By Jason Kravarik, Natasha Chen, Amir Vera and Elizabeth Wolfe, CNN
Vanessa Bryant walked out of court Thursday afternoon during testimony that described images taken at the scene of the fatal helicopter crash that killed her husband, NBA legend Kobe Bryant, her daughter and seven others.
The scene took place during the second day of testimony in Vanessa Bryant’s federal civil lawsuit against Los Angeles County, which claims that photos from the January 2020 helicopter crash were shared by county fire and sheriff’s department employees in settings irrelevant to the investigation, including at a bar.
Vanessa Bryant became emotional when Victor Gutierrez, a bartender, was asked if he had seen the body of her daughter, Gianna Bryant, in the images. Gutierrez had been describing what he saw in the photos shown by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy.
Bryant cried, stood up and her attorney asked the presiding judge permission for Bryant to leave the courtroom.
“You don’t have to ask my permission,” the judge said.
Bryant did not return for the remainder of Gutierrez’s testimony, which continued with a series of surveillance clips from the bar on January 28th, 2020 — two days after the crash. Gutierrez described wincing at the photos and then admitted to telling the condition of the victims’ bodies to five sets of people.
One person he recounted the photos to was Ralph Mendez, who later filed a complaint against the deputy who initially showed Gutierrez the photos.
“I was in disbelief, disappointed, disgusted and angry,” Mendez said, referring to the details recounted to him by Gutierrez that night. “Being in the position he is… I felt he has the public’s trust riding on his shoulders and when he showed photos of the victims he betrayed the public’s trust.”
Bryant sat through the conclusion of Thursday’s testimony of the trial’s first witness, Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, as well as one of the first responders.
Bryant was not in the court during testimony by a coroner but returned to listen to Guitierrez’s testimony before leaving the courtroom.
The trial is expected to last about two weeks and witnesses will likely include Vanessa Bryant and LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. The suit, which was filed in September 2020, seeks undisclosed damages and claims civil rights violations, negligence, emotional distress and violation of privacy.
A jury of six women and four men was selected for the case. They include a nun, someone who works in TV production for NBC Universal, a college student, a real estate investor, a pharmaceutical researcher, a computer science professor and a restaurant host.
Dozens of employees shared photos from the crash, lawyer says
Bryant said the disturbing images taken at the scene were shared among more than two dozen Los Angeles County employees, her lawyer, Luis Li, said Wednesday.
Li presented a flow chart of how initial photos spread from one deputy to more than a dozen deputies and more than a dozen members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Some photos were shared between deputies as they played the “Call of Duty” video game, Li said in his opening statement.
Vanessa Bryant wiped away tears as Li described the way sheriff’s deputies captured and shared the photos.
“They took pictures of broken bodies … close-ups of limbs, of burnt flesh,” the attorney said. “It shocks the conscience.”
Surveillance footage played in court showed one of the deputies at a bar showing a photo to a bartender, who recoiled and turned away after seeing the image.
“Never in her worst nightmares did (Bryant) imagine that police and first responders would go — and they would be the ones — to take pictures of Kobe and Gianna’s remains for no reason,” Li said.
The attorney said county employees did not cause the accident on January 26, 2020, but accused them of exploiting it, saying, “They poured salt in an unhealable wound.”
The defense emphasized that the photos have not been leaked online or to the media and cautioned jurors to separate the tragedy of the crash from the facts of the case about the photos.
“The families suffered unspeakable loss… but that is about the helicopter crash,” said Mira Hashmall, an attorney representing LA County. “This case is about the first responders and what they did.”
Lakers GM sobbed during testimony
Wednesday’s proceedings ended with the testimony of Rob Pelinka, general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, who sobbed as he described being best friends with Kobe Bryant and godfather to Gianna. On the day of the crash, Pelinka said that he helped Vanessa Bryant seek assurances from the sheriff that the site would be secure from people trying to take photos of the scene.
Pelinka also shared the terror, anxiety and grief he saw in Vanessa Bryant after she learned the crime scene photos were being circulated amongst deputies.
In addition to Bryant, a second plaintiff is Christopher Chester, who lost his wife Sarah and their daughter Payton in the crash. Chester’s attorney, Jerome Jackson, said the photos from the scene may have captured disturbing scenes of Sarah’s remains.
“Why would anyone use those same photos for ballroom banter and cocktail chatter?” Jackson said.
A key argument in the case is whether first responders should have taken crash site photos in the first place.
The defense claimed there were valid reasons for site photos, since the crash was a mile up a mountainside at an elevation of 1,250 feet. Hashmall said the deputy took photos of more than just bodies.
If the deputy didn’t document the scene as he was trained, Hashmall said, he would not have been able to inform the command center, which was tasked with not only search and recovery but also battling a wildfire sparked by the crash.
“If you don’t have a picture,” she said, “you cannot craft a response.”
David Katz, a reserve deputy with LA County’s Malibu search and rescue unit, testified that he was told by a supervisor not to take photos of the crash site once it was learned Kobe Bryant was among the victims, but when he arrived at the scene he found that a deputy had already taken the photos.
When asked by the defense if he was surprised the deputy had taken the photos, Katz said “not at all… it would stand to reason that the command post would want to know what they were dealing with.”
Later, Captain Emily Tauscher from the LA County coroner’s office testified that the office did not ask deputies to take photos of the remains.
Tauscher said during cross-examination that the office has relied on first responders’ photos in the past because the “scene might change from the time the incident happens to when the coroner gets on scene.”
The defense conceded the photos should not have spread as they did but maintained the county’s early action effectively contained it.
“We’re being sued over pictures that aren’t online, aren’t in the media and have never been seen by the plaintiff,” Hashmall said.
Bryant’s attorney told jurors he will show that the county’s actions did not fully contain the spread of the photos and that they could still surface online.
Following the accident, Sheriff Villanueva told CNN that the department was conducting an investigation and eight deputies were facing administrative action due to accusations they shared pictures of the crash scene with people outside of the investigation.
The sheriff said in March 2020 that all photos of the scene that were in deputies’ possession had been deleted. Months later, Vanessa Bryant’s lawyers filed a motion claiming that the department’s actions amounted to destroying evidence.
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CNN’s Eric Levenson and Stella Chan contributed to this report.