Sports News

Vanessa Bryant testifies in trial over Kobe Bryant crash photos

"I'm willing to go to hell and back to get justice for my family."

Vanessa Bryant, left, the widow of the late Kobe Bryant, holds hands with friend, Sydney Leroux as they leave a federal courthouse in Los Angeles on Friday. Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo


LOS ANGELES — Vanessa Bryant had found a measure of closure in February 2020 after the emotional, tribute-rich memorial for her late husband, basketball star Kobe Bryant.

Then, days later, as she relaxed at home with friends and her younger daughters, Bryant learned that sheriff’s deputies had privately shared photos of victims’ remains at the site of the helicopter crash that killed her husband and their 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, along with seven other people.

Bryant bolted from her home, she testified in a Los Angeles federal courthouse Friday.

“I felt like I wanted to run down the block and just scream,” she said. “But I couldn’t escape. I can’t escape my body.”

Advertisement:

Friday’s testimony was a pivotal moment in a trial stemming from Bryant’s lawsuit against Los Angeles County over the handling of crash-site photos. On the trial’s eighth day in a bright, new federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, jurors heard Bryant describe her grief for the first time in court; she later shed light on her family’s business ventures under questioning from a county attorney. Just after she testified, Alex Villanueva, the Los Angeles County sheriff, took the witness stand and submitted to a rare round of public questioning.

Kobe Bryant’s death at age 41 stunned sports fans around the world. He was an NBA icon who set records, led his Los Angeles Lakers to five championships and spent his entire 20-year playing career with the same team.

To Vanessa Bryant, he was a doting “girl dad” with big dreams for their family, she said Friday. Her voice shattered as she told stories of their home life — how she and her husband, whom she married at a young age, would compete even playing mini-golf, how he planned to travel the world with her after he retired.

The thought that graphic images of him and their daughter were being circulated publicly, she testified, made her feel helpless, violated and betrayed. Wearing a black jacket over a black dress, with her long, dark hair sweeping over her face, she paused frequently to cry.

Advertisement:

She is seeking damages for emotional distress that she says resulted from officials from the Los Angeles County fire and sheriff’s departments carelessly sharing the photos.

In the lawsuit, Bryant accused Los Angeles County, as well as the sheriff’s and fire departments and individual employees, of negligence and invasion of privacy. She said in court filings that close-up pictures of the remains “were passed around on at least 28 Sheriff’s Department devices and by at least a dozen firefighters,” including at a bar, at a gala where Los Angeles County Fire Department communications staff received an award and on social media.

Kobe Bryant and Gianna were among nine people killed when their helicopter crashed into a hill near Calabasas, California, as they were traveling from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament in a suburb northwest of Los Angeles. The crash was most likely caused by the pilot’s “poor decision” to fly at excessive speeds in foggy weather, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The trial centers on a public showdown between two titanic forces in the nation’s second-largest metropolis. On one side is Vanessa Bryant, a fierce keeper of her husband’s legacy and the mother of three surviving daughters with him. On the other is Villanueva, whose agency has been enmeshed in enough scandals that the county board of supervisors is asking voters for the ability to remove him from office.

Advertisement:

Vanessa Bryant has attended each day of the trial, which began Aug. 10. She has arrived and left each day in a black SUV outside the building, surrounded by photographers and television crews who are not allowed to record proceedings inside U.S. District Judge John F. Walter’s seventh-floor courtroom.

Joining her in the lawsuit is Christopher Chester, whose wife, Sarah, 45, and daughter, Payton, 13, died in the crash. Two other victims’ families settled for $1.25 million each last year.

Chester testified Thursday about his long trail of grief and how finding out about the photos derailed the progress he had made.

Los Angeles County and law enforcement officials have acknowledged that photos were shared but said they were soon deleted and never entered the public domain. Attorneys for the county have said taking photos of crash scenes is common practice and necessary for investigations.

Lawyers for Bryant argue that the Sheriff’s Department deleted the images as part of a “cover-up” and that deputies were told they could avoid discipline by doing so.

Villanueva acknowledged he had offered “amnesty” to deputies for coming forward with the images. He said he had the choice between limiting the spread of the photos and starting a long internal investigation process, during which deputies would be entitled to representation by their unions.

“There’s no playbook on this,” he testified. “We made the right decision.”

Bryant on Friday described arriving at the sheriff’s station in Malibu, near the crash site, where she said deputies “just stared” at her when she asked questions. When the sheriff himself came to confirm the deaths, she said he brought a publicist with him, whom Bryant asked to leave the room.

Advertisement:

She said she told Villanueva explicitly, “If you can’t bring my husband and baby back, please make sure that no one takes photographs of them. Please secure the area.”

It wasn’t until February, she said, that she learned that hadn’t happened — from another source, not the Sheriff’s Department.

Earlier in the trial, Raphael Mendez Jr., who was a patron at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk in January 2020, testified that a bartender there walked over to his table and said that a bar regular who was a sheriff’s deputy had shared graphic photos from the crash site. That prompted Mendez to file a complaint through the Sheriff’s Department website.

“I was in disbelief,” Mendez testified last week. “I was disappointed, disgusted and angry.”

His complaint became the subject of a Los Angeles Times report weeks after the crash.

Bryant said she lies awake at night worrying that the images could surface online and that her other daughters with her husband — Capri, 3; Bianka, 5; and Natalia, 19 — could see them.

She said she started suffering panic attacks after she learned of the photos.

“I live in fear every day of being on social media and having these photos pop up,” she said.

The county sought to counter claims of emotional distress by asking Bryant about the glimpses of her life she shares on social media. In the process, they provided a rare window into a famous family’s business and household operations. After Walter allowed the county to introduce images from her Instagram account, where she has 15.5 million followers, attorneys on both sides showed photos from it.

Advertisement:

Mira Hashmall, an attorney for the county, asked Bryant about her posts promoting the latest releases from Granity Studios, her husband’s production company. She also asked about a series of trusts and companies now in her control.

“It sounds like on top of everything, you’re juggling a business empire,” Hashmall said.

“I wouldn’t say juggling,” Bryant replied.

Hashmall also asked Bryant about other sources of painful images, such as news media. She suggested that for someone whose preference was to keep many personal matters private, it must have been difficult to sit through a trial in which so many of those memories were aired in a public forum.

“I’m willing to go to hell and back to get justice for my family,” Bryant said.

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com