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Fire captain sues over phone demand in Kobe Bryant crash photo probe

Scene of the Bryant helicopter crash
A Los Angeles County fire captain who served as a department spokesman after the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others has filed a retaliation lawsuit against his employer.
(Associated Press )

A Los Angeles County fire captain who was at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed NBA star Kobe Bryant and eight others has filed a retaliation lawsuit against the county, alleging he was demoted for refusing to fully cooperate with an investigation into graphic photos taken of the crash site.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday by Capt. Tony Imbrenda, marks the latest fallout from the photo scandal that embroiled the county’s fire agency and the Sheriff’s Department. The Times reported this year that sheriff’s deputies shared gruesome images of the scene in the foothills above Calabasas.

Imbrenda, who served as a spokesman for the fire department in the days after the crash and later was stripped of that title during the investigation, alleges his career prospects were damaged severely by the cloud of suspicion cast over him during the inquiry.

“Imbrenda had an impeccable reputation in the Southern California PIO community with extensive earning potential in his post fire service career,” the lawsuit said. “That potential is now totally destroyed.”

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The Fire Department did not respond to a request for comment.

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Jan. 26 interview with Capt. Tony Imbrenda near the scene of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash.

Imbrenda said in his lawsuit that he was dispatched to the Jan. 26 crash scene, where he helped organize a press conference some distance from the debris field for journalists who arrived as word of Bryant’s death spread. That first day, he said he received multiple photographs from people working at the crash site, “as is common practice on all major incidents,” according to his lawsuit.

The lawsuit did not explain why it is routine for a spokesperson to receive photographs of a crime or accident scene from others that are not to be released to the public.

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Imbrenda said he returned the next day to help with the investigation, traveling to the accident site “to gain intelligence on conditions and to assist the FBI photographer with her equipment.” While there, he took a few photos on his own, according to the lawsuit.

Imbrenda’s superiors did not communicate that photos of the scene were not allowed, and there’s no department policy on photography at emergency incidents, the lawsuit said.

In the weeks that followed, as it became clear the Sheriff’s Department was investigating its deputies for sharing images of the incident, Imbrenda, 50, alerted firefighters who had sent him photos that they should be deleted, according to the lawsuit.

He also “spread the word” that possession of graphic images could be problematic, the lawsuit said, and that “everyone should delete them so as to minimize the potential for the content to fall into the wrong hands.”

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On March 6, the lawsuit said, Imbrenda complied with an order to hand over his department cellphone and laptop. He was then informed he was the subject of a fire department investigation into the alleged photo taking and sharing, which was “something Imbrenda had never done,” according to the lawsuit.

Imbrenda subsequently was ordered to turn over his personal cell phone or face suspension or discharge. He refused to do so, saying the order was a violation of the Firefighter Bill of Rights. In response, he alleges, he was removed from the spokesman position and his county-issued vehicle was taken away.

In the lawsuit, Imbrenda denies taking photos of the victims’ bodies and said he did not take photos with his personal cell phone. But he did not address whether he transferred images to his personal phone.

He was first reassigned to a telemedicine unit, where he worked 12-hour days in a “dungeon-like setting” earning half of what he made as a spokesman, the lawsuit said. Then, he was transferred to work in serology testing, a “totally humiliating” experience because other employees made jokes and laughed at his expense, according to the lawsuit. In September, he moved to a fire station in Altadena.

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Imbrenda still does not know what misconduct allegations were lodged against him, the lawsuit said. The status and scope of the fire department’s investigation into the photos is unclear.

At the Sheriff’s Department, after a citizen filed a complaint about a deputy sharing gruesome images from the crash at a bar in Norwalk, Sheriff Alex Villanueva initially sought to cover up the behavior by quietly ordering the photos deleted. But when The Times exposed the conduct, the sheriff quickly ordered an investigation be opened. .

The department has since moved to discipline one deputy who stored the photographs on a personal cellphone and shared them with friends, family and coworkers on “multiple occasions,” according to the Sheriff’s Department’s quarterly disciplinary report. The deputy, who faces a 10-day suspension, was not identified in the report.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed into law a bill that makes it a crime for peace officers and other first responders to take unauthorized photos of dead people at the scene of a crime or accident. In the midst of the scandal over the photos, and under fire from Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, the Sheriff’s Department sponsored the legislation that created the law. The bill was introduced by Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson).

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Vanessa Bryant has filed a lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department over the photos, seeking damages for negligence, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Her attorney has called the deputies’ actions “inexcusable and deplorable.”

The crash killed Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others. The Sikorsky S-76B helicopter slammed into a hillside in heavy fog on a morning flight from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament in Thousand Oaks.


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