Chris Chester lost his wife Sarah and his daughter Payton in the crash that killed Kobe and Gigi Bryant.
He and Vanessa Bryant's trial against LA County for crash site photos of their loved ones is winding down.
On Thursday, he told his story publicly for the first time and said he felt 'rage' at first responders' actions.
Chris Chester kissed his wife Sarah Chester on the morning of January 26, 2020, and gave his 13-year-old daughter Payton his "rah rah" speech before her first of two back-to-back basketball games. Her brothers, both 16 at the time, had a lacrosse tournament across town.
Chris and Sarah Chester would split responsibilities as usual, and that morning he took the boys, and Sarah, a nervous flier, headed with Payton to get her game-day Starbucks breakfast and join her coach Kobe Bryant, her teammate Gigi Bryant, and others on Bryant's helicopter.
Since Payton had two games in a day, Kobe suggested that Sarah and Payton join them on the helicopter from their home in Orange County, California, to the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California, in the interest of saving time.
On the seventh day of Vanessa Bryant and Chester's trial against LA County for photos that first responders took and shared of the two families' loved ones' remains, Chester – speaking publicly about the crash that killed his wife and daughter for the first time – said he was grateful that he said goodbye and "I love you" to Sarah and Payton one last time that morning.
Chester told a Los Angeles federal court that when he learned that the helicopter carrying his college sweetheart and daughter had crashed he felt a "hollow sadness."
He left his boys at the Lacrosse tournament where his friend and business partner would pick them up and headed to the Lost Hills police station once he connected with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.
"I was hoping I was going to a hospital," Chester told the court. He stayed at the station for hours, joined by Vanessa Bryant, until they learned that there were no survivors.
After, they urged Sheriff Alex Villanueva to "lock it down" and ensure that no fans or media made it to the crash site to take photos or souvenirs.
He was driven home by a friend and stopped by a convenience store on the way.
"Everyone in the convenience store was talking about the crash and wearing Kobe jerseys," Chester said. "The energy was building up. And I thought, 'here come the crazies.'"
Vanessa Bryant and Chester filed lawsuits against the county and other defendants over allegations that Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies and Los Angeles County Fire Department officials took and shared photos of the helicopter crash site in late January 2020, and are currently pursuing a consolidated trial against the county.
Attorneys for the county have maintained that the 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.
We 'tried not to let the grief walk in front of us'
Over the next few weeks, Chester and his sons were broken.
They "tried not to let grief walk in front of us," he told the court, and after weeks of support and adapting to their forever-changed life, Chester said his trajectory was looking up.
Then, on February 28, 2020 – his birthday – he learned through a Los Angeles Times story that first responders who were at the helicopter crash site took and shared photos of human remains and then deleted the photos after a citizen complained that they were shown at a bar.
"There was anger," Chester said calmly and between sniffles. "And there was a little bit of rage to it."
When he learned of the scandal, his upward path deteriorated. He began missing work and drinking to self-medicate and said it "brought the whole thing back again."
"It's like the equivalent of someone taking a big punch, falling to the mat, getting up and then getting hit on the back of the head by a 2-by-4, and not getting back up," Paul Westhead, Chester's business partner testified in court on Thursday about Chester's emotional distress.
The news took Chester to his lowest, he testified. He said that on some days, just making his bed was enough of an accomplishment. Chester testified he was an extremely private person, but he sued the county knowing that he would "risk publicity for justice."
In his testimony, he criticized the "humiliation component" of the LASD and LACFD's actions. He offered some praise for the first responders who did difficult jobs on the day of the crash but called out conflicting testimonies.
"The inconsistencies, the level of uncertainty, we still have no idea the extent of the photos' dissemination," Chester said, referring to sometimes-contradictory testimonies that the court has heard from LASD and LACFD staff who took and shared photos. "It seems there is a consistent theory that there are less and less photos every time someone gets up on the stand, first there were 100 and now there are 10."
Eventually, after the remains of his loved ones were scientifically identified and processed by the morgue, he renewed his commitment to his late wife and daughter.
"I told Sarah to take care of Payton, and I got the boys," Chester said. "I'll see you on the other side."
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