LOS ANGELES (CN) — A Los Angeles County fire captain and three sheriff's deputies on Monday defended their actions on the day of the helicopter crash that killed LA Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others. Taken together, they presented a muddled, confusing portrait of the day's events, and of the role that cellphone cameras play in crash sites.
Lawyers for Kobe Bryant's widow Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester, who are suing Los Angeles County over crash site photographs of their family members' remains, have argued that some first responders acted as souvenir hunters, taking and sharing gruesome photographs for their own amusement or as a hobby. Much of their case relies on hostile or semi-hostile witnesses, like Deputy Doug Johnson, who testified last week.
Monday's testimony saw more of the same. In the morning, former Fire Capt. Brian Jordan testified that he had been "instructed" to take photos of the crash site by a deputy fire chief. Jordan said he couldn't remember what he took pictures of, or whether his photographs were of human remains.
"I have memory issues," he said, explaining that he had been traumatized by what he saw that day. "It's going to haunt me forever," he said, before abruptly excusing himself from the witness stand in order to take a short break — not for the first or last time. He suggested the trauma he suffered had led to his resignation from the fire department, and that he had blocked out much of what he saw that day.
"I get these images in my head all the time," he said, adding later, "It's difficult for me to process it."
Last week, Deputy Johnson testified that he escorted Jordan around the crash site and watched as Jordan took photos of human remains. Jordan said he didn't remember that.
Photos taken by Jordan and Johnson were shared with other sheriff and fire officials. Some were eventually shown to members of the public. The photos have never been published, but Bryant and Chester say they live with the fear that the gory images will one day be widely disseminated.
Plaintiff's attorneys have described the crash site photos as horrific close-ups of mangled body parts, of headless torsos, limbs, and organs strewn about. But on Monday, Deputy Raul Versales, who was sent the crash site photos by Doug Johnson, described them differently, as wider shots of the scene that focused more on the helicopter wreck.
"To my recollection, none were close-ups of body parts," said Versales. The 30 photos he received, he said, "were generalized photos" of the burned hillside and the debris. Though he did not request the photographs, he said they were useful and that he passed them on to investigators. In a deposition, Versales had said he had no need for the photos. But on Monday, he said he'd changed his mind.
"Later, after thinking about, I was a link for deputies," he said. "I needed to pass them along."
Craig Lavoie, an attorney for Vanessa Bryant, suggested Versales had been coached by the the county's lawyers and asked how many times he'd met with them. "Less than five," Versales answered.
Versales sent the photos to four deputies, including Rafael Mejia, who also said the focus of the photographs was the crash and not human remains.
"I don't remember seeing body parts in the photos," said Mejia. "I think I would have remembered that."
Mejia's testimony was seemingly contradicted by a message he sent on Facebook messenger to a friend of his, another sheriff's deputy. When asked if he saw the remains of Kobe Bryant, Mejia answered, "Not a single person was intact. Pieces only. Torsos, no limbs or [heads]." Mejia was not asked to address the apparent contradiction.
In a deposition, Mejia said there was no reason for him and other deputies to have those photos, adding that "curiosity got the best of us — it's in our nature as deputies." Asked to explain that statement, Mejia said, "We wanted to know what was up there; it wasn't about the bodies. It was about the scene."
Mejia shared the photos with two of his trainees, deputies Ruby Cable and Joey Cruz, who would later show the pictures to a bartender and a few other patrons at a bar in Norwalk, setting off the scandal. Cruz's description of the photos was different from that of his colleagues.
"One of the photos had a torso," Cruz testified Monday. "One had a leg. One had a hand." But, he said, "None of the photos were close-ups of body parts." He said the photographs were focused on the crash site, and none had body parts as their "main point." Though none of the photos had any features that could be used to identify Bryant or any of the other victims, he said that "some of the photos had scattered body parts," which you could see without "zooming in" on the pictures.
When asked if there was any legitimate reason for the trainee to have been sent the photos, Cruz answered, "Looking back today, no." He added: "At the time, I was a trainee, [Mejia] was a seasoned deputy. I thought it was strictly for business."
When asked to explain why Cruz had showed the photographs to the bartender, his friend Victor Guitierez, he said, "I wasn't showing the photographs to show him body parts. I was talking to a friend, venting to him." He added: "I took it too far. I was stressed and overwhelmed."
Last week, Guitierez testified Cruz had pointed to one of the photos and identified it as being of Kobe Bryant's torso.
Security camera footage of that night appears to show Cruz showing Guitierrez his photo. In the footage, Gutierrez at first appears to grimace; later, he laughs.
"We never laughed about the photos," Guitierrez said. "I'm 100% sure. You'd have to be psycho to do that."
As to why Cruz showed him the photos, Gutierrez said, "I think he needed to get it out of his system."
Cruz's testimony is set to continue Tuesday morning.
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