An LA Sheriff's Deputy who photographed Kobe Bryant's body after the 2020 helicopter crash has no regrets over the way the pictures were handled

·5 min read
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)
  • The first Los Angeles Sheriff's Deputy to take photos of Kobe Bryant's remains testified on Friday.

  • During his conflicting testimony, he said that he had been ordered to take photos by a supervisor.

  • LA Sheriff's Deputy Doug Johnson said that he would have done it the same way all over again.

On the overcast morning of January 26, 2020, when a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant and seven other passengers tragically crashed in the Santa Monica Mountains near Calabasas, California, Los Angeles Sheriff's Deputy Doug Johnson was among the first to respond.

Reaching the crash site was no walk in the park, Johnson testified in a federal Los Angeles courtroom on Friday, the third day of Vanessa Bryant's trial seeking punitive damages from county defendants accused of taking and sharing crash site photos.

Johnson, who remained stoic throughout questioning Friday, trudged for close to an hour through thick fog and deep mud with a team of eight to respond to the crash and secure the scene.

He reached the scene with another deputy, chasing away onlookers and bikers as others were asked to retrieve more equipment from the makeshift command post that Los Angeles County Fire Department and LASD had set up at the nearby the Las Virgenes Water District.

At the top, Johnson told jurors that he spent 15 minutes searching for any survivors from the crash. Then, he followed what he said was a command by his supervisor Deputy Andrew Versales to document the scene.

Johnson had arrived at the chaotic scene by around 11 a.m. with that instruction. By 11:24 a.m., a TMZ alert shared that Kobe and Gianna Bryant may have been among the victims of the crash site he was combing.

By then, Johnson told the court, he had already taken at least 25 photos "of any victims that I thought could be victims," because of the gruesome nature of the crash. He told the court that he had taken close to 25 photos of human remains at the crash scene, but admitted that Versales had not specifically asked him to take photos of human remains – only to document the scene.

"Photographs are the most thorough way of documenting something, especially if evidence or a scene is destroyed," Johnson said.

No regrets

Audio from an internal LASD interview played for the court showed Versales denying that he had ever ordered Johnson to take the graphic, close-up photos of remains. And on Thursday, LASD Malibu search and rescue lead David Katz told the court that Johnson informed him he had taken "hundreds of photos."

In September 2020, 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 broken by the LA Times that first responders took and shared photos of the January 2020 crash sites.

Johnson confirmed to the court on Friday that he had no regrets about taking the photos, or about airdropping all of them to LACFD Captain Brian Jordan who Johnson met at the scene.

He also airdropped the photos to another man on the scene who he presumed to be a fire official – someone who has not yet been identified in the process of litigation.

Kobe Bryant helicopter crash site
Investigators work the scene of a helicopter crash that killed former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant and his teenage daughter, and seven others in Calabasas, Calif., on Jan. 27, 2020. Lawyers for Los Angeles County failed to persuade a federal judge to end Vanessa Bryant's lawsuit over gruesome photos of the helicopter crash. U.S. District Judge John F. Walter on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, rejected a county motion for summary judgment, saying that "there are genuine issues of material facts for trial," the Los Angeles Times reported.(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

'Common practice'

Friday's testimony exposed a worrisome blind spot in the County's handling of the crash: Officials aren't even entirely sure they can trace back every photo, and no staff phones were forensically searched in internal investigations.

"It's a common practice," Johnson told the court, referring to LASD staff taking photos of human remains, and sharing them among staff. He added that he'd been to 25 to 50 accident or crime scenes where he had taken photos of victims or victims' remains, and on at least 20 occasions he had been sent photos of bodies, or body parts from staff.

Adam Bercovici, a law enforcement expert called by Bryant's team, told the court earlier that in his 30 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, he was shown photos of deceased victims on multiple occasions by other officers – including a Polaroid from the scene of Nicole Brown Simpson's death. Sometimes, crash victims were kept by law enforcement in souvenir "ghoul books."

Bercovici also chided the LASD's lack of clear site photo policy related to human remains, and the ensuing deletion order and lack of discipline by Sheriff Alex Villanueva the month after the crash.

"That was not an inquiry, that was calling in deputies to delete evidence," Bercovici told the court.

Vanessa Bryant is suing the county for negligence, emotional distress, and invasion of privacy claims as well as federal claims which relate to the constitutional right to the images of her deceased loved ones, and LA County agency practices that led to the alleged taking and dissemination of photos.

"I know I didn't do anything wrong," Johnson told the court, his tone remaining unfazed throughout questioning by Bryant's attorneys. When asked if he had any regrets or would do anything differently, he answered, "No sir."

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