a sheriff’s deputy testified had taken cellphone photos at the scene, claimed he no longer remembered being there — contradicting previous deposition testimony — and had to take several breaks from testifying to collect himself. A top sheriff’s official apologized on the stand for apparent lies he told concerning whether a complaint had been filed about a deputy sharing photos of the scene. And forensic analysis found disappearing phones and other hardware that would have shed light on the spread of the photos, including a fire official’s laptop found to be missing a hard drive.

Such embarrassing revelations often are precluded from being aired in court through a financial settlement. But in this case, with Vanessa Bryant worth hundreds of millions, no such settlement has been reached.

Laurie Levenson, a professor of law at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said the wealth and determination of one of the plaintiffs made for an unusual dilemma for the county. “If this case wasn’t about Kobe Bryant and if the plaintiff didn’t have the resources to pursue this to trial, I doubt that it would have ever gotten this far,” Levenson said. “For the Bryant family, they want accountability, and they have the resources to get it.”

Bryant, 40, described her resolve growing when she received Kobe’s and Gianna’s clothing that they were wearing during the accident. By the condition of the clothes, she said, “you could tell that they suffered” — which made her angrier in her belief that first responders had treated photos of their remains as a novelty.

“I want justice for my husband and my daughter,” Bryant said.

Both Bryant and Chester, whose wife and daughter were killed in the crash, said they had no confidence in county assurances that all of the cellphone photos taken at the scene would never surface.

“I believe that they were all deleted,” Villanueva testified Friday — his evidence being that the photos had not, to his knowledge, been shared online.

But Villanueva, who said in a previous deposition that he believed the photos had spread to 28 phones, also appeared to learn for the first time Friday that one of his deputies acknowledged sending via Airdrop dozens of such photos to a fire captain who never has been identified.

The sheriff’s confidence that all photos were eradicated became that he was “pretty sure” they were gone. When challenged further by Chester’s attorney as to how he could know that, Villanueva continued to hedge.

“God knows,” the sheriff concluded. “And that’s about it.”