Vanessa Bryant has released the names of four Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies she claims shared grisly photos of the aftermath of the helicopter crash that killed her husband, basketball legend Kobe Bryant.
The photos were allegedly taken by four male deputies based out of the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station. The men were some of the first responders at the scene of the early morning crash in January 2020 on a Calabasas hillside off Las Virgenes Canyon Road. Nine people were killed in the incident, including the basketball superstar and his daughter, Gianna. They and the seven other victims were on their way to a basketball tournament when the pilot of the aircraft apparently became disoriented in the morning fog.
Soon after the incident, grisly crash site photos were allegedly circulating in a Norwalk bar. In a lawsuit filed against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Bryant claims “gratuitous photos of the dead children, parents and coaches,” including Kobe Bryant were passed around. The amended lawsuit states deputies Joey Cruz, Rafael Mejia, Michael Russell and Raul Versales had no legitimate purpose in taking or passing around the grisly photos showing human remains.
In Bryant’s Instagram posts this past week, the young widow posted transcripts of her lawsuit alleging that the defendants initially lied to investigators about snapping pictures of the crash site on their cell phones and then sharing them. The lawsuit claims there is security footage at the bar where deputy Cruz reveals his phone to a bartender who then allegedly gossiped to others about the gruesome photos. The complaint also alleges Cruz shared photos of human remains with Russell who later admitted there was no investigative purpose for him to obtain the photos and that it was inappropriate for him to take possession of them. However, the complaint goes on to say Russell also later shared the morbid photos as well.
Bryant’s posts claim that in an interview with department investigators March 30, 2020, defendant Mejia claimed that only one of the crash scene photos he shared contained victims’ remains. In reality, Bryant alleged, there were at least five such images.
After the bartender is said to have divulged details of the tragedy to his patrons, it seems one of them was highly disturbed by the revealing of the photos and of their graphic nature. The patron believed it was “inappropriate for that deputy to be there showing those pictures to other individuals,” according to documents released by Bryant.
Those documents point to Versales and Mejia who originally took the gruesome pictures. Bryant accuses Versales of leaving his command post at the scene to take photos on his personal cell phone. Bryant’s lawsuit charges Mejia with also obtaining photos at the scene after learning two of the victims were Kobe and Gianna Bryant. She claims Mejia allegedly shared them with two others for no reason other than morbid gossip. Mejia has apparently admitted to investigators that “curiosity got the best of (them) and that such curiosity was in (their) nature” as deputies.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva said when he found out about the shared cell phone images he ordered their immediate destruction. Later, after the four deputies were named publicly, he tweeted, “We will refrain from trying this case in the media and will wait for the appropriate venue. Our hearts go out to all the families affected by this tragedy.”
The disseminating of the gruesome crash photos has also led to legislation: In October 2020, the governor signed into law that first responders may not photograph human remains outside of an official investigation.