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Vanessa Bryant wants to out deputies who leaked “unauthorized” photos of helicopter crash

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Richard Winton

Los Angeles Times

Vanessa Bryant wants to publicly name four Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who her lawyers allege shared “unauthorized” photos of the site of the helicopter crash that killed her husband, Kobe Bryant, their daughter and seven others.

County lawyers, however, want to keep the deputies’ names sealed, arguing that releasing them would make the deputies’ addresses and other personal information only a click away on the internet and that hackers could target them.

Vanessa Bryant’s lawyers this week filed an amended complaint in federal court that added the four deputies and the L.A. County Fire Department to her civil rights lawsuit against the county and the Sheriff’s Department.

The lawsuit seeks damages for negligence and invasion of privacy, alleging deputies and firefighters took and shared photos of the children, parents and coaches who died in the Jan. 26, 2020, crash.

The amended complaint provided new details of their alleged behavior in sharing photos of the remains at the Calabasas crash site.

It pointed to a Sheriff’s Department internal affairs report that found one deputy took 25 to 100 photos at the scene and that photos spread quickly by text and phone-sharing technology over the next 48 hours among deputies who showed them to others.

Bryant’s lawyers blacked out the deputies’ names in their filing this week, pending the court’s decision on whether the complaint should be sealed.

Bryant’s lawyers, led by Luis Li, a former top L.A. city prosecutor, said in court papers that the county could not cite a single case in which a police officer being sued for civil rights violations has been allowed to remain anonymous.

The lawyers argued there is no compelling reason to hide the deputies’ identities, noting that the case cited as precedent by the county in its effort to hide the identities involves sexual harassment victims.

“Defendants try to equate the Deputy Defendants who shared photos of Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s remains with victims of sexual harassment and other abuse,” Li wrote in court papers.

The county lawyers argued that if the defendants are allowed to proceed anonymously, the “public will still be able to review the relevant allegations.”

At a minimum, the county’s lawyers argue that the names of the deputies should remain under seal until a forensic examination by an independent expert is done to determine whether any photos taken by the deputies still exist and could become public.

“Not sealing the Deputy Defendants’ names increases the risk that hackers will seek out and try to gain access to the individual deputies’ devices to locate any photographs and publish them to the public. Plaintiff should want to [seal] for this same reason,” the county’s lawyers wrote.

The county also wants to keep under wraps the report of a sheriff’s internal affairs investigation into the incident that they turned over to Vanessa Bryant’s lawyers, saying that making it public would discourage witness cooperation in the future.

Shortly after the crash, the lawsuit alleges, Sheriff Alex Villanueva personally assured Vanessa Bryant that deputies were securing the site to ensure her privacy. But the suit said Villanueva has since revealed that deputies were involved in taking and sharing photos of the remains of the former Lakers great and other victims in the wreckage, and that he ordered that the photos be destroyed to prevent them from becoming public. According to the lawsuit, he has called the deputies’ conduct “disgusting” and “unconscionable.”

The suit alleges that several deputies shared images from the crash site, as did several county firefighters who were witnessed snapping images on personal phones. The suit notes that a Los Angeles County fire captain, who was a spokesman, has said that he received photos from multiple firefighters at the scene.

Li said he would not comment on the complaint.

Vanessa Bryant’s lawyers detailed how some of the deputies got the photographs. The court filings accuse only one deputy of taking photos. It is unclear from the litigation if it was his images that were repeatedly shared by others.

One deputy stationed at a makeshift command post at the Los Virgenes Water District beneath the crash scene received “multiple photos of Bryant’s remains and stored them on his personal cellphone” and proceeded to share them with two other people, the lawsuit alleges.

The suit alleges that a deputy trainee guarding a trail that leads to the crash site also received multiple photos of Bryant’s remains and shared them with others, “including several members of the public.” Two days after the crash, he showed the photos to his niece, the suit said.

The deputy trainee later went to a Norwalk bar and showed gruesome photographs from the crash scene to a woman and a bartender, and is seen on the bar security camera zooming in and out on the images while displaying them to the bartender, according to the suit.

One of the photos showed a girl’s body and another the basketball star, according to the amended complaint. After seeing the photos, a bartender loudly bragged to those inside the bar that he had seen Kobe Bryant’s body, the lawsuit stated. According to the suit, it was the showing of the photos in the bar that alerted the Sheriff’s Department to the photo scandal.

Another deputy received photos after hearing they were circulating, the suit alleged. Two days after the crash, he shared them with a friend — a deputy from the Santa Clarita station — with whom he played video games nightly, according to the new allegations. That friend told investigators the images were that of a child’s remains.

A fourth deputy at the crash scene perimeter obtained the photos of the remains and later shared them with a sheriff’s detective, the suit said.

According to the suit, Villanueva summoned his deputies to the sheriff’s substation that responded to the crash and told them if they deleted the images, they would not face discipline. The suit alleges that Villanueva’s action made a complete investigation impossible and that an internal investigation only came after a Los Angeles Times investigation found that deputies had shared gruesome photos of the crash site.

Villanueva has said, “the actions we took were the correct ones in extraordinary circumstances.” He has repeatedly emphasized that the photos did not circulate to the wider public because of the action he took. Villanueva later stated that his “No. 1 priority” was to “make sure those photos no longer existed.”

The sheriff has already been dismissed as a defendant in the case by a judge.

After The Times revealed the conduct, Villanueva expressed support for 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. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law last September.

The new law, which took effect Jan. 1, makes it a misdemeanor to take photos that are not part of an official investigation. Violations carry a fine of up to $1,000.

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©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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