LOS ANGELES — Vanessa Bryant sobbed on the stand Friday as she described the anguish she felt after learning that first responders had leaked footage of the site where the bodies of her husband, NBA legend Kobe Bryant , and her teenage daughter, were found after their helicopter crashed. January 2020.
At times, Bryant cried so hard that her body shook and she appeared to be hiccuping and out of breath. She said when she read in a Los Angeles Times article that the photos were circulating, she ran out of her house so her surviving daughters wouldn’t see her crying.
“I felt like I wanted to run around the block and scream,” she told the court. “I can’t escape my body. I can’t escape how I feel.”
Bryant said she felt “blindsided, devastated, hurt and betrayed” by county employees who leaked the photos, but said she herself had not seen them.
“I never want to see those pictures again,” she said. “I want to remember them as they were.”
Still, Bryant said she was terrified of them reuniting on the internet.
“I live in fear every day to see on social media and see these images appear,” she said.
During cross-examination, Bryant strongly rebuffed suggestions that her anxiety was due to the fact that she was overwhelmed with the responsibility of having to raise her family alone while carrying on her late husband’s legacy.
“I’m ready to go through hell and come back for my husband and my daughter,” she said.
Simply deleting the photos, as the county claims, would not be enough for the parents of a child pornography victim, she said.
“Evidence is evidence and should be treated as evidence,” she said.
Bryant’s highly anticipated three hours the testimony came on the eighth day of his privacy invasion trial in federal court in Los Angeles. She attended every day of the trial, sometimes wiping away tears and other times leaving the courtroom when particularly painful testimony or evidence was presented.
Dressed in black and wearing sunglasses, Bryant acknowledged the cameras with a slight smile before entering the courthouse on Friday with her attorneys.
Bryant was followed to the stand by Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who testified he took the ‘bold step’ of offering amnesty to any first responder who showed up and turned in his photos of the scene of the accident.
Los Angeles County had fought the decision to depose Villanueva and other county officials, arguing that they were not defendants in the case and that generally heads of government agencies are not subject to depositions. A local magistrate disagreed last October and ordered Villanueva to testify.
Villanueva’s questioning by Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li, turned hostile when the sheriff was forced to admit that several deputies who were part of a failed internal investigation into the crash site photos had then been promoted, including his chief of staff, Cmdr. John Satterfield.
Addressing the leaked photos, Villanueva said he believed they had all been deleted but “God knows and that’s about it”.
Villanueva, who is running for re-election, is expected to be followed at the helm next week by Los Angeles County Fire Chief Anthony Marrone.
Bryant and Chris Chester, whose wife, Sarah, and daughter, Payton, 13, were also killed in the crash, are seeking unspecified millions for emotional distress in their federal lawsuit against Los Angeles County.
Los Angeles County previously agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a similar lawsuit brought by two families whose loved ones died in the Jan. 26, 2020 crash. But Bryant and Chester refused to settle.
Earlier this week, Chester said he was seeking ‘justice and accountability’ after suffering additional anxiety and ‘nervousness’ over leaked photos.
“The photos have been seen,” he said on the stand. “They were paraded in public. Nothing dies on the internet. It’s a bereavement compounded by grief.”
Chester said he carefully shielded his family, especially his teenage sons, from photos of the crash site and the coroner’s report. The condition of the remains of his wife and daughter was so horrific that even the coroner dissuaded him from looking at them.
But, Chester said, he too was stunned by the revelations of the Los Angeles Times story.
“It brought everything back,” he said Thursday.
Bryant’s attorney told jurors in his opening statement that cellphone photos taken at the crash scene by a deputy and a fire captain were “visual gossip” seen “for fun” and had no no official goal.
Li told jurors that Bryant and Chester learned the photos were shared by first responders from a newspaper article and not by the county. He also released security video of an off-duty sheriff’s deputy drinking at a bar and showing the photos to the bartender, who could be seen shaking his head in dismay.
“January 26, 2020 was the worst day in Vanessa Bryant’s life,” Li said. “The county made it much worse. They poured salt on an open wound and rubbed it.
J. Mira Hashmall, a county attorney, defended taking photos as an essential tool for first responders seeking to share information when they believed there was still a chance to save lives at the scene of the hard-to-reach crash in the Calabasas Hills west of Los Angeles.
“Site photography is key,” Hashmall said.
Hashmall said the fact the footage hasn’t appeared in more than two years shows sheriff and fire officials are doing their job.
“They’re not online, they’re not in the media, they’ve never even been seen by the plaintiffs themselves,” Hashmall said.
Last week, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Doug Johnson, who took close-up photos of the bodies at the scene, insisted he ‘did nothing wrong’ and that another deputy had ordered him to take the pictures.
Retired Los Angeles County Fire Captain Brian Jordan told jurors he did not recall being at the crash site, although he earlier told attorneys that he had crossed the stage.
Sheriff’s Deputy Rafael Mejia, meanwhile, appeared to contradict his own report to investigators. He initially said the photos were “deleted immediately after the incident”, but last week he said that was not true. He said he wouldn’t delete them until four days after the accident.
Chester called out what appeared to be conflicting information and changing stories from the first responders who took the leaked photos.
Kobe Bryant, who helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA championships, was 41 when he died. His daughter, Gianna, was 13. They and six family friends were on their way to a basketball game in Thousand Oaks, California when the helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain.
The pilot, Ara Zobayan, was also killed.
Alicia Victoria Lozano reported from Los Angeles, Corky Siemaszko from New York