BY FRED SHUSTER
LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles County’s attorneys allege Vanessa Bryant has no legal basis to sue four sheriff MPs for allegedly sharing unauthorized photos taken at the site of the helicopter crash, where Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven more were killed.
Bryant alleges in her lawsuit that MPs responding to the January 26, 2020 crash scene used personal cell phones to “take and share free photos of dead children, parents and coaches.” According to the lawsuit, Sheriff Alex Villanueva first assured Bryant privacy when she raised concerns immediately after the crash.
The lawsuit, which seeks damages for negligence and invasion of privacy, claims that a local MP took between 25 and 100 photos that “had no conceivable investigative purpose and focused directly on the remains of the victims” and showed the images of the accident site other government officials and a friend who is a bartender in Norwalk.
In papers filed in LA federal court on Friday, the county responded to Bryant’s lawsuit, arguing that its claims would fail.
“The district does not tolerate this exhibition of photos of accident sites and has taken appropriate corrective measures for the staff,” wrote the district lawyers. “However, that does not mean that the plaintiff has viable legal claims. The two landmark cases involve the public dissemination of images of human remains, and that has not happened here. “
The county claims that the photos “were not given to the media or posted on the Internet. They were not publicly distributed. “
Bryant filed the lawsuit last year “because she feared that photos could be publicly distributed.
There is no legal basis to sue defendants for hypothetical harm, ”the county said, arguing that“ showing a photo of an accident scene to a member of the public cannot be an invasion of the plaintiff’s privacy ”.
Joey Cruz, Rafael Mejia, Michael Russell and Raul Versales are named as defendants in the lawsuit, along with the county and its sheriffs and fire departments.
Villanueva replied on Twitter in March that the department “will not try this case in the media and wait for the appropriate location. Our hearts go out to all families affected by this tragedy. “
According to the complaint, Mejia “received several photos of the Bryants’ remains” from fire fighters at the scene of the accident “and saved them on his personal cell phone.”
He then went “100 feet from his temporary command post to chat with an assistant who controlled traffic inside and outside the Las Virgenes Water District,” according to the lawsuit filed in federal court in Los Angeles.
“Mejia told the MP that he had photos of the accident scene and sent photos of the Bryants’ remains to her personal cell phone for no reason other than morbid gossip,” the lawsuit said.
Mejia then allegedly forwarded the photos to Cruz, a deputy at the time. After Cruz received the photos, he disclosed them to “several people with no legitimate government purpose, including several members of the public.”
According to the suit, Cruz Russell said on the night of the crash at the Malibu / Lost Hills Sheriff’s station that he had photos of the Calabasas accident site.
“Russell asked to see the photos and Cruz posted photos of the Bryants’ remains on Russell’s personal cell phone,” the suit said.
The suit also claims that Cruz showed photos of the remains to his niece two days later when he was at his mother’s home in West Covina. Prior to this, Cruz allegedly made a rude comment about the condition of the bodies.
On the same day that Cruz was at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk, he allegedly claimed to have worked on the accident site where Kobe Bryant died. Cruz then showed photos of the remains of the Bryants to another bar patron and the restaurant’s bartender, and he can be seen on the bar’s surveillance camera zooming in and out of the images as he shows them to the bartender, ”said the suit.
“One of the photos showed the body of a girl and Cruz noticed that another showed the remains of Kobe Bryant,” the suit said. “Shortly after seeing the photos, the bartender boasted to restaurant staff and customers that he had just seen a photo of Kobe Bryant’s body and had graphically detailed the image.”
Versales, who allegedly also received the photos, sent the pictures to a detective at LASD, the lawsuit says. As an indication of how casually the photos were shared within the department, “the detective couldn’t even identify the name of the deputy who sent him the photos,” the suit claims.
After Mejia, Cruz, Versales and Russell learned that the LASD had filed a complaint about improper disclosure of photos of the victims’ remains, they “negligently and / or deliberately destroyed evidence” by deleting the photos from their cell phones.
In this way, Mejia “seriously undermined the opportunity to verify his claims regarding the handling and distribution of the photos,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit alleges that Villanueva personally assured the NBA star’s widow that MPs secured the crash site to ensure her privacy.
“In reality, however, no fewer than eight sheriff MPs were on hand to take cell phone photos of the dead children, parents and coaches,” the lawsuit said.
“As the department would later admit, there was no investigative purpose for the MPs to take photos at the crash site. Rather, MPs took photos for their own personal use. “