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Sheriff watchdog seeking subpoena for documents in alleged Kobe Bryant crash photo cover-up

The chief watchdog for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is seeking a subpoena for documents related to deputies sharing graphic photos of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others.
(Jonathan Bachman / Associated Press)

Los Angeles County’s chief law enforcement watchdog is seeking to subpoena documents related to allegations that Sheriff Alex Villanueva directed a cover-up after deputies shared graphic photos of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others.

“The documents are relevant to a pending inquiry into allegations that the Sheriff directed the destruction of evidence and suppressed an administrative investigation to avoid negative publicity,” Inspector General Max Huntsman said in a letter this week to the chair of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.

Huntsman said Villanueva had declined to provide the records and requested that the subpoena item be placed on the agenda for the commission’s May 21 meeting.

Villanueva had already launched an internal investigation into the photo sharing incident. On Friday he said, “monitoring does not give license to interfere or obstruct the investigation. The OIG will receive what they are lawfully entitled to once the investigation is concluded.”

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Huntsman’s request came less than a week after Vanessa Bryant filed a claim against the Sheriff’s Department alleging that it failed to “adequately investigate the extent of the deputies misconduct.”

The Los Angeles Times first reported that deputies shared photos taken at the scene of the Jan. 26 crash near Calabasas after someone filed a written complaint to the Sheriff’s Department.

The Los Angeles County coroner autopsy report says blunt force trauma was cause of death in the crash that killed Kobe Bryant. No illegal substances or alcohol were found in the bloodstream of pilot Ara Zobayan.

The complaint, filed three days after the crash, said that a young deputy was displaying gruesome crash scene photos at the Baja California Bar & Grill in Norwalk.

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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.

After it was reported publicly, Villanueva acknowledged that he ordered the deputies to delete the photos, a move that some inside the department as well as legal experts said could amount to destruction of evidence. He said he launched an investigation, which he asked the Office of the Inspector General to monitor.

Last month, the office requested a list of documents and information, including the identity of any personnel who displayed or saw the photographs as well as those involved in deciding how the matter would be handled. It also sought information about the cellphones with which the photos were taken, stored or displayed, and the call and text history for all cellphones of employees on the scene.

Villanueva responded in a letter that his investigators “will maintain full control of the investigation and all information discovered until completion.” He added that the inspector general’s office would continue to get weekly updates until the investigation was complete.

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Villanueva said earlier this week that the internal affairs investigation was “getting near its conclusion” and would be released publicly. He did not answer questions about how many deputies are under investigation, for what policy violations and what discipline those violations carry.

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.

Huntsman said in his subpoena request that county attorneys need reliable information about Villanueva’s conduct to appropriately respond to Vanessa Bryant’s claim.

According to the claim, Villanueva “personally assured” Vanessa Bryant that deputies were securing the crash site to ensure her privacy.

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“In reality, however, no fewer than eight sheriff’s deputies were at the scene snapping cellphone photos of the dead children, parents and coaches,” said the claim, which is a precursor to a lawsuit. “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.

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The others who perished in the crash were Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna; Christina Mauser; Payton and Sarah Chester; John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli and pilot Ara Zobayan.

Coroner’s officials Friday said each died of blunt trauma resulting from an accident.


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