Vanessa Bryant files claim against L.A. County sheriff over Kobe Bryant crash site photos
Vanessa Bryant has filed a claim against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department over deputies sharing “unauthorized” photos of the scene of the helicopter crash that killed her husband, Kobe Bryant, their daughter and seven others.
According to the claim filed Friday, Sheriff Alex Villanueva “personally assured her” that deputies were securing the crash site to ensure her privacy.
“In reality, however, no fewer than eight sheriff’s deputies were at the scene snapping cell-phone photos of the dead children, parents, and coaches,” the claim, which is a precursor to a lawsuit, said. “As the department would later admit, there was no investigative purpose for deputies to take pictures at the crash site. Rather, the deputies took photos for their own personal purposes.”
The claim also states the department’s response to the scandal has been “grossly insufficient.”
“Mrs. Bryant was distressed to learn that the department did not initiate a formal investigation until after the L.A. Times broke the story,” it said. The document said five deputies and three trainees or reserve deputies took or shared photos of the scene.
The claim alleges that the deputies who took and shared the photos are liable for negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of her right to privacy.
The Sheriff’s Department said it had not received the claim and declined to comment. Villanueva could not be reached for comment.
The others who perished in the fiery crash were Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna; Christina Mauser; Payton and Sarah Chester; John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli; and pilot Ara Zobayan.
The Los Angeles Times first reported that the deputies shared photos taken at the crash site near Calabasas after someone filed a written complaint to the Sheriff’s Department three days after the Jan. 26 crash.
A young deputy was showing gruesome photos taken at the scene of the tragedy at the Baja California Bar & Grill in Norwalk, the complaint said.
For weeks, the leadership of the Sheriff’s Department tried to keep a lid on the episode instead of following normal investigative protocols — even after determining that several more deputies had obtained photos.
Villanueva ordered the deputies to quietly delete the photos, a move that some inside the department as well as legal experts said could amount to destruction of evidence.
Following the revelations, an attorney for Vanessa Bryant said that she’d gone to the sheriff’s office after the crash and requested the area be designated a “no-fly zone” and guarded from photographers.
“At that time, Sheriff Alex Villanueva assured us all measures would be put in place to protect the families’ privacy, and it is our understanding that he has worked hard to honor those requests,” attorney Gary C. Robb said. He demanded that the deputies be identified “to ensure that the photos are not further disseminated.”
Robb requested an internal affairs investigation into the allegations and the “harshest possible discipline” for those responsible. He called the alleged behavior “inexcusable and deplorable.”
“This is an unspeakable violation of human decency, respect, and of the privacy rights of the victims and their families,” he said.
After The Times reported on the scandal, Villanueva said he launched an investigation, which he asked the Office of the Inspector General to monitor.
Inspector General Max Huntsman offered to take over the investigation, as his office has done in the past when conflicts of interest have arisen.
Vanessa Bryant opened a card from her late husband Kobe on her birthday. “It gave me something to look forward to today,” she writes.
“As you are aware, we are conducting an inquiry into public allegations that LASD command staff ordered the destruction of evidence of crash scene photographs and suppressed the investigation prior to the matter being reported publicly,” Huntsman said in the letter.
The Sheriff’s Department said Friday that the internal affairs case “is still under investigation and pending.”
Earlier this week, a California lawmaker outraged by the scandal said he wants to make it a crime for law enforcement officers to take unauthorized photographs of those killed in accidents and crimes.
State Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson) has introduced legislation that would make it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and $5,000 in fines for a first responder to use a smartphone or other device to photograph a deceased person for any purpose other than official law enforcement business.
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