Deputies responding to the helicopter crash that killed basketball star Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others had no authority to take photos of the crash scene, a Los Angeles County Sheriff captain said in court Tuesday.
The testimony was part of a federal civil lawsuit brought by Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, that alleges Los Angeles County invaded her privacy and failed to fully contain the spread of the photos, inflicting emotional distress.
Tuesday’s testimony blew a large hole into the county’s defense that scene photographs were valid because they helped first responders at a command post plan its response.
Captain Matthew Vander Horck, who leads the sheriff station that responded to the 2020 crash, said on the witness stand that the only people who should take photos of an aviation crash scene are the National Transportation Safety Board and the coroner.
“The only role (deputies) have… is to secure the scene, right?” asked Bryant’s attorney Luis Li.
“Yes,” Vander Horck agreed.
Li asked if the deputies should then let federal investigators do their job, and Vander Horck agreed.
However, one of Vander Horck’s own deputies testified to being asked by a supervisor at the command post that day to take the photos. Those photos, which included images of human remains, were then shared among other deputies in both the sheriff and fire departments, leading to the federal lawsuit for invasion of privacy.
Christopher Chester, whose wife and daughter also died in the crash, is a co-plaintiff. Both he and Bryant allege they live in fear of the photos re-surfacing online.
Vander Horck agreed with Li that unofficial photographs cause a “loss of public trust.” He also agreed that county policies allowing deputies to take photos of bodies apply to traffic accident and crime scenes only, not aviation disasters. Crash scene photos also weren’t required to identify the helicopter, he said.
In their questioning, defense attorneys cast doubt on whether Vander Horck’s statements fully applied to the situation on the day of the crash.
“Are you aware that when the NTSB showed up the next day the first thing they asked for were photos?” asked attorney Jason Tokoro, representing the county.
“No, I’m not aware of that,” Vander Horck replied.
‘If nobody found out, they wouldn’t get disciplined’
Vander Horck’s testimony was also used by the plaintiffs’ attorneys to attack the county’s handling of the photos once it was revealed they had been shared between deputies, one of whom later showed some of the photos to a bartender he considered a friend.
The attorneys alleged that instead of opening a full investigation and preserving the evidence, the Sheriff Information Bureau, which handles public information, ordered all deputies involved to report to their station and ensure the photos were deleted.
“If nobody found out, they wouldn’t get disciplined,” Vander Horck said he was told. “If the media found out, they would get fired.”
Vander Horck said he had immediate reservations with the order to delete the photos, saying the directives were “totally outside the norm and outside the chain of command.”
“We don’t want to be on the hook for destroying evidence in a federal investigation,” Vander Horck said he told his superior. He also told the court he was worried the orders would violate the state’s peace officer bill of rights and potentially jeopardize an investigation.
“I was told the sheriff… has full authority,” he continued. “I reiterated that I felt uncomfortable with these directions… he told me this was the way we were going to go.”
In March 2020, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said all of the photos had been deleted and that eight sheriff’s deputies were facing administrative action. CNN has requested comment from Villanueva.
The defense argued that a more prolonged investigation would involve lawyers and union representatives, adding to the risk of the photos leaking.
Tokoro asked if those involved in an investigation would “have copies of the photos,” to which Vander Horck responded, “I suppose.”
Lawyers debate photos showed at bar
Earlier Tuesday, lawyers for Bryant differed with Los Angeles County defense attorneys over exactly what was on the phone of a sheriff deputy when he held it up to show a bartender and shared a laugh.
During cross examination of Deputy Joey Cruz, who received the photos from his training officer while working the crash in 2020, defense lawyers zoomed in on surveillance video of Cruz’s phone to show him scrolling through an Instagram feed rather than examining crash photos.
“Does this confirm your memory that you were looking at your social media?” asked defense attorney Mira Hashmall.
“Yes,” Cruz replied.
But plaintiff attorneys called for the video to be enlarged at another point.
When questioned by plaintiff attorney Craig Lavoie, Cruz agreed he appeared to have stopped scrolling on Instagram and switched to another function of the phone, which Lavoie alleged to be photos of the Bryant crash site. Lavoie then noted the reaction of the bartender who “made gestures across his torso and slashing at his neck” and asked Cruz to explain it.
“I can’t explain his actions,” Cruz replied. He also denied ever laughing at any crash site photos, saying any moments he was seen smiling on the video were part of an evening spent decompressing at the bar with a bartender he considered a good friend.
Cruz said he did show the bartender crash site photos in another part of the video, maintaining that was the only time he specifically showed the photos that night.
Cruz was suspended without pay for two days and ordered to take three days of mandatory training for violating the sheriff department’s confidentiality policies.
Showing the bartender was “a lack of my judgment and not consistent with my training,” Cruz said in court.
“If I could go back… I would do everything differently regarding the photos,” Cruz said, noting that his lapse in judgment came as part of the stress he felt working the crash scene two days before.
But plaintiff attorneys questioned Cruz’s level of stress, noting he never sought county resources for dealing with stress nor referred to it in a report he filed detailing the sharing of the photos.
“I’ve never been through anything as overwhelming as this. … I made a mistake. … I had bad judgment,” Cruz said.
Jerome Jackson, an attorney representing co-plaintiff Chester, asked, “One of the reasons you have remorse is you have hurt my client deeply?
“Yes,” Cruz replied.
“And you know it hurt Ms. Bryant deeply,” Jackson stated.
“Yes,” Cruz said.
Court hears of graphic photos shared while playing ‘Call of Duty’
Deputy Michael Russell testified Tuesday that he obtained photos from Cruz while off-duty in the station’s writing room, later telling officials he was “curious” to see them and learn from them.
The day after receiving the photos, Russell was playing the video game “Call of Duty” with another deputy at a different station when he agreed to text the photos.
Asked if this was just a casual exchange for him, Russell said, “It was more so alleviating the stress that I dealt with the day before.”
Russell’s job that day had been to make sure only authorized personnel made it to the site as crowds flocked to the scene after news surfaced that Bryant was on board the helicopter.
Russell – who was never suspended, demoted or put on probation – was found by an internal investigation to have violated policies by receiving and sending the photos of the crash scene.
Russell told the court that when he sent the photos to the other deputy, it didn’t cross his mind that doing so was in violation of department policy. “I made a grave error,” he said.
“If I could go back to that day when I asked (Cruz) for those photos, I would not do it again,” Russell said. “It was very callous of me.”