Editor's note: This story contains graphic descriptions that some readers may find disturbing.
The widow of Kobe Bryant submitted a six-page document in court Monday that explains why she feels sick and angry at Los Angeles County employees who shared photos of her husband and daughter after they died in a helicopter crash last year near Los Angeles.
Vanessa Bryant is suing the county for invasion of privacy, accusing county sheriff’s deputies and firefighters of improperly taking and sharing photos of human remains from the crash scene. She said she has been “taunted online by people threatening to leak the photos or posting fake images of my husband’s dead body.”
“These deputies and firefighters took the worst thing that has ever happened to me — the worst thing that could happen to any mother or spouse — and made it worse,” she stated in her signed declaration. “I will be never be able to shake the anguish from knowing that the officials who are supposed to keep us safe treated Kobe and Gianna with such callous disrespect. For the rest of my life, one of two things will happen: either close-up photos of my husband’s and daughter’s bodies will go viral online, or I will continue to live in fear of that happening.”
Her attorneys also filed documents Monday that said “close-up photos of Gianna and Kobe’s remains were passed around (to) at least 28 LASD devices and by at least a dozen firefighters. And that was only the beginning.”
They filed these documents to oppose the county’s attempt to have her lawsuit thrown out of court in summary judgment. If Bryant survives the county’s attempt to have her case dismissed, the case would head to trial in February.
“The gratuitous sharing continued in the following days and weeks and included such outrageous conduct as flaunting the photos in a bar while pantomiming dismemberment and showing off the photos over cocktails at an awards gala,” said a document filed Monday by her attorney, Luis Li. “One deputy guffawed while sharing the photos; another described the crash victims’ remains as `hamburger’ and 'piles of meat.’ ”
The county contends that the photos were deleted, not posted online and not publicly disseminated under the standard required by law in a case like this. Li's document states the evidence shows the photos were circulated more broadly than the county defendants have admitted and that photos were deleted to destroy evidence of their misconduct. The county defendants’ “motive in destroying the evidence is a disputed fact for the jury to resolve,” the document stated.
Li's document states that one sheriff’s deputy, Doug Johnson, told a colleague that he took “over a hundred” photos, admitted that many of the photos were “close ups of the body parts” and “at least four of Johnson’s photos closely focused on Kobe’s and Gianna’s body parts.”
Bryant originally filed the lawsuit in September 2020, several months after the crash that killed all nine people aboard. She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages to punish the deputy defendants and “make an example of them” to the community. Two other families who lost loved ones in the crash recently agreed to accept $1.25 million each from the county to settle similar claims about crash-scene photos. But Bryant might not be motivated by money in this case.
“This conduct has caused me tremendous pain and distress,” she stated in her declaration. “It infuriates me that the people I trusted to protect the dignity of my husband and daughter abused their positions to obtain souvenirs of their deaths, as though possessing pictures of their remains somehow makes them special. I imagine Kobe watching over what occurred at that crash scene, and I am overcome with anger and emotion. Had Kobe been alive at that crash scene, he never would have let this happen and the wrongdoers never would have dared doing what they did, and I feel it’s now my job to protect them by demanding accountability for the people who violated him and our little girl.”
The county's outside counsel, Skip Miller, issued a statement in response to her latest court filings.
“While the County sympathizes with Ms. Bryant’s tragic loss, it did not cause the crash that claimed the lives of her husband and child," said Miller of the firm Miller Barondess. "Rather, it responded to that crash and, at her specific request, set up a no-fly zone, undertook extensive efforts to keep the public and paparazzi away, and made sure none of the investigative photos were ever publicly disseminated. The County did its job and believes there is no merit to this lawsuit.”
The controversy began three days after the crash when a concerned citizen complained to the sheriff’s department after a sheriff’s deputy, Joey Cruz, showed crash-scene photos at a bar. The bartender “has testified in graphic detail about the 'very gruesome’ photos, including one showing a male victim’s dark-skinned body part that Cruz said belonged to Kobe Bryant,” Li’s document states.
Cruz was suspended 10 days for his conduct, according to the county. Other fire employees also faced discipline over their conduct with the photos, including fire captain Tony Imbrenda, who showed off his collection of “Kobe pictures” at an awards gala, according to Li’s document.
“After studying the photos, the group headed to the dinner portion of the event, and one remarked: 'I just saw Kobe’s body all burnt up before I’m about to eat,’ ” the document states.
Vanessa Bryant stated she “often cannot avoid thinking about the deputies’ and firefighters’ wrongdoing.”
“When typing 'Kobe’ into search functions to look for something related to my husband online, search features sometimes auto-suggest `Kobe Bryant crash pictures’ and `Kobe Bryant body,’ ” she stated. “Seeing this drags me back into thinking about the deputies’ and firefighters’ violation of my husband.”
She also stated she has already seen one photo “purporting to show my husband’s remains that matches the location where he was found in relation to the helicopter.”
Since viewing this photo, she said she’s been “tormented” with thoughts of who took it and whether it depicts her husband.
“I feel sick at the thought that deputies and firefighters have gawked at photos of my husband’s and child’s bodies without any reason,” she stated. “I also feel extreme sadness and anger knowing that photos of my husband’s and daughter’s bodies were laughed about while shown at a bar and an awards banquet.”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant's widow Vanessa describes in lawsuit her pain over photos