In a courtroom on the seventh floor of the marbled federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, a high-stakes drama is playing out, pitting one of the country’s largest law enforcement agencies against the widow of one of the city’s patron saints.
At issue: graphic victim photos taken on personal cellphones by emergency workers at the helicopter crash site in which nine people died, including the retired Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
A few days after the January 2020 crash, Raphael Mendez Jr. walked into the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk with his teammates after a softball game, based on testimony The New York Times covered Thursday.
Mendez previously told sheriff’s investigators that the bartender, Victor Gutierrez, walked over to their table and shared a story: A bar regular who was a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy had just shown Gutierrez graphic photos of victims from the crash site.
“I was in disbelief,” Mendez, a real estate investor from Cerritos, said from the witness stand. “I was disappointed, disgusted and angry.”
Mendez went home and, from his parked car in his driveway, sent a complaint through the Sheriff’s Department website.
It was the second day of a jury trial in U.S. District Court involving a lawsuit filed by Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, alleging that her privacy was invaded when Los Angeles County deputies and Fire Department personnel shared crash site photos with their friends and colleagues.
The lawsuit says that by sharing the photos, those involved — including the deputy at the bar and firefighters weeks later at an awards banquet — violated the victims’ families’ constitutional rights to control images of their loved ones’ remains.
“Mrs. Bryant feels ill at the thought of strangers gawking at images of her deceased husband and child, and she lives in fear that she or her children will one day confront horrific images of their loved ones online,” Bryant’s lawyers wrote in a complaint. “Many social media users have claimed to have seen photos of the victims’ remains, and their accounts are plausible given the number of deputies who took photos, the ease with which cellphone pictures are transmitted and saved in cloud storage, and the Sheriff’s Department’s egregious failure to take reasonable steps to prevent dissemination of the photos.”
Joining Bryant in the lawsuit against Los Angeles County is Chris Chester, whose wife, Sarah, 45, and daughter, Payton, 13, were among the victims of the crash on the morning of Jan. 26, 2020. The plaintiffs are seeking damages for emotional distress. Two other victims’ families settled for $1.25 million each last year.
The lawsuit alleges that after learning about the website complaint, Sheriff Alex Villanueva tried to cover up the behavior by asking the deputies to delete the photos from their cellphones in exchange for facing no disciplinary action.
Lawyers representing Los Angeles County said taking photographs of fatal crime and accident scenes was common practice for investigative and information-sharing purposes, and that no crash site photos had ever been distributed publicly because, in part, all county personnel deleted the images from their phones and they cannot be recovered.
“A plaintiff cannot recover damages for hypothetical harm,” lawyers for the county wrote in a trial brief.
The lawyers argue emergency workers were not acting under the color of state law when they showed the photos to others.
“The county continues to express its deepest sympathies for the families that suffered this terrible loss,” Mira Hashmall, a lawyer representing Los Angeles County, said in a statement. “The county has also worked tirelessly for 2 1/2 years to make sure its site photos of the crash were never publicly disseminated. The evidence shows they never were. And that is fact, not speculation.”
Thursday’s witnesses included the Lakers general manager, Rob Pelinka, who spoke about the Bryant family’s distress. Also testifying was Gutierrez, the bartender, who said Deputy Joey Cruz showed him cellphone images of the helicopter crash victims. During his testimony, Gutierrez said he remembered briefly seeing graphic images, but could not recall telling anyone else — including Mendez — about what he had seen.
Surveillance video inside the bar showing Cruz and Gutierrez interacting and appearing to look at Cruz’s cellphone together played throughout his testimony. At times, it appeared that Cruz and Gutierrez were smiling and laughing after viewing the photos — but Gutierrez disputed that interpretation.
“What type of human being would laugh at photos of other human beings like that?” he said.
Bryant, sitting in the courtroom, repeatedly wiped away tears and, at times, held her head in her hands. At one point, while Gutierrez testified about the photos, she asked the judge for permission to leave the courtroom. She stood up and walked out, wiping tears from her eyes.
The trial is expected to last at least another week, with 52 total witnesses slated to appear. Villanueva and Bryant are among those scheduled to testify.