Sheriff Villanueva must testify to his 'first-hand' knowledge of Kobe Bryant crash photo-sharing

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LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 12: Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks at a news conference to give an update on the fatal shooting by a deputy of Andres Guardado on June 18 near Gardena. in Hall of Justice on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020 in Los Angeles, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva was ordered to testify under oath in a lawsuit brought by Vanessa Bryant related to photos of the 2020 helicopter crash scene of Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

A federal judge on Tuesday ordered Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva to testify under oath in a lawsuit brought by Vanessa Bryant alleging that deputies shared gruesome photos of the crash scene where her husband, daughter and seven others died.

Lawyers for L.A. County sought to block Villanueva's testimony, arguing that he doesn't have any relevant information that Bryant's attorneys can't obtain elsewhere. Heads of government agencies are not typically subjected to depositions because of the potential for abuse and harassment that could get in the way of them performing their duties.

But U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles F. Eick knocked down the county's argument, saying Villanueva, along with L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby, both appear to have “unique first-hand, non-repetitive knowledge" relevant to the case. The judge limited each deposition to four hours.

Skip Miller, an attorney representing L.A. County, said he disagreed with the court's decision but will make both Villanueva and Osby available.

"Their testimony will not change the fact that there is no evidence any photos taken by County first responders have ever been publicly disseminated," Miller said in a statement.

Bryant sued L.A. County last year, alleging that she and her family suffered severe emotional distress after learning that deputies shared crash photos. Citizens complained that one deputy showed the photos at a bar in Norwalk and that a firefighter showed photos to a group of off-duty firefighters and their partners while having cocktails at an awards ceremony at a Hilton hotel, her attorneys said in court filings.

In a deposition earlier this month, Bryant testified that she had implored Villanueva to make sure no one took photos of her husband's and daughter's remains.

“I said, If you can’t bring my husband and baby back, please make sure no one takes photographs of them. Please secure the area,” Bryant recalled saying at the sheriff’s station.

Villanueva assured her he would secure the area, prompting Bryant to make a more direct and urgent plea.

“I said: No, I need you to get on the phone right now and I need you to make sure that you secure the area,” she recalled.

Villanueva left, then returned, and according to Bryant, he told her: “All is good. The area is secure.”

But weeks after the fatal crash, a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that deputies had shared the grim images of the scene.

"Not only do I have to grieve to the loss of my husband and child, but for the rest of my life I'm going to have to fear that these photographs of my husband and child will be leaked," Bryant testified.

The scandal came to light after a citizen filed a complaint to the Sheriff's Department that a young deputy was showing gruesome photos taken at the scene of the tragedy at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk.

In a court filing, Bryant's attorneys indicated that they plan to question Villanueva about his involvement in directing subordinates to delete evidence of the alleged misconduct.

The filing states that Lost Hills station Lt. Hector Mancinas testified that the sheriff's orders were communicated to him through then-Capt. Jorge Valdez and then-Lt. John Satterfield.

Both Valdez and Satterfield, who both have since been promoted and are close advisors to the sheriff, testified that they did not remember Villanueva ordering them to have the photos deleted.

"Do you think it would be memorable if you had a conversation with Sheriff Villanueva in which he said that he wanted department personnel to delete photos of an accident scene?" an attorney asked Satterfield.

"I obviously don't recall it, so if it did occur, it wasn't very memorable. If it didn't occur, there's no way for me to recall it," Satterfield responded, according to the filing from Bryant's attorneys.

When asked about the citizen's allegation a month after the helicopter crash, both Valdez and Satterfield told The Times that they were unaware of any complaint. Valdez said at the time that there was no order given to delete any photographs.

Bryant's attorneys argued that their client is entitled to question Villanueva about these conversations.

"Plaintiffs need to clarify the record to test (the county’s) assertion that the Sheriff ordered the destruction of evidence to protect plaintiffs rather than try to cover up misconduct," Bryant's attorneys wrote.

The fight by the county attorneys to prevent Villanueva from testifying in Bryant's lawsuit comes as they are seeking to compel his testimony in other matters.

Villanueva has defied subpoenas issued by the Office of Inspector General and the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, which oversee the department, including one for his testimony on gang-like groups of deputies operating at various sheriff's stations.

Lawyers for the county recently asked a judge to force him to comply with the subpoena and testify under oath.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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