A bartender told a federal jury Thursday of being shown gruesome cell phone images of Kobe Bryant’s remains by an off-duty Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy who had been on the scene of the helicopter crash that killed the Lakers star and eight others two days earlier.
The testimony of Victor Gutierrez focused on the night of Jan. 28, 2020, when a friend, rookie Deputy Joey Cruz, came into the Baja California Bar & Grill in Norwalk for a beer and showed the bartender and a customer graphic crash site photos stored on his personal cell phone.
“He said he had some photos if I wanted to see them,” Gutierrez testified. “I said, `Yeah, kinda.’ It was just (body) parts … scattered human remains.”
Vanessa Bryant and another family are suing Los Angeles County for unspecified millions of dollars for negligence and invasion of privacy over pictures of the remains of their loved ones that they allege were needlessly snapped and shared by first responders. While the county admits that Cruz had a lapse of judgment when he showed the photos — which apparently also included images of the body of the Bryants’ 13-year-old daughter Gigi — all crash-site images taken by county officials have long been deleted and none were disseminated among the public.
As questioning centered on the images and the bartender’s reaction to them, Kobe’s widow sobbed and left the seventh-floor courtroom in downtown Los Angeles.
Surveillance footage from the bar apparently shows Cruz displaying photos for a wincing Gutierrez and another man, and making gestures as if mimicking the catastrophic injuries suffered by the victims.
Asked if Cruz was laughing while showing the pictures, the bartender said he was “100% sure” that the levity apparent on the surveillance video had nothing to do with the cell phone images.
“What type of human being would laugh about human remains … you’ve gotta be psycho to do that,” Gutierrez told jurors, adding that he believed the deputy came into the bar because “he just needed to talk to someone” about what he’d seen at the crash site.
But after Cruz left the bar, the video appears to show Gutierrez excitedly telling at least five people at the bar what he’d seen, and seems to demonstrate in gestures the condition of the victims — including Kobe Bryant’s decapitated body.
Among those that heard Gutierrez’s description that night was Rafael Mendez Jr., a member of a local softball team that often stopped at the bar after games.
Mendez provided a lighter moment Thursday when asked the name of his team.
“Past Our Prime,” he replied.
“Is that (description) true?” one of Bryant’s attorneys asked.
“For most of my teammates, it is.”
Mendez testified that he was shocked and upset when Gutierrez said that a sheriff’s deputy had just shown him the crash-site photos.
“I was in disbelief, disappointed, disgusted and angry,” Mendez said. “And I felt I had to do the right thing and tell the sheriff’s department what I’d seen.”
As he sat in his car in the driveway of his Cerritos home later that night, Mendez logged on to the sheriff’s information bureau website and filled out a form, alerting the department that a deputy who had been at the Kobe Bryant crash site was “showing pictures of his decapitated body” to people at the Baja California Bar & Grill.
Mendez was asked why he made the complaint to the LASD almost immediately after leaving the bar, and even before opening his front door.
“I had to get it out,” he replied, becoming emotional. “I had to inform the sheriff’s department. I wanted to sleep well that night. I felt a sense of betrayal. Being a deputy, I felt he had the public’s trust riding on his shoulders. And when he showed pictures of dead bodies, he was betraying the public’s trust.”
Mendez — who at the time was expecting the birth of his first daughter — said he “envisioned” himself and his child in the sort of loving relationship that Kobe Bryant had with Gigi.
The day after sending the complaint, LASD investigators went to the bar and got the surveillance footage showing Cruz taking out his cell phone and calling Gutierrez over to look at something.
On Jan. 30, 2020, Mendez testified, he spoke to Capt. Jorge Valdez, the head of the sheriff’s information bureau, about the complaint.
In cross-examination, Mira Hamshall, lead outside counsel for the county in the litigation, pointed out that Mendez hadn’t actually seen Cruz’s phone.
Bryant’s suit against the county has been combined with that of Orange County financial adviser Chris Chester, who lost wife Sarah and 13-year-old daughter Payton in the tragedy, and makes many of the same allegations.
Both Bryant and Chester contend they suffered emotional distress when county personnel took photos at the crash scene for no legitimate reason and shared them with other law enforcement and members of the public.
In her opening statement Wednesday, Hashmall countered that first responders correctly documented the crash scene while it was still light in the remote mountainous region near Calabasas.
“They responded, they contained that scene, they stayed there day and night,” Hashmall told the 10-member civil jury, adding that while the county sympathizes with the “unspeakable loss” suffered by the Bryant and Chester families, the case is about whether the county publicly disseminated crash site photos in violation of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.
“They have no evidence that the photos have gotten to the public,” she said, insisting that the county has successfully worked to prevent its crash site photos from entering the public domain.
Bryant and Chester allege that at least 11 sheriff’s personnel and a dozen firefighters shared the photos within 24 hours of the crash.
Hashmall promised jurors that Cruz will take the stand and testify that he had a lapse in judgment when he showed the photos to his bartender friend. The deputy “regrets it every day,” the attorney said.
California legislation growing out of Bryant’s allegations passed two years ago, making it illegal for peace officers and other first responders to take unauthorized photographs of dead people at the scene of a crime or accident.
The trial resumes Friday morning.