LOS ANGELES – Vanessa Bryant broke down and cried on the witness stand here Friday in federal court, wiping her eyes and struggling through much of her testimony as she described her reaction to a troubling discovery in February 2020.
She remembers it vividly. She was in a game room watching television with her family and friends when another friend called her to share the news:
Gruesome photos of her deceased daughter and husband, Kobe, the NBA legend, had apparently been taken and shared after they died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020. Two days after the accident, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy trainee even showed grisly crash scene photos to a bartender at a Mexican restaurant.
“I bolted out of the house, and I ran to the side of the house so my girls couldn’t see me,” Bryant testified. “And I broke down and cried and just felt like I wanted to run. I just wanted to run down the block and just scream … like wanting to run down the pier and just taking your clothes off and running and jumping into the ocean. But the problem is I just can’t escape. I can’t escape my body. I can’t escape what I feel.”
This was Day 8 of Bryant’s civil trial against Los Angeles County, arguably the biggest day of the trial so far because it was the first day the jury of five men and four women heard from Bryant and the county sheriff, Alex Villanueva. Bryant brought this case to trial after filing a lawsuit that accused county sheriff’s and fire department employees of using their personal phones to take and share gratuitous photos of human remains from the crash scene despite having no legitimate business reason for doing so.
Bryant answered questions on the stand for nearly three hours and covered several key areas of the case, including why she filed this lawsuit, how she learned of the crash and how the photos issue has affected her. She said she has suffered panic attacks about it, to the point she says it feels like she can’t breathe.
“I live in fear every day,” Bryant testified, implying the photos could re-emerge at any moment, even though the county says they were deleted soon after the crash and were never posted online.
Bryant said she says a special prayer every night for her husband and daughter and thinks about “why they’re not here."
“And then I think about what was done to them,” she said under direct examination by her attorney, Luis Li.
Bryant noted her husband’s body was recovered on the day of the crash, but her daughter’s body was not recovered until the next day.
“Her body was found in a ravine, so anyone who has photographs of her, they would have had to go out of their way,” Bryant said through tears. “So they violated her, taking advantage of the fact that her daddy couldn’t protect her. He was at the morgue.”
Bryant is joined at trial by Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the same crash and also sued the county for similar reasons. Both say the county violated their constitutional rights to control the death images of their loved ones. They claim they suffered emotional distress because of the county’s conduct and are seeking damages to be determined at trial.
The day of the crash
Bryant started her testimony by telling the jury about her background and family life before recounting how she learned of the fatal crash. Her testimony about this was similar to her pretrial deposition testimony last year but still brought the tragedy to life for the jurors on Friday.
She testified about how an assistant knocked on her door in an aggressive manner that morning and eventually told her there had been a helicopter accident. The initial word was that there were “five survivors.”
Then Bryant looked at her phone and saw comments that read, “RIP Kobe.”
At one point she tried to call Kobe to determine his and Gianna’s whereabouts using a phone-locater application that showed Gianna was at a church and Kobe was near a hillside. This gave her the impression Gianna was safe and Kobe was trying to help people.
In an effort to get to them quickly, she headed for the airport in Orange County, still holding out hope there were five survivors. Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka arrived there, too, and decided to drive her to the crash site after they were told it wasn’t safe to fly from that airport by helicopter, as Kobe and her daughter had done earlier that morning.
The drive took more than an hour. Nobody had confirmed their deaths at this point. When she arrived at the sheriff’s station near the crash, she hoped to find them there.
“Where are they?” she asked, according to her testimony. “Where are they?”
Sheriff Villanueva told her what happened: There were no survivors.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Bryant,” Villanueva said, according to her testimony. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
She testified she told him that if he couldn’t bring back her “babies,” then "please secure the area" to protect her loved ones’ remains from invasions of privacy, such as from the news media.
But it turned out it wasn’t the news media she needed to worry about, according to her attorneys. A sheriff’s deputy, Douglas Johnson, had hiked up to the crash scene that morning and taken dozens of photos, including close-ups of human remains. He then shared those with at least two others – another deputy and a fire department employee who remains unidentified and conceivably could still possess them.
Johnson also said he guided a fire captain around the scene and that he took photos of the bodies, too. According to Johnson, he was doing his job documenting the scene.
Even if he was, the photos spread from there, eventually ending up on the devices of 28 sheriff's personnel, according to court records. One of them was deputy Joey Cruz, who testified this week that he showed crash-scene photos at the restaurant on Jan. 28, 2020. After a patron at the same restaurant that night learned of this, that patron filed a complaint with the sheriff’s department.
This news soon reached Villanueva, who then had a decision to make.
He testified about it Friday.
Willing to 'go through hell'
“I laid it out very clearly,” Villanueva testified. “These photos can never see the light of day.”
His goal, he said, was to prevent the photos from spreading further. So the sheriff’s department offered “amnesty” to any personnel involved: If they came clean and deleted the photos, they would not suffer discipline, other than a performance-log entry in their file.
“We made the right choice,” testified Villanueva, who was not in uniform Friday and instead wore a dark suit and tie.
He said the strategy “worked,” though Bryant’s attorneys have a different viewpoint. They said the deletions were an improper destruction of evidence. Bryant herself said Friday that even if she never wanted anyone to see these photos, she wanted them preserved to help aid an investigation into what happened.
Because the photos were deleted, there is no exact way to know what they showed or who was in them, except to ask witnesses about them in court. This has led to graphic testimony about body parts and the conditions of bodies after they were flung from a high-velocity crash.
Bryant has stayed out of court at times to avoid hearing some of it. At other times, she’s heard more than she would have liked.
But she’s pressing this suit anyway. She said she expected county first responders to have “more compassion” and said her husband and daughter deserved dignity from them.
“I’m willing to go through hell and back to get justice for my husband and daughter,” she said.
The county tried to paint a fuller picture of Bryant’s life and emotional state during her cross-examination. The county's lead outside counsel, Mira Hashmall, asked her about managing her husband’s business and promoting his book projects after his death.
The implication was that evaluating her emotional distress from this case could be complicated. Her life has gone on, including with other stress-inducing factors.
“The only damages you’re seeking in this case are for your emotional distress?” asked Mira Hashmall, the county’s outside counsel.
“There are violations that took place … and emotional distress,” Bryant said.
“You understand the jurors can’t fire county personnel?” Hasmall asked.
“I understand that," Bryant replied.
Two other families who lost loved ones in the crash also sued the county over the photos but last year agreed to end their lawsuits in exchange for $1.25 million each from the county. Bryant made clear Friday why she has persisted and has not settled.
"I want justice for my husband and daughter," she said.
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant's widow, Vanessa, testifies, cries, says she wants justice