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As sheriff defies subpoena on jails, watchdog plans another for Kobe Bryant crash records

Site of the Calabasas helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others
A federal investigator’s photo of the site of the Jan. 26 helicopter crash in Calabasas that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others.
(James Anderson / National Transportation Safety Board)

The inspector general for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department will subpoena records related to the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant as part of an inquiry into whether Sheriff Alex Villanueva covered up the sharing of graphic photos by deputies at the scene.

Whether Villanueva will comply with the subpoena, authorized Thursday by the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, is an open question.

He defied another subpoena to testify before the commission Thursday about coronavirus outbreaks in the county jails, instead sending an assistant sheriff. Advocates and commissioners have raised a number of concerns about conditions in the jails, where more than 700 inmates and nearly 200 department personnel have tested positive for the virus.

The commission voted unanimously to take Villanueva to court to enforce the subpoena for the jail testimony. That subpoena, approved this month, was the first issued by the commission under a ballot initiative, Measure R, overwhelmingly approved by voters in March.

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“I’m disappointed that the sheriff essentially decided to defy a lawful subpoena order,” said Commissioner Priscilla Ocen. “It’s disheartening when you see law enforcement not following, from my perspective, the law.”

At a news conference this week, Villanueva questioned the legal authority behind the subpoenas. He called the subpoena for the Bryant crash records “a fine example of overreach” and said the inspector general had no authority to demand them.

After Thursday’s meeting, he issued a statement saying that the assistant sheriff’s appearance satisfied the subpoena for his testimony. The subpoena is not legally enforceable, he added, and everything the commission is entitled to is available on his website.

“The subpoena was issued to me in my official capacity as sheriff, and as such does not call for my personal appearance,” the statement said. “As is standard practice, I sent the person most knowledgeable in my place. Measure R contains no enforcement and/or objection mechanism.”

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The items and records subpoenaed by Inspector General Max Huntsman related to the Bryant inquiry include cellphones used to take photos at the crash site in Calabasas, the identities of everyone present when orders were given to delete the photos and department emails and text messages on the handling of the incident.

Along with the retired Lakers superstar, eight others died in the crash: Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna; Christina Mauser; Payton and Sarah Chester; John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli; and pilot Ara Zobayan.

Huntsman, who with the county Board of Supervisors has a long-running feud with Villanueva, said he has been monitoring the department’s internal investigation into the photo-sharing incident.

Sheriff’s Department officials have allowed him to review redacted documents, but he has not been able to keep any copies, Huntsman said at the Thursday commission meeting.

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Nor does the sheriff appear to be investigating any role he himself may have played in covering up the incident.

“It does not include a robust investigation of himself, which should not be a surprise to anyone,” Huntsman said.

Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, has filed a claim against the Sheriff’s Department over the sharing of the photos, alleging that “no fewer than eight sheriff’s deputies were at the scene snapping cellphone photos of the dead children, parents, and coaches” for their personal use.

The claim calls the department’s response to the incident “grossly insufficient.”

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The Times was the first to report that Sheriff’s Department officials quietly ordered subordinates to delete any photos of the crash scene after a citizen complained that a deputy was showing the gruesome images at a Norwalk bar.

In the days after the Jan. 26 crash, deputies were ordered to report to the Sheriff’s Department’s Lost Hills station and told that if they came clean and deleted the photos, they would not face discipline, according to sources.

Villanueva will have 21 days to respond to the subpoena.

“I’m feeling a little uninspired that these subpoenas are going to work, but they’re our only recourse right now,” oversight commission Chairwoman Patricia Giggans said after Thursday’s meeting.

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Assistant Sheriff Bruce Chase, who oversees the jails, testified in Villanueva’s place Thursday.

The inmate population is just under 12,000, down 32% from before the pandemic, after many low-level offenders were released in an effort to prevent the virus from spreading, Chase said.

Chase acknowledged that nonviolent and medically vulnerable inmates were still in the jails and that whittling down the population was a work in progress.

The jails house more than 2,000 inmates whose age or preexisting health conditions make them especially vulnerable. Of about 5,400 inmates awaiting trial, more than 1,100 are classified as nonviolent, Chase said.

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Even with fewer inmates, social distancing in the jails is a problem, he said — some triple bunks, for example, are bolted to the floor.

Coronavirus testing, including of inmates without symptoms, has been ramped up with the goal of testing everyone, Chase said. The tests are voluntary, and some inmates are refusing, but testing was completed in the women’s jail Wednesday and is continuing in men’s facilities.

Huntsman said that in one dorm he reviewed last week, 40 of the 67 inmates tested positive for the virus.

“I wish the sheriff was here, and that’s because I want to talk about the critical issues,” Huntsman said.


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