A high-ranking LA Sheriff's Deputy spoke up after Sheriff Alex Villanueva ordered staff to delete Kobe Bryant crash photos, he testified. Weeks later, was transferred and demoted.

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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)
  • Tuesday was day 5 of Vanessa Bryant's trial against LA County for sharing Kobe Bryant crash photos.

  • A high-ranking LA Sheriff's Deputy said when staff were asked to delete crash photos, he worried.

  • "How do we know that we're not breaking some obscure federal law that we're not aware of?" he told colleagues.

In the aftermath of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Sheriff's Deputy Matthew Vander Horck had deep concerns that his colleagues had taken, shared, and were later ordered to delete gruesome Kobe Bryant helicopter crash site photos.

In the fifth day of Vanessa Bryant's trial against Los Angeles County first responders who took and shared gruesome crash site photos of the victims of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant and seven others, Vander Horck's testimony offered a rare glimpse into the internal tensions that reverberated within the LASD in the weeks after the crash.

Vander Horck was formerly a captain at the Lost Hills station, which initially responded to the crash on January 26, 2020. Days later he found out that several of his own junior staff had taken and shared photos of the crash site – which he testified was "not the job of the LASD."

When private citizen Rafael Mendez filed a complaint with the LASD on January 29, 2020 that Deputy Joey Cruz had shown the photos at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk, California, emails shared in court showed that Vander Horck quickly got his higher-ups involved, telling one colleague "we will push this through ASAP."

But over the next few days, he testified that he was blindsided when his deputies were ordered by the very top brass – Sheriff Alex Villanueva – to delete crash site photos.

The investigation into the citizen complaint was punted to the Sheriff's Information Bureau, the organization's media wing, which Vander Horck said "was totally out of the norm and the chain of command," and concerned him.

For one, Vander Horck said that he was worried about his staff's right to representation, alleging that they were told that if the photos were discovered by the media, the staff would be fired.

"I worried about that," Vander Horck testified. "I didn't know if the photos have some sort of evidentiary value for the feds."

But by time he arrived to work on January 31 to dicuss the photos with his staff, it was already too late. Vander Horck said Lieutenant Hector Mancinas from the Lost Hills station had already ordered the staff to delete the photos, per the Sheriff's direction.

In audio from an internal LASD investigation days after the deletion order, Vander Horck expressed his fear.

"How do we know that we're not breaking some obscure federal law that we're not aware of?" Vander Horck said in his interview, regarding the taking and the deletion of the photos. "Last time our deputies got orders from our executives in a federal case, they were arrested and tried for crimes."

In 2015, 18 LASD staff were charged with civil rights violations and a conspiracy to obstruct a wide-ranging federal investigation into practices at the Men's Central Jail. It is unclear if Vander Horck was referencing that case.

He added that his superior told him, "I didn't think of that."

Vander Horck testified that in late January he also alerted Los Angeles County Fire Department chief Anthony Marrone to let him know that LASD and LACFD staff who responded to the crash site had taken, and may have deleted photos.

The captain was transferred and demoted weeks after the January 2020 crash on February 18, 2020, over the botched handling of a sexual assault investigation at Pepperdine University, according to the Sheriff's Department.

In September 2020, Vanessa Bryant sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the county's fire department, the county as a whole, and eight officers in the wake of reports that first responders took and shared photos of the January 2020 crash site.

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