Vanessa Bryant names sheriff’s deputies who allegedly shared Kobe Bryant crash photos

Alene Tchekmedyian
Los Angeles Times

Vanessa Bryant on Wednesday named the Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who allegedly shared grim photos of the helicopter crash that killed her husband, Kobe Bryant, their daughter Gianna and seven others.

The disclosure came after a legal fight with L.A. County lawyers who sought to keep the identities of the deputies secret. A federal judge this month sided with Vanessa Bryant, saying that the names of police officers accused of misconduct should not be kept from the public.

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.

We're running a new-subscriber special — Support local journalism and subscribe here.

Bryant’s attorneys filed an amended copy of a lawsuit Bryant has brought against the county and the deputies that includes the names of four deputies whom Sheriff’s Department officials investigated for allegedly taking or sharing photos of the crash site. The revised lawsuit also includes new details about what those deputies told internal affairs investigators about how widely they shared the images. Bryant’s legal team based their new claims on an internal affairs report the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department turned over.

According to the lawsuit, the deputies involved are Raul Versales, Rafael Mejia, Joey Cruz and Michael Russell. The deputies did not respond to emails requesting comment. Elizabeth Gibbons, an attorney who represented the group in an administrative proceeding about the photos, said the deputies declined to comment. Gibbons, too, declined to comment, saying she was reviewing the amended complaint.

The crash occurred in dense fog and rain on the morning of Jan. 26, 2020, as Kobe and Gianna Bryant, the pilot and six others were on their way from Orange County to Thousand Oaks for a youth basketball game. The pilot, who is believed to have become disoriented by the poor visibility, crashed into the side of a hill in Calabasas, killing everyone on board.

In this Jan. 26, 2020, file photo, firefighters work the scene of a helicopter crash that killed nine people, including Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, in Calabasas, Calif.

The lawsuit alleges that Versales obtained multiple photographs of the crash scene while stationed at a makeshift command post that was set up at the crash site and shared them with members of the Sheriff’s Department, including Mejia and a detective. It is unclear from the lawsuit whether Versales is accused of taking the photos himself or receiving them from someone else.

Mejia stored the images on his personal cellphone and shared them with at least two people, including a deputy who was controlling traffic at the scene, the lawsuit says.

In a Jan. 30 memo to the head of the Sheriff’s Department’s Lost Hills station, Mejia wrote that he received and sent the photos “to answer some questions regarding the color, numbers and identifying features of the aircraft as well as crash scene details,” according to the lawsuit. But in an interview two months later, he admitted to investigators he had had no legitimate reason to send the photos to the traffic deputy.

“Curiosity got the best of us,” he said, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that Mejia also shared the photos with Cruz, a trainee in the department at the time, who then sent them to Russell. Two days later, while at his mother’s home, Cruz showed the photos to his niece. That same day, at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk, he spoke about working the scene of the crash and was captured on the bar’s security camera zooming in and out of the images while displaying them to the bartender, the lawsuit says.

The bartender described the images to a group sitting at a nearby table. One patron, so disturbed by what he heard, filed a complaint to the Sheriff’s Department. The Times reviewed a copy of the complaint. The agency tried to keep a lid on the episode, opening an investigation only after The Times disclosed that deputies had obtained photos and were showing them to others.

Russell, meanwhile, saved the photos to an album on his personal cellphone so he didn’t have to keep going to his text messages to view them, the lawsuit alleges. Two days after the crash, he shared them with a friend – a deputy from the Santa Clarita station with whom he played video games nightly – and noted in a text that one of the victims was Kobe Bryant, according to the lawsuit. That friend told investigators that one of the images was of a child’s remains.

The lawsuit says that one deputy took 25 to 100 photos at the scene and that photos spread quickly by text and phone-sharing technology over the next 48 hours.

The lawsuit also alleges that several subjects of the investigation were unsure of how their cellphones operated and whether photos could be retrieved. For example, when internal affairs investigators asked one deputy whether he had checked his cloud account to determine whether the illicit photos were stored there, he said: “I don’t know how to. I don’t know how to get into the cloud.”

---

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.