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The helicopter had slammed into the side of a nearby ridge, nine lives lost in the Sunday morning fog above Calabasas, California.
For Vanessa Bryant, that included her husband, Kobe, and her 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. Also gone were two of Gigi’s young teammates, three parents, an assistant coach and the pilot. They had been en route to a youth basketball game. Team Mamba they were called.
Now, Vanessa Bryant and the families of other victims had gathered inside a Los Angeles County Sheriff station, just down the hill from the accident, trying to make sense of the senseless. It was Jan. 26, 2020, the worst day of their lives.
Even in those crushing and chaotic moments, Vanessa Bryant was clearheaded enough to seek a measure of privacy and respect for her family and friends.
She feared the inevitable frenzy that would ensue once word leaked that Kobe, the NBA great, had been on that helicopter. She dreaded the thought of video footage and horrific photos of the accident, of the victims, of the little girls, of who knows what carnage sat up on that hill. In L.A.’s cottage industry of celebrity tragedy, there was money to be made.
So she shared with Sheriff Alex Villanueva her worries that the crash site wasn’t secure. Villanueva promised that his deputies were in the process of doing just that.
It turns out it was the deputies who Vanessa needed to worry about.
While the paparazzi never got there, at least eight L.A. County deputies and firefighters used personal cellphones to snap, and later privately share, dozens of “gratuitous photos of … dead children, parents and coaches,” as stated in a federal lawsuit Vanessa Bryant filed against Los Angeles County. One deputy alone “took between 25 and 100 photos … focused directly on the victims’ remains.”
None were authorized to do so as part of any official investigation by the county coroner or the National Transportation Safety Board. The photos were of no investigative worth. This was just pathetic, unprofessional behavior.
Villanueva would later demand that all the photos be deleted. Bryant isn’t sure he was successful, especially after they were pinged around the department, shared with certain friends and, in one case, flashed around a local bar by a deputy, like a big catch from a fishing trip.
While the images haven’t reached the widespread public (at least not yet), Bryant, as well as three other families of victims who filed their own lawsuits, contend that the first responders compounded their already immeasurable pain.
“Ms. Bryant feels ill at the thought of strangers gawking at images of her deceased husband and child, and she lives in fear that she or her children will one day confront horrific images of their loved ones online,” Bryant’s lawsuit states.
The Sheriff’s Department doesn’t dispute that the photos were taken and passed around, actions that are indefensible, of course.
Yet in defending itself in the lawsuits, the county has applied increasingly aggressive measures that appear less designed to create any tangible legal advantage as much as scare Bryant and the others into settling, if not dropping, their lawsuits.
L.A. County filed a motion earlier this week seeking to compel Bryant and the other plaintiffs to undergo psychiatric evaluations to determine whether the photos actually caused specific emotional distress or whether the distress they undoubtedly are suffering from is just part of generally losing loved ones.
The county seriously wants to question a mother about this?
Even worse, in the other lawsuits brought by other families, the plaintiffs include children and siblings who are minors. The youngest is just 5 years old. They, too, would have to be evaluated.
And all sessions, which can run up to eight hours, would be audio and video recorded, creating one more personal thing Bryant and others have to worry about possibly becoming public in a lawsuit about fearing personal things becoming public. A judge has yet to rule on the motion.
While emotionally charged legal fights often require vicious attorney tactics, in this case, when the bully is the government and the bullied are grieving parents and children who were wronged by those they trusted to care and protect their loved ones, questions arise about exactly how aggressive the county should be.
L.A. County has expressed its sympathies to the families, but little else. Start with the fact none of the sheriff's deputies were fired — department policy at the time prohibited photos of crime scenes, but not accident scenes.
And since the images haven’t leaked then it’s apparently no foul, no harm.
“There’s been no public disclosure of crash site photos, none,” attorneys for L.A. County said in a statement to the Associated Press last week. “So we see this case as a money grab and are doing what’s necessary to defend our client.”
A money grab? Like this is some overblown slip and fall?
Plaintiff’s lawyers contend that since the practice of taking personal photos was so widespread and the sheriff hasn’t been forthcoming into its internal investigation or department practices, this is about uncovering a systemic failure that likely extends far beyond that morning in Calabasas. Bryant's lawsuit contends some 66 county employees possess "relevant knowledge of" misconduct and 18 took or shared the photos.
Among the defendants in Bryant’s case are what Bryant believes are the four individuals who acted most egregiously.
“This lawsuit is about accountability and about preventing this disgraceful behavior from happening to other families in the future,” Luis Li, Bryant’s attorney, said in a statement.
The county is pressing on, however, asking devastated family members to prove their devastation. It’s beyond the pale. There has to be a more humane way. If L.A. County treats Kobe Bryant and his family like this, how is it for everyone else?
The onus here should be on the deputies and firefighters who took the photos in the first place, not to mention their superiors. Citizens should expect basic decency from first responders — and not taking photos of dead 13-year-old girls has to be the bare minimum.
The actions were so grotesque that in the wake of the scandal, California quickly passed the so-called “Invasion of Privacy: First Responders Law" to criminalize this behavior. Sheriff Villanueva even supported it.
Yet the Sheriff’s Department isn’t sure of “the nature and extent” of Bryant’s trauma without a heavy-handed evaluation?
This is a scare tactic and little else, designed to make plaintiffs give up rather than find out who knows what.
It shouldn’t be this way. It wasn’t Vanessa Bryant taking photos of dead kids. It wasn’t Vanessa Bryant proudly flashing them around the bar for all to see.
It sure shouldn’t be Vanessa Bryant who has to go through one more day of hell fighting with her own government to stop the people who were there to serve and protect to not snap and perhaps profit.