Judge Orders LA Sheriff to Name Officers Who Shared Kobe Bryant Crash Photos

Photos from the gruesome crash were widely shared and some deputies even bragged about having images on their phones, Vanessa Bryant claims.

In this photo, former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watch the U.S. national championships swimming meet in Irvine, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson, file)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department cannot block Kobe Bryant’s widow from getting the names of four deputies who are accused of sharing photos from the fatal helicopter crash where the NBA legend, his daughter and seven others died said a federal judge.

Vanessa Bryant sued LA County after it was reported that sheriff’s officers who arrived at the crash site in January 2020 took photos of the wreckage with their cellphones. Deputies shared the photos with their colleagues and one even tried to impress a woman at a bar by showing her the graphic photos, according to the lawsuit.

Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others died when the helicopter they were riding in crashed in the Santa Monica Mountains. The National Transportation Safety Board recently found that the helicopter pilot likely violated safety regulations when he flew into a hilly area under thick cloud cover and the aircraft slammed into a hillside.

News of the crash sent shockwaves across the world as Kobe Bryant, a five-time NBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was on his way to a youth basketball practice with 13-year-old Gianna.

First responders found wreckage strewn about the hillside. Vanessa Bryant says LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva did not notify her or any of the other passengers’ families that images from the crash site were being shared by his officers.

Instead, Vanessa Bryant says Villanueva and sheriff’s officials initiated a cover-up and told deputies that if they deleted the photos they would not face any disciplinary action. That agreement was made public by The Los Angeles Times in February 2020, and Villanueva later corroborated.

Vanessa Bryant then won access to an Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB) report on the incident after a magistrate judge ordered LA County to produce the documents. LA County and the sheriff’s department want the names of four deputies and verbatim quotes from the IAB report to remain confidential.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge John Walter ruled Vanessa Bryant can add those names and the internal affairs report quotes to her lawsuit.

“Although the court recognizes that this case has been the subject of public scrutiny and media attention and that the deputy defendants are legitimately concerned that they will encounter vitriol and social media attacks, such concerns, by themselves, are not sufficient to outweigh the public’s strong interest in access,” said Walter in his 2-page order. “Moreover, defendants’ concern that hackers may attempt to seek out and gain access to the individual deputies’ devices to locate any photographs and publish them is totally inconsistent with their position that such photographs no longer exist.”

The county argued that the quotes taken from the IAB report should not be unsealed because that would “discourage witness cooperation” and hurt any investigation into misconduct. But Walter rejected the argument, because previous court rulings have found that witnesses, victims and other officers are more likely to cooperate in investigations if misconduct reports are thoroughly and fairly investigated.

“Moreover, Sheriff Villanueva’s promise to publicly release the IAB report after the conclusion of the investigation undermines defendants’ purported concern in the disclosure of the limited excerpts at issue here,” Walter wrote.

Along with the four sheriff’s officers, Vanessa Bryant also wants to sue the LA County Fire Department as part of an update to her lawsuit. She is represented by Craig Lavoie and Luis Li from Munger Tolles and Olson. LA County is represented by Miller Barondess.

Neither parties’ attorneys immediately responded to requests for comment.

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