A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department official, who was captain of the agency’s information bureau at the time of the January 2020 helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others, apologized in court Tuesday to the victims’ families for not telling them that photographs of dead bodies were taken and shared with others by deputies at the scene of the accident.
From the witness stand, LASD Chief Jorge Valdez offered his condolences to Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester, who both lost spouses and daughters in the tragedy, and apologized for never notifying them more than 2 1/2 years ago that deputies had taken accident-scene photos and sent them to other law enforcement personnel.
Chester’s attorney, Jerry Jackson, quickly responded: “You’re apologizing just days before this jury decides their case.”
The exchange occurred at the close of the day’s testimony in Bryant and Chester’s negligence and invasion of privacy lawsuits against the county, as plaintiffs’ attorneys focused on how the department handled news that a Los Angeles Times reporter was about to break the story about photographs apparently taken by deputies for no legitimate reason.
During a news conference on a different matter in 2020, shortly after a man had filed a written complaint to Valdez’s bureau notifying officials that crash-scene photos were being shown at a Norwalk bar, a complaint that immediately sparked an official in-house investigation, Valdez and Sheriff Alex Villanueva both told The Times reporter they were “unaware” of such a complaint. The tape-recorded questioning by the reporter was played several times for the jury Tuesday.
On Feb. 28, 2020 — a day after The Times broke the story — the sheriff’s department issued a news release saying it was “aware of recent media reports alleging deputies shared images from the … helicopter crash, which tragically claimed the lives of nine people.”
The department said the “facts surrounding these allegations are currently under investigation, as are the effectiveness of existing policies and procedures. The sheriff is deeply disturbed at the thought deputies could allegedly engage in such an insensitive act. A thorough investigation will be conducted by the department, with the number one priority of protecting the dignity and privacy of the victims and their families.”
Yet, as Jackson pointed out in court, the department never reached out to the families to give them advance notice of the photographs story, nor was there an apology.
Bryant and Irvine financial adviser Chester are suing the county in Los Angeles federal court for unspecified millions of dollars for negligence and invasion of privacy over the photos. Bryant’s husband and 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and Chester’s wife, Sarah, and 13-year-old daughter Payton were among the nine people killed in the crash.
The plaintiffs allege Los Angeles County’s first responders took gruesome cell phone pictures of human remains at the remote Calabasas crash site for their own amusement as “souvenirs” and shared them with other law enforcement personnel and members of the public.
The county contends all images taken by its sheriff’s deputies and firefighters were quickly destroyed, no longer exist in any form and never entered the public domain.
Earlier, an LASD deputy who manned the parking lot at the accident command center told jurors he shared graphic photos from the crash site with a fellow deputy while they played the video game “Call of Duty.” Deputy Michael Russell testified that he texted several photos from site to his gamer friend a day after the accident.
Under questioning by a plaintiffs’ attorney, Russell said he shared the photos “in order to get through the stresses of the day before,” and conceded that he “had no business” having the digital images on his phone in the first place.
He said he didn’t think he was violating any policies involving confidentiality when he shared the photos, which had been sent to him by a deputy who was at the accident scene.
“It was just a very callous mistake on my part,” Russell testified.
As with other deputies found to have shared the photos, LASD took no disciplinary action against Russell, aside from a performance note placed in his file, evidence shows.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs contend the images spread to at least 10 others, some of whom displayed them for members of the public.
Bryant’s lawsuit was consolidated for trial with that of Chester, who makes many of the same allegations.
Along with Chester and Bryant’s loved ones, the crash killed Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Keri Altobelli, 46; John Altobelli, 56; Christina Mauser, 38; and pilot Ara Zobayan, 50. Kobe and the other passengers were on their way to a girls basketball tournament in Thousand Oaks.
The Altobelli and Mauser families settled their lawsuits for invasion of privacy and negligence against the county for $1.25 million each. They too accused county first responders of improperly sharing photos of their dead relatives.
Last year, Bryant and others settled a lawsuit against Island Express Helicopters Inc., the company that operated the Sikorsky helicopter; its owner, Island Express Holding Corp.; the estate of the pilot, who died in the crash; and another company. Terms remain confidential.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, Zobayan likely had an episode of “spatial disorientation,” and appeared to go against federal guidelines by flying into the fog.
Testimony resumes Wednesday. The trial in downtown Los Angeles is expected to last until sometime next week.