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The widow of Kobe Bryant recounted how she learned of her husband and daughter’s death in a helicopter crash last year and said she tried to travel to the crash site that day by helicopter but was told the weather conditions were too bad, according to her deposition testimony in a lawsuit she filed against Los Angeles County.
In the transcript of the testimony obtained by USA TODAY Sports, Vanessa Bryant said she has kept the clothing that her husband and daughter were wearing that day. She also was asked about photos that were posted on social media, including a photoshopped image that superimposed her husband’s face on a burnt corpse.
The deposition from Oct. 12 is part of her lawsuit against the county – a civil action that accuses county sheriff’s and fire department employees of improperly sharing photos from the crash scene, including the dead bodies the NBA legend and his daughter. They and seven others died in that crash near Los Angeles Jan 26, 2020. She is suing the county for invasion of privacy and negligence, saying she wants to punish the deputy defendants and "make an example of them to the community."
Under questioning from an attorney for the county, Skip Miller, Bryant testified how she learned of the crash – testimony that is part of the court record and now marks the first public telling of such details.
She said a family assistant knocked on the door about 11:30 a.m. that day, nearly two hours after the crash happened at about 9:45 a.m.
“She told me that there was an accident and that there were five survivors,” Bryant testified in the deposition on Zoom from Newport Beach. “And I asked her if Gianna and Kobe were okay. And she said she wasn't sure. She didn't know.”
She then tried calling her husband and her mother.
“We got in the car,” she testified. “And I had to drive to my daughter Natalia's ACT class. She was getting ready for her ACT prep. And I picked her up and I told her that Daddy and Gigi were in an accident. Not to worry. I'm sure they're fine because there's five survivors. And I'm sure Daddy and Gigi are fine. I just felt, I knew that they would be helping people.”
The assistant kept calling the sheriff but “no one was answering my question. No one was telling me whether or not they were okay,” she said.
“But before I left – so she – excuse me. Let me go back,” she said. “She told me what happened. I tried getting hold of my mom. As soon as I was on the phone with my mom, I was holding onto my phone, because obviously I was trying to call my husband back, and all these notifications started popping up on my phone, saying RIP Kobe. RIP Kobe. RIP Kobe.”
They drove to the airport.
“I said, 'I want a helicopter,'” she testified. “'I want you to fly me to the location. I’m sure they need help.'”
One of the helicopter owners then told her, “I'm sorry, Mrs. Bryant. I can't fly you. The weather conditions are too bad.”
Los Angeles Lakers executive Rob Pelinka was at the airport at the time and drove them to the sheriff’s station in Malibu – a drive that took about one hour, 45 minutes.
When they got there, Bryant said “they weren’t prepared.”
They first walked her into a closet area to wait, then a conference room.
“And I said: 'What is happening? Where are they?'” she asked. “Why is no one telling me what's going on? And then they said, 'Actually, this isn't a good space. Let's take you back to the first room.’ So then they walked us over to this little closet room area where we waited and waited. There was one sheriff present. And I asked him, `What is happening? Why is no one telling me what is happening?’ They wouldn't answer.”
She said this was about 1:30 p.m. that day, nearly four hours after the crash. Eventually Sheriff Alex Villanueva walked in with a female publicist.
“I remember looking at her, asking her what her position was,” Bryant testified. “And she said, `I'm just a publicist.’ And I asked her to leave because I wanted privacy. So she walks out. Sheriff Villanueva tells me what happened. And he says, 'Is there anything I can do for you?’”
“If you can't bring my husband and baby back, please make sure no one takes photographs of them,” she replied. “Please secure the area. And he said, 'I will.' 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 said Villanueva then excused himself, came back and said, "All is good. The area is secure. There's an umbrella over the area."
At another point in her testimony, Miller asked her about online photos of the crash site that purported to depict her dead husband.
“I don’t want to look at this,” she said and apparently put her hand over the camera on her computer.
Miller told her not to look at one photo, saying it was “very upsetting.” His point in asking about them was to establish that such photos did not come from the county.
“Do we have to go through every single one?” Bryant asked.
“Yeah, I have to,” Miller replied. “I mean, you know, I have to. These didn't come from the County and I have to prove that.”
The county has said the photos taken from the crash scene were not publicly disseminated and not posted on the internet but has acknowledged that a trainee deputy showed a photo to a bartender. Miller asked Bryant how she suffered emotional distress from the showing of pictures to a bartender.
“I have my husband's and my daughter's clothing in my possession,” she replied. “And I can say that they – they suffered a lot. And if their clothes represent the condition of their bodies, I cannot imagine how someone could be so callous and have no regard for them or our friends, and just share the images as if they were animals on a street. We're not talking about – I really don't want to get into details. I can only say that their clothing represents a lot.”
“You keep that clothing in your house?” Miller asked.
“I had to recover all their items because I know people are sick and would like to take pictures of them and share them,” Bryant replied. “So I wanted to make sure that I recovered everything that I possibly could.”
The county is trying to force Bryant to undergo a psychiatric exam as part of its defense in the lawsuit. The county says this is necessary to show Bryant didn’t suffer emotional distress from any sharing of the photos but rather from the tragic crash itself.
Bryant is fighting this with her attorney, Luis Li.
“The County still demands a `detailed inquiry’ into such topics as `sexual and relationship histories’ lasting `one full eight-hour day,’” her attorney stated in court documents. “The County also demands that children ages 5, 10, and 13 provide a `detailed account’ of their distress over four to six hours. And the County demands to record all of this.”
The county recentlreached undisclosed settlement agreements with other surviving family members of those who perished in the crash – the Altobelli and Mauser plaintiffs. They had filed similar lawsuits against the county.
“Accordingly, the County is seeking (exams) of only the two remaining Plaintiffs, Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester,” the county stated in court documents.
Singers Ciara Wilson and Monica Arnold, friends of Bryant's, are among those who have been identified as witnesses who could testify about Bryant's emotional distress in this case.
In a separate issue recently in the same case, a federal magistrate judge rejected a request by the county to gain access to confidential settlement documents from Bryant in a different lawsuit. The county wanted to see the documents to determine whether Bryant was effectively double-dipping by trying to get compensated for the same harm of emotional distress in two different lawsuits, including the lawsuit over the photos.
In the other lawsuit, Bryant and other plaintiffs reached a confidential settlement earlier this year with Island Express Helicopters, the operator of the doomed helicopter, after suing the company for wrongful deaths.
“Given the overlap of the alleged injuries, the County suspects Plaintiffs are attempting to recover for the same harm in two separate lawsuits,” said a filing by an attorney for the county, Skip Miller.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Eick reviewed the settlement documents in the Island Express lawsuit and said they are not relevant to the lawsuit against the county.
“Defendant’s speculation that `[t]he settlement agreement and related documents in Island Express could reveal that the defendants agreed to compensate Plaintiffs for their grief and sorrow’ is not borne out by an examination of the documents themselves,” Eick stated in his ruling.
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: email@example.com
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant's widow Vanessa recounts day her husband, daughter died