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Villanueva Says He `Encouraged’ Destruction of Bryant Crash Scene Photos
By City News Service
Published November 16, 2021

In this Nov. 21, 2017, file photo, from left, Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant, wife Vanessa and daughter Natalia Diamante Bryant are seen before an NCAA college women’s basketball game between Connecticut and UCLA, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva told attorneys for Vanessa Bryant under oath that he encouraged deputies to delete photos taken at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, the couple’s 13-year-old daughter and seven others, a court filing obtained today shows.

In a county brief, Villanueva, quoted in several passages taken from his deposition in Bryant’s lawsuit, says he told deputies to get rid of the photos in order to ensure the graphic images were not shared, causing more harm to the victims’ families.

“I can tell you this,” the sheriff says in the recent deposition. “That the problem at hand was images getting out and harming the families. I make decisions based on the immediate threat, which is a harm that those pictures can cause to the family. I don’t make a decision based on I might get sued six months later. That’s preposterous.” Attorneys for Bryant are urging the judge to penalize the county for the alleged destruction of almost all evidence that deputies took and shared photos at the site.

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According to Vanessa Bryant’s pretrial motion for sanctions, members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who were among first responders at the crash site on Jan. 26, 2020, improperly destroyed cellphone photos at the direction of Villanueva, who knew he was required to preserve such potential evidence.

“Yet that is exactly what Sheriff Villanueva himself ordered department personnel to do after the department received a citizen’s complaint that a sheriff’s deputy was showing photos of the crash site at a bar in Norwalk,” according to Bryant’s motion. “That order was highly irregular — unprecedented in deputies’ experience — and out of the chain of command. When a captain complained, the sheriff demoted him.”

Earlier Monday, the judge ruled that Bryant must turn over her mental health records, which attorneys for Los Angeles County contend are central to fighting her lawsuit alleging emotional distress caused by the sharing of crash photos among sheriff’s deputies and others.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Eick ordered Bryant and her therapist to produce the records by Nov. 29, but limited the coverage period from Jan. 1, 2017, to the present. The county had asked for her records dating from January 2010. Skip Miller, outside counsel for Los Angeles County, responded that the plaintiff’s request for medical records is standard in such suits.

“The county continues to have nothing but the deepest sympathy for the enormous grief Ms. Bryant suffered as a result of the tragic helicopter accident,” Miller said in a statement. “We are gratified that the court has granted our motion for access to her medical records, as it is a standard request in lawsuits where a plaintiff demands millions of dollars for claims of emotional distress.”

But Bryant attorney Mari Saigal alleged in court papers that the defense effort to get the records “should be seen for what it is: an attempt to bully Mrs. Bryant into dropping her case to avoid her private therapy records being brandished in open court and reported on by media outlets.” Bryant’s widow alleges she and her family suffered severe emotional distress after discovering that sheriff’s deputies snapped and shared gruesome photos of the helicopter crash scene.

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The legal fight between Bryant and the county intensified in previous weeks when county lawyers sought to have Bryant undergo a psychiatric examination in advance of the trial scheduled for February. Lawyers argued in court papers that she cannot have severe distress from crash photos she and the public have never seen. Eick denied the motion. The county contends that Bryant’s claims of emotional distress are based on allegations deputies showed accident site photos to other first responders and to a bartender.

However, the widow contends the photos were also shared with attendees at an awards show party, a customer at a Norwalk bar, a city firefighter who was not a county employee, the niece of a sheriff’s deputy and a friend of another deputy.

“Contrary to plaintiff’s claims, the photographs did not focus on the remains of any of the victims but were general views of the crash scene that first responders and investigators typically use to assess the damage caused by tragic accidents such as this one,” according to the county’s document. “None of the photographs were sent to anyone outside the county, nor were they publicly disseminated.”

The county apparently wants to show that any emotional distress came from the loss of family members, not the cell phone photos, which they claim Bryant has never seen and only learned about from newspaper reports.

“Mrs. Bryant seeks millions of dollars in damages for severe emotional distress, anxiety and mental anguish allegedly caused by the public dissemination of photographs, which has not happened,” the filing states.

“She also seeks damages for defendants’ allegedly `compounding the trauma’ of losing her husband and daughter. Plaintiff claims she is depressed and has trouble sleeping. Her damages claims are premised entirely on these mental and emotional injuries. Plaintiff’s therapy records go directly to her emotional condition, which she has put squarely at issue in this lawsuit.”

Bryant won a separate legal victory in the case when Villanueva and Fire Department Chief Daryl Osby were ordered to be deposed in the case. The sheriff testified under oath last week, and it was not immediately known if Osby has been deposed.

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