• The Star Staff

Kobe Bryant’s widow sues LA County Sheriff over crash site photos

By Concepción De León

Vanessa Bryant, the widow of Kobe Bryant, has sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, saying that she “lives in fear that she or her children” will see unauthorized photos taken by deputies at the site of the helicopter crash that killed her husband, their daughter Gianna and seven others.

The lawsuit, which was filed Sept. 17, alleges that “no fewer than eight sheriff’s deputies at the crash site pulled out their personal cellphones and snapped photos of the dead children, parents and coaches.” The photoas, the suit said, were taken for “their own personal gratification,” rather than for official law enforcement purposes.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of Vanessa Bryant’s privacy. It comes four months after Vanessa Bryant filed a claim against the Sheriff’s Department, a precursor to a lawsuit.

Vanessa Bryant says in the lawsuit that the day of the Jan. 26 crash, she personally asked Sheriff Alex Villanueva to designate a no-fly zone over the crash site and to secure it from photographers to protect the families’ privacy.

But shortly after the crash, according to the lawsuit, one of the deputies who had responded shared graphic images from the site with a woman at a Norwalk, Calif. bar. A bartender overheard the conversation, the suit said, and reported the episode to the Sheriff’s Department.

The lawsuit says that Vanessa Bryant was “shocked and devastated” when she learned that photographs had been taken and that she “lives in fear that she or her children will one day confront horrific images of their loved ones online.” The taking of the unauthorized photos was first reported in February by The Los Angeles Times.

The suit also alleges that, rather than inform the victims’ families or open an investigation after learning of the deputies’ actions, Villanueva “directed a cover-up,” telling the deputies that they would not face discipline if they deleted the photos.

In an interview with NBC News in March, Villanueva acknowledged that he had ordered the eight deputies involved to delete the unauthorized photos, which included images of the remains.

“That was my No. 1 priority,” Villanueva told NBC News, “to make sure those photos no longer exist.”

In a statement Tuesday in response to the lawsuit, the Sheriff’s Department said, “As a result of the swift actions we took under extraordinary circumstances, no pictures made it into the public arena.” It added, “We continue to offer our heartfelt sympathies for the victims and their families.”

After The Los Angeles Times first reported on the leaked photos in February, Villanueva said he had started an investigation, which would be overseen by the Los Angeles County Inspector General’s Office.

Neither the Inspector General’s Office nor Vanessa Bryant’s lawyers responded to emails or calls for comment.

The helicopter crash that killed the retired basketball star and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, also killed Christina Mauser; Payton and Sarah Chester; John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli; and the pilot, Ara Zobayan. The group was flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament when the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter slammed into a hillside near Calabasas, Calif., northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

A bill written by State Assemblyman Mike Gipson and sponsored by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department would make it a misdemeanor, punishable by $1,000 fines per violation, for “first responders” to take unauthorized photos of deceased people at the scene of an accident or crime. The bill was passed by the California State Legislature in August and awaits the signature of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

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