Vanessa Bryant secured a legal victory Friday in her lawsuit against Los Angeles County over deputies and firefighters who allegedly shared grim photos of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, their daughter Gianna and seven others.
A federal judge ruled her attorneys should have more time to pursue their investigation because they have been “diligent” in their efforts to pursue their allegations of misconduct. The move gives the widow more time to depose and investigate, and pushes a trial from November to February 2022.
Vanessa Bryant’s lawyers argued that although initial information shared by the Sheriff’s Department showed eight deputies shared images, evidence turned over now shows those possessing photos at the scene number at least 18 county employees while 66 county employees know about the misconduct.
Lawyers for the county accused Bryant of conducting a fishing expedition that diverted first responders from their jobs and subjecting them to harassment after she sued and publicly identified several of them.
U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter, however, allowed the delay in his ruling Friday, rejecting the county’s argument. He explained that more time was needed because of delays in obtaining disclosures, identifying witnesses and examining devices, as well as the addition of new defendants.
Bryant’s legal team asked for more time after obtaining internal affairs documents that revealed more about how the Sheriff’s Department handled the incident, including Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s directive to deputies to delete any crash-scene photos on their cellphones.
A now-former Lost Hills station captain warned his bosses that the directive may constitute an order to destroy evidence and could lead to their arrest. In a court filing last month, attorneys for Bryant revealed that the station captain had tried to block the sheriff’s directive.
Villanueva’s decision, the captain said, was “very out of the ordinary,” and he had already initiated a standard investigation after a deputy shared graphic photos of Kobe Bryant’s remains in a Norwalk bar and a citizen complained. After checking with the sheriff’s office, that captain’s supervisor replied, “this is the direction we are going.”
Villanueva, after learning of the photo sharing, said that all the images had been deleted, later acknowledging making that decision to prevent them from becoming public.
According to the lawsuit, Deputies Raul Versales, Rafael Mejia, Joey Cruz and Michael Russell shared images of the crash scene in Calabasas.
The crash occurred in dense fog the morning of Jan. 26, 2020, as Kobe and Gianna Bryant, the pilot and six other passengers were on their way from Orange County to Thousand Oaks for a youth basketball game. The pilot had become disoriented by the poor visibility and crashed into the side of a hill, killing everyone onboard.
The lawsuit alleges that Versales obtained multiple photographs of the crash scene while stationed at a makeshift command post near the site and shared them with members of the Sheriff’s Department, including Mejia and a detective. Mejia stored the images on his personal cellphone and shared them with at least two people, including a deputy controlling traffic at the scene, the lawsuit says.
In a Jan. 30 memo to the Lost Hills station captain, 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.