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'Oh my God:' New details of crash-scene photos emerge in Vanessa Bryant's lawsuit

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The legal team for Kobe Bryant’s widow filed documents in federal court late Monday that include descriptions of photos taken from the scene of a helicopter crash that killed her husband and daughter, including what the photos contained and why they were shared among some first responders.

“I couldn’t believe how graphic (the photos) were,” sheriff’s deputy Michael Russell said, according to a partial transcript of his pretrial deposition last month. “I wasn’t expecting (redacted) and the deceased as they were in those photos.

“I’m looking at grotesque, graphic bodies and going, 'Oh my God. I can’t believe these were included in the photos’ " that he had been sent.

The purpose of the filing is to support a lawsuit Vanessa Bryant filed against Los Angeles County – a case that accuses county first responders of improperly sharing photos of her dead daughter and husband, the NBA legend. Her attorneys have accused county sheriff’s and fire department workers of covering up their conduct by improperly deleting the photos that they had a legal obligation to retain. They filed the latest documents in an attempt to convince a judge to punish the county for this alleged spoliation of evidence.

In a photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, an NTSB investigator examines wreckage from the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.
In a photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board, an NTSB investigator examines wreckage from the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

Russell, who is a defendant in the lawsuit, also testified that unspecified remains in one photo “could have possibly belonged to Kobe Bryant.” When questioned why he asked another deputy defendant, Joey Cruz, to send him photos of the crash scene, Russell replied, “I just – I was curious.”

Russell said he passed photos along to a third deputy but later regretted it.

“I realize that my curiosity and – had gotten the best of me and sharing photos that, again, had no evidentiary value,” Russell said in another interview after the crash last year that killed all nine aboard, according to the court document.

Bryant is suing the county for invasion of privacy and negligence in a case that is scheduled to go to trial in February. The county’s position is that the photos were taken for legitimate reasons, were not posted on the internet and that any sharing of them did not rise to the level of public dissemination required by law for a case like this. The county’s outside counsel, Skip Miller, issued a statement after the latest filing Monday night.

“This spoliation motion is without merit and is solely intended to distract from the fact that the County made extensive efforts to ensure there would be no public dissemination of crash site photos,” said Miller of the firm Miller Barondess. “And as the Plaintiff herself has acknowledged, those efforts were successful. While we have great sympathy for her loss, well-established law makes clear there is no basis for her case against the County.”

Both sides on Monday filed documents that included a partial transcript of the pretrial deposition testimony last week of Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. In the deposition, Villanueva said he took steps to make sure the photos were not disseminated after receiving a complaint that a sheriff’s employee (Cruz) was showing them at a bar shortly after the crash.

IN HER WORDS: Kobe Bryant's widow Vanessa recounts the day her husband and daughter died

“And you take responsibility for any photos that were deleted; is that right?” Bryant’s attorney asked.

“By all means,” Villanueva replied.

Villanueva implied the situation would be much worse if he did not encourage the photos to be deleted.

“Maybe one day you'll explain to her (Bryant) that every action that we took ensures that she will never face the threat of those photographs being disseminated publicly,” Villanueva told Bryant’s attorney, Craig Lavoie, according to the transcript. “So you're – in essence, you're suing us for what we did but would – ultimately, is what she benefited from. Had we not taken the actions that we did, then it would be a far different lawsuit.”

Villanueva also testified that an internal inquiry revealed the images went to “28 devices” among sheriff’s department personnel.

That apparently includes a detective who told internal affairs investigators last year that he asked his wife if he wanted to see the photos. She said no.

“Did you tell her they were graphic,” the investigator asked.

“I told her (redacted),” the detective replied, according to the partial transcript.

Bryant’s attorneys apparently redacted graphic descriptions of human remains from the public court documents and have sought to file under seal “graphic descriptions of the remains of the victims.”

The filings mark the latest in a series of pretrial legal battles as Bryant pursues compensatory and punitive damages to punish the deputy defendants and “make an example of them to the community.”

On Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Eick ordered Bryant and her therapist to turn over her private therapy records since January 2017 after the county requested them as part of its defense against her lawsuit.

Bryant’s lawsuit is one of two still active against the county over the photos, along with a similar suit filed by Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the crash. Two other victims’ families recently agreed to be paid $1.25 million each by the county to end their own similar cases.

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant's widow escalates her lawsuit over body photos from crash