Vanessa Bryant testifies she fears helicopter crash site photos will surface

Vanessa Bryant took the stand Friday in her federal lawsuit against Los Angeles County over cell phone pictures snapped by first responders of her husband, Lakers star Kobe Bryant, and their daughter immediately after the helicopter crash that killed them.

Vanessa Bryant arrives at court. / Credit: CBS Los Angeles
Vanessa Bryant arrives at court. / Credit: CBS Los Angeles

Bryant, 40, is the plaintiffs' final witness in the federal trial of consolidated lawsuits filed by her and Chris Chester, an Irvine financial adviser who lost his wife and daughter in the same crash. They are suing the county for unspecified millions of dollars, alleging Los Angeles County's first responders took cell phone pictures of human remains at the Calabasas crash site for their own amusement as "souvenirs" and shared them with other law enforcement personnel and members of the public.

The plaintiffs have not seen the photos.

The Jan. 26, 2020, crash killed nine people, including the former Lakers star; his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna; Chester's wife, Sarah; and the couple's 13-year-old daughter, Payton.

Bryant testified that the first responders who took photos of her daughter Gianna "violated" her, and she was devastated to learn that such images were taken, despite Sheriff Alex Villanueva's assurances that the scene would be secured.

She said she continues to suffer from grief and anxiety at the thought of the crash site photos surfacing someday.

"It's like COVID. Once it's spread, you can't get it back," she said.

Vanessa Bryant, the widow of Kobe Bryant, leaves a federal courthouse in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022.  / Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Vanessa Bryant, the widow of Kobe Bryant, leaves a federal courthouse in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. / Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

The county contends all images taken by its sheriff's deputies and firefighters were deleted upon orders of their superior officers, and no longer exist in any form and never entered the public domain or on the internet. But Bryant and Chester allege mental anguish just at the thought that one day, in the future, those photos will become public.

Chester testified Thursday that when he learned first responders had taken and shared cell phone pictures from the crash site, his reaction was "disbelief that shifted to anger." He said he found out on his 46th birthday about the crash scene photos and that they were being shown to others at a bar, at an awards ceremony, and texted to others.

"I couldn't construct a scenario where that would happen," Chester said in response to questioning by his attorney. "I had largely insulated my family from the details (of the injuries suffered by their loved ones). Now, I thought there would be pictures of the remains (on the internet)."

Defense attorneys have repeatedly pointed out during the trial that the photos have not surfaced online in the two and a half years since the crash. Several county fire and sheriff's personnel have taken the stand during the federal civil trial and testified they deleted whatever accident-site pictures they had on their cell phones. But that has not reassured Chester, he said.

"I'm fearful everyday,'' Chester testified. "There's been a lot of things that people thought didn't exist -- that have turned up on the internet.''

Chester described for the nine-member jury, including a nun, the day he learned he had lost his wife and daughter in the crash. He said he left the lacrosse game he was supposed to play, and drove toward Calabasas with a friend and could see smoke rising from the hills as his mind raced.

At the Malibu/Lost Hills sheriff's station, Villanueva indicated he "understood" the area had to be "locked down" to keep media and fans away, and he assumed the crash scene would be handled in a "sensitive and professional" fashion.

When he heard a month later about the picture sharing, Chester testified he immediately admonished his sons: "Please don't start Googling for them."

Attorneys for the plaintiffs contend the images spread to at least 10 others, but there has been no evidence presented that the photos still exist or ever turned up in public.

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.

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