New filings suggest Kobe Bryant crash photos spread widely among workers
By Jonathan Abrams
A fire department officer flashed the disturbing photos to a group of people during cocktail hour before a gala. A sheriff’s deputy shared the images with a bartender, who grimaced and made a slashing gesture over his neck. Another deputy, who could not believe how gruesome the pictures were, forwarded them to a colleague while playing online video games with his friends.
Photos of the bodies of the Lakers star Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others who died in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles in January 2020 were shared on at least 28 devices owned by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department personnel and by at least a dozen Los Angeles County firefighters, according to the latest legal filings submitted by the legal team for Vanessa Bryant, Kobe Bryant’s widow.
The court papers, based on depositions and the forensic investigation of cellphones, attempt to demonstrate the chain that formed to disseminate the images and how widely they were shared. Bryant is suing the county and some of its agencies and employees, claiming to have experienced emotional distress over the sharing of the photos, while the county has denied any wrongdoing and says it worked to keep the photos out of public hands when officials became aware of them.
Several of those who viewed the photos described the remains in crude terms, a point Bryant said in the filings made the situation worse.
“I imagine Kobe watching over what occurred at that crash scene, and I am overcome with anger and emotion,” Bryant wrote in a declaration accompanying the filings.
She added: “I also feel extreme sadness and anger knowing that photos of my husband’s and daughter’s bodies were laughed about while shown at a bar and an awards banquet.”
The filings were submitted in response to Los Angeles County’s motion in November for summary judgment, requesting the lawsuit be dismissed.
A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 27.
Louis Miller, the lawyer known as Skip whom the county hired for the case, said in a statement that the county sympathized with Bryant’s losses, but that it is not at fault.
County emergency workers, he said, “responded to that crash and, at her specific request, set up a no-fly zone, undertook extensive efforts to keep the public and paparazzi away, and made sure none of the investigative photos were ever publicly disseminated. The county did its job and believes there is no merit to this lawsuit.”
Bryant’s legal team has disputed the county’s statements, saying the sharing of the photos among workers without any discernible investigative purpose amounted to public dissemination. The lawyers’ submission includes depositions from workers who shared the photos as well as forensic evidence from the phones to chart the sharing of the photos.
Tony Imbrenda, a Los Angeles County Fire Department public information officer, shared the images with a group of firefighters and a few other people at a gala honoring emergency medical workers, according to the filings.
“I just saw Kobe’s body all burnt up before I’m about to eat,” one bystander remarked, according to the filing.
Last year, Imbrenda, who has not commented on the case, filed a lawsuit against the county after he was demoted for refusing to turn over his personal cellphone. Imbrenda had received some of the images on his work cellphone from Brian Jordan, a safety officer, who misrepresented himself at the crash scene as a fire chief in charge of media relations, according to Bryant’s legal team. Jordan sent pictures to several others, according to the filings. He faced termination by the department before retiring early. A message left with his lawyer was not returned.
The images coursed among sheriff’s department personnel like a chain message.
Doug Johnson, a sheriff’s deputy who is not named as a defendant in Bryant’s lawsuit, captured pictures of the remains with his personal cellphone, according to the documents, and at least four images focused closely on the body parts of Kobe and Gianna Bryant. He sent the pictures to another deputy, Raul Versales, who testified that “he did not need to have the photographs,” but sent them along to four other members of the department.
Deputy Michael Russell, who testified that he had asked for the pictures out of curiosity, shared them with another deputy while playing a video game. Deputy Joey Cruz displayed them to a bartender, which prompted a citizen’s complaint to the sheriff’s department in February 2020. Alex Villanueva, the Los Angeles County sheriff, in response instructed his staff members to immediately delete the photos upon learning of the complaint. They did not face discipline, according to the county’s filing, because, in the county’s view, the photos were not publicly disseminated.
“I can tell you I did exactly what was needed to be done to ensure there was no further harm to the family,” Villanueva testified, adding, “if I had to do it all over again, I’d probably make the exact same decision.”
Vanessa Bryant had asked Villanueva to secure the site the day of the crash and to ensure that no photos of the deceased would leak.
Bryant’s legal team maintains that the photos may already be in the public domain and that the ones taken by emergency workers were deleted in order to destroy evidence. The county contends that ordering employees to delete the photos was in fact complying with Bryant’s wishes that they not be disseminated any further.
But the lawyers representing Bryant said they have been notified by citizens of other instances of the photos spreading. An Orange County law enforcement officer who was not part of the response to the crash showed the photos at a bar, the lawyers said in a filing. An unknown person forwarded Bryant a Twitter post that purported to be a photo of Kobe Bryant’s remains that matched authentic images of the crash site, the lawyers said.
The filings are the latest in a highly contested case. In previous rulings, a judge decided that Villanueva and Daryl Osby, the Los Angeles County fire chief, must sit for depositions — Villanueva has done so and Osby’s is pending — and Bryant and her therapist were compelled to produce documents relating to their sessions.