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2nd lawsuit is filed over Kobe Bryant helicopter crash photos

Officials remove a body from the helicopter wreckage where Kobe Bryant and eight others died.
Officials remove a body from the wreckage in Calabasas in January where Kobe Bryant and eight others, including Christina Mauser, died in a helicopter crash.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Calling unauthorized photographs of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and nine others “abhorrent and inappropriate,” the husband of one of the victims has sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Christina Mauser, 38, was among those killed in the Jan. 26 crash in Calabasas that claimed the lives of Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, as they flew from Orange County to a youth basketball game.

Matthew Mauser filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging that he and his three children suffered an invasion of privacy, emotional distress, humiliation and anxiety “from the realization that photographs of their mother and wife were wrongfully taken, shown and discussed.”

The lawsuit mirrors one filed by Vanessa Bryant, widow of the former Lakers star, who has repeatedly castigated sheriff’s deputies’ behavior and the failure of the department to take action against those involved.

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The suit accuses Sheriff Alex Villanueva of falsely assuring the families “that every possible measure” was instituted to “preserve and protect” the accident scene on Las Virgenes Road. Instead, court documents indicate at least eight deputies snapped photographs of those killed in the crash and shared the graphic images. Those deputies were not part of the investigative team at the site, the suit says.

Vanessa Bryant has alleged that Villanueva personally assured her that deputies were securing the crash site to ensure her privacy. She filed her suit after a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that deputies had taken and shared photos of the crash scene.

L.A. Sheriff’s Department says it is looking into reports that deputies shared graphic images of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash scene.

Villanueva has admitted that eight deputies were involved in the taking and sharing of photos of the remains of Bryant and other victims at the scene and that he ordered the photos to be destroyed. He said at least one of the photographs was shared outside the department.

The new lawsuit and Vanessa Bryant’s original suit allege that one of the deputies was at a Norwalk bar and showed the gruesome photos to a woman there. The bartender overheard the conversation and reported it to the Sheriff’s Department, the suits state.

Villanueva attempted to cover up the graphic images by going to the sheriff’s substation that responded to the crash and telling deputies if they deleted the images, they would not face discipline, public safety sources with knowledge of the events told The Times.

After the Vanessa Bryant lawsuit was filed, Villanueva said “the actions we took were the correct ones in extraordinary circumstances.” The sheriff also noted that he was the one who proposed creating legislation making it a crime for first responders to take pictures of a dead person unless it’s part of the official investigation.

A bill that would provide penalties for first responders in California who share photos from crash and crime scenes is passed by the Legislature.

In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill making 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. The new law
takes effect Jan 1.

The National Transportation Safety Board is continuing to investigate the January crash.

Christina Mauser was a top assistant coach on a Mamba Academy girls’ basketball team and had flown to help Bryant coach the team in a game against the Fresno Lady Heat at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks. The others who died in the fiery crash were Payton and Sarah Chester; John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli; and pilot Ara Zobayan.

The Times first reported that deputies had shared photographs taken at the site after someone filed a written complaint with the Sheriff’s Department three days after the crash. In the aftermath, the Sheriff’s Department tried to keep a lid on the incident instead of following investigative protocols — even after determining that several more deputies had obtained photographs, according to sources not authorized to discuss the situation.

The Times, however, learned that 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 the destruction of evidence.

Following the revelations, an attorney for Vanessa Bryant said that she had gone to the Sheriff’s Department after the crash and requested the area be designated a “no-fly zone” and guarded against photographers.

After The Times reported on the scandal, Villanueva said he launched an investigation, which he asked the office of the Inspector General to monitor.

The suit, however, alleges that when Villanueva learned of the photos, he did not inform the families, investigate or inspect cellphones used to take the pictures and instead directed a “cover-up.” The action, the suit alleges, compounded the emotional pain of the deaths.

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.

The photo scandal fallout is likely to get costly. Last month, Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Tony Imbrenda, who served as the agency’s spokesman the day of the crash, sued the Fire Department, alleging that his career was severely damaged after he fell under a cloud of suspicion regarding the crash scene photos.

Imbrenda said he received multiple photographs from people working at the crash site, “as is a common practice on all major incidents,” but did nothing wrong with them. On the second day, he said, he assisted an FBI photographer and did take photos. He says he was reassigned following the scandal.


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