12 times LA County first responders contradicted themselves during the Kobe Bryant crash photos trial

·14 min read
Vanessa Bryant dressed in black, wearing sunglasses and holding notepad
Vanessa Bryant, the widow of Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, leaves the U.S. Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2022. She is suing the county for graphic photos taken by first responders at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed her husband.Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
  • Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester secured a mammoth $31 million verdict against LA County.

  • They sued the county after cops and fire staff took and shared graphic photos from the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash.

  • Throughout the trial, those who disseminated the photos had at times shaky recollections.

A Los Angeles jury awarded Vanessa Bryant $16 million in damages for emotional distress in her trial against Los Angeles County first responders who took and shared photos of Kobe and Gianna Bryant's remains at the site where their helicopter crashed on January 26, 2020.

Chris Chester, whose wife Sarah and daughter Payton were also aboard the helicopter, was awarded $15 million after he and Bryant took on the county in a joint trial.

Throughout the trial, contradictions morphed into a theme – something Bryant and Chester both pointed out during their testimonies. Ultimately, the conflicting testimonies muddied what role key witnesses played at the crash site, while internal department interviews sometimes offered a clearer look to jurors.

A county attorney accused Bryant's team of nitpicking audio snippets from internal department investigations, but those interviews also provided part of a roadmap as to who ordered the photos, what they showed, and why the staff disseminated the photos.

Bryant and Chester also levied criticism of the LASD and LACFD officials who testified in the trial. Bryant said that there has been "a lot of finger-pointing." Chester said there were "inconsistencies" in the testimonies of the first responders as he sought answers.

"It seems like the number of photos keeps getting smaller as people take the stand – we went from 100 to 10 photos," Chester said.

As the deputies and captains implicated in the spread of the photos took the stand one by one over the past two weeks, they offered myriad reasons for why they took, and then shared, the graphic photos: curiosity got the better of them; they believed it was part of their job; or, as two back-to-back deputies testified, it was a way to "alleviate stress."

Attorneys for the county have maintained that the photos are "permanently deleted," and that first responders needed to take "site photography" to relay to the command post the nature of the scene, considering the crash, weather conditions, and ensuing media frenzy.

The county had no comment on the testimonies of the first responders.

Here are some of the ways that those first responders contradicted themselves and their colleagues throughout the high-stakes trial.

Two Sheriff's Deputies had different recollections about the first batch of graphic crash photos

Kobe Bryant helicopter crash site memorial
A small memorial is left near the scene, upper, left, of a helicopter crash that killed former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Calabasas, Calif.(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Deputy Doug Johnson, who first summited to the helicopter crash site, told the court that he took at least 25 photos "of any victims that I thought could be victims," because of the gruesome nature of the crash.

In an internal LASD interview, he had said that he was instructed to take photos by Deputy Raul Versales at the command post but admitted in court that Versales had not specifically asked him to take photos of human remains – only to document the scene. In that interview, he described in vivid detail the photos of remains he had snapped.

"Photographs are the most thorough way of documenting something, especially if evidence or a scene is destroyed," Johnson said. Johnson testified in court that 10 of the photos he took were graphic or contained human remains.

Before Johnson had testified, LASD Malibu search and rescue lead David Katz told the court that Johnson informed him he had taken "hundreds of photos," when they met on the mountain. Johnson would go on to airdrop all of his photos to then-LACFD fire captain Brian Jordan.

"I know I didn't do anything wrong," Johnson said, adding that taking photos of remains at accidents or crime scenes is a "common practice."

The boss of a retired fire captain who stormed off of the stand three times challenged his staff's testimonies

Kobe and Gianna Bryant
A bronze sculpture honoring former Los Angeles Lakers NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna Bryant, and the names of those who died, is displayed at the site of a 2020 helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif, on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.(AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Retired LACFD fire captain Brian Jordan delivered the most hostile, dramatic testimony of the trial as he stormed off the stand three times when asked about what he did at the crash site.

The retired fire official testified that he took approximately 25 to 30 photos at the scene of the helicopter crash but told the courtroom that he didn't remember anything specific about them.

"I don't remember the accident," Jordan testified. "I don't remember what I did," later adding that he "may have been ordered to cover someone up."

Jordan said he was told "take pictures, take pictures, take pictures," by fire chief Anthony Marrone. During Marrone's testimony, he denied giving the order, saying that he told his staff "to be sensitive with photography that they took," partially because he had learned that Kobe Bryant might have been one of the victims as he relayed the instruction.

His boss added that he never assigned Jordan to the crash site, but that Jordan went to the crash site voluntarily, on his day off.

Fire captains were conflicted about the graphic nature of the photos, and who ordered them to take them

In an internal LACFD interview, Brian Jordan said there were graphic photos – something he claimed he could not recall on the stand.

LA Sheriff's Deputy Doug Johnson said that after he airdropped Jordan his photos, "he asked where the bodies are at." Johnson claimed that he led Jordan to every victim or set of remains and Jordan took photos.

"Captain Brian Jordan tarnished his dignity that day," Marrone, unflinching, testified, adding that he never asked fire captain Arlin Kahan to take photos of the bodies on January 27, 2020, the day after the crash.

Kahan's photos, which included a "partially covered torso," per internal interviews, would later be sent to public information officer Tony Imbrenda, who showed them to colleagues at a gala.

Two cops who shared the photos with a web of colleagues on the day of the crash contradicted colleagues, and their boss

Vanessa Bryant
Vanessa Bryant, center, the widow of Kobe Bryant, leaves a federal courthouse in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. Kobe Bryant's widow is taking her lawsuit against the Los Angeles County sheriff's and fire departments to a federal jury, seeking compensation for photos deputies shared of the remains of the NBA star, his daughter and seven others killed in a helicopter crash in 2020.(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Deputies Raul Versales and Rafael Mejia were manning the makeshift command post set up at the Las Virgenes Water District on the day of the crash.

By nightfall, they had both helped share the graphic crash photos with at least four other deputies. On the stand, Versales disputed Johnson's claim that he had ordered photos of the crash site.

"All of us at the command post, including myself, we did not request photographs," Versales testified. "I was surprised to receive them because I was not expecting them," he added in an internal LASD interview.

Mejia said he received 15 to 20 photos, and selected 10 that he sent to his then-trainee, Deputy Joey Cruz. Although he said that no photos were graphic on the stand, in an internal interview he admitted that a handful of the photos contained "a hand, a foot."

Some deputies mistakenly said they deleted photos the night of the crash, and disagreed about the necessity of the photos

Deputy Raul Versales eventually sent the photos to Deputy Rafael Mejia who shared them more widely among colleagues.

Once the deputies were called in to delete photos four days after the crash and two days after a deputy had shown the photos in a bar, Mejia and others signed a department memo saying that he had deleted the photos directly after receiving them – even though he held onto them for four days.

Vanessa Bryant's attorney Craig Lavoie backed Mejia, who maintained the photos were necessary and not graphic, into disagreeing with LASD Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who in a March 30, 2020 interview said that "there were only two groups of people that should be taking photos – the NTSB and the coroner's office."

The sergeant who set up the command post to respond to the helicopter crash had a waffled recollection

Kobe Bryant places his hands on his knees and looks up during a game in 2007.
Kobe Bryant.Matt Sayles/AP Images

A sergeant with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Deputies who set up the makeshift command post at the base of the mountain where Kobe Bryant's helicopter crashed gave a waffled recollection of the day's events.

In internal interviews after the crash, Sgt. Travis Kelly told LASD investigators that he hadn't ordered his staff to take photos at the crash site. Deputy Raul Versales, in his internal interview, said the same, and added that no one at the command post requested the photos.

Kelly flip-flopped, telling the court that "I asked for someone to take photos." He said that he didn't oversee the radio channels but expected someone to relay the instruction over the radio.

In court, he defended his staff who took up-close photos of human remains, saying "it's part of the scene," adding that he eventually received 10 to 15 photos and deleted them after sending a selection to NTSB investigators.

But in his internal affairs interview, he had said that there was "a photo I will never forget," that he received among graphic crash site photos, adding that "if it was my loved ones, I would not want to remember them in this way."

The Deputy who shared photos at the bar offered a patchy look at the dissemination

Gianna and Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant.(AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker)

Two days after the crash, Deputy Joey Cruz showed the photos to Victor Gutierrez, a bartender in Norwalk, California, after unsuccessfully trying to show them to his niece.

"Did you see a person you understood to be Kobe Bryant in the photos that Cruz showed you?" Bryant attorney Craig Lavoie asked Gutierrez in court. "Yes," Gutierrez said, adding that he did not know if there were others in the photos because "there were just parts."

In court, Cruz denied that he showed specific, graphic photos of Kobe Bryant. Gutierrez told a table of customers that he saw "Kobe Bryant's decapitated body" in the photos Cruz showed him, according to Ralph Mendez, who was sitting at the table and testified during the trial.

The behavior upset Mendez so much that he filed a complaint with the LASD.

The Deputy who shared the photos while firing up Call of Duty contradicted himself

Another Deputy, Michael Russell, claimed he only shared general crash site photos of debris, but was contradicted by his own internal interview.

He claimed the pictures were meant to help them understand the magnitude of the crash and help them learn how to deal with the accident.

"I wasn't expecting dismembered bodies," Russell said in an internal interview, recalling when he received the photos from a colleague. The day after the crash, Russell warned his fellow deputy Ben Sanchez about the graphic nature of the photos and sent him 3 to 4 photos as they loaded up a game of Call of Duty.

The court heard that Russell had lied about photos being "immediately deleted" in his LASD memo that he wrote following the Sheriff's deletion order, as he had sent them to Sanchez the day after the crash while off-duty.

Firefighters and a private citizen had a vastly different recollection of how the graphic photos were displayed at a gala

Firefighters work the scene of a helicopter crash where former NBA basketball star Kobe Bryant died in Calabasas, Calif., Jan. 26, 2020.
Firefighters work the scene of a helicopter crash where former NBA basketball star Kobe Bryant died in Calabasas, Calif., Jan. 26, 2020.(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

Private citizen Luella Weireter said she was still in mourning when she attended the 70th Annual Golden Mike Awards gala days after the crash on Feb 5, 2020 with her husband, who is a public information officer for the LA Fire Department.

She lost her cousin and in-law in the crash and later witnessed LA County Fire Department public information officer Tony Imbrenda, huddled with colleagues, viewing crash site photos.

At one point during the awards ceremony, Weireter said she walked into a cocktail room where she saw Imbrenda and his partner, as well as Fire Captain Sky Cornell and his girlfriend, and another firefighter with his partner all huddled around Imbrenda's phone.

As the group dispersed, Weireter alleged that Imbrenda's wife excitedly asked Weireter to look at the photos of Kobe from the crash that the group had just previously been observing. Weireter also testified that she heard Cornell say, "I can't believe I just looked at Kobe's burnt up body and I'm about to eat."

Imbrenda said he "adamantly denied" that he showed graphic up-close photos of Kobe's body, and said that the conversation was just firefighters "talking shop" and analyzing the mechanics of the helicopter and challenges of the accident response. He claimed that Weireter was "mistaken."

Cornell denied saying the comment about Kobe Bryant, but in an internal interview Cornell said, "I wanted to see Kobe, to be honest."

One of the former top media liaisons for the LASD was caught in a lie by a reporter before the trial, and again on the stand

kobe and Gianna Bryant
In this July 26, 2018, file photo former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch during the U.S. national championships swimming meet in Irvine, Calif. Federal investigators say wreckage from the helicopter that crashed last month and killed Bryant, his daughter and seven others did not show any outward evidence of engine failure, the National Transportation Safety Board said Friday, Feb. 7, 2020.(AP Photo/Chris Carlson,File)

On January 29, 2020 — just three days after the crash — private citizen Rafael Mendez filed a complaint with the LASD after he witnessed Deputy Joey Cruz show a bartender graphic photos of the helicopter crash. Valdez, as a media relations captain, was tasked with investigating the complaint, according to emails shown in court.

By January 31, Valdez testified that he had retrieved security footage from the bar of Cruz showing the photos. He had also spoken with Mendez, who filed the complaint.

He was also helping to relay Sheriff Alex Villanueva's department-wide order for staff to delete all photos.

But when a Los Angeles Times reporter began probing into the complaint in late February, the department played dumb. Valdez, Villanueva, and another media relations staff member lied to the journalist, Valdez testified, denying any knowledge of the complaint or deletion order.

"We're such a large organization, Valdez told The Times. "I'm unaware of any complaint."

In court, Valdez admitted that the helicopter crash victims' family members learned about the complaint, existence of the photos, and deletion order by way of the LA Times story materializing, and not from the agency proactively. He also testified that the department never did reach out to Chester about the photos or deletion order.

The LA County Sheriff backtracks and disagrees with his previous media interviews

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva (R) speaks at a press conference on November 2, 2021.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva (R) speaks at a press conference on November 2, 2021.Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Disagreeing with previous interviews from March 2020, where he said that only the coroner's office and NTSB should have taken photos, Villanueva testified that information he's gleaned since then about the brush fire and the threat of "looky-loos" at the crash site meant that some of his staff did the right thing by taking photos at the crash scene to "preserve the scene" for federal investigators.

 

Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he has never seen a 'death book'

Sheriff Alex Villanueva also denied having seen a "death book," even though he had acknowledged the existence and persistence of them in a string of interviews after the photo scandal became public.

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