Kobe Bryant photos trial: Former LA County fire captain testifies, walks off witness stand 3 times

ByChristiane Cordero and Lisa Bartley via KABC logo
Tuesday, August 16, 2022
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A former L.A. County fire captain walked off the witness stand three times during testimony while being questioned about whether he took photos of human remains at the helicopter crash scene that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- A former Los Angeles County fire captain walked off the witness stand three separate times during testimony Monday while being questioned about whether he took photos of human remains at the 2020 helicopter crash scene that killed Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others.

"I need a break," Brian Jordan declared Monday before standing up and leaving the courtroom for the first time about 10 minutes into his testimony.

Jordan repeatedly told jurors that his trauma is so extreme he does not even remember being at the scene that day in January of 2020. When pressed by attorneys, Jordan warned that their questioning brought images into his head that "are going to haunt me forever."

Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester are suing Los Angeles County over the taking and sharing of the photos. Chester lost his wife Sarah and daughter Payton in the crash.

RELATED: LA County deputy who took photos at site of crash that killed Kobe Bryant testifies in court

Jordan spent 35 years with the fire department before the photos scandal came to light in the months after the crash. According to internal L.A. County Fire Department documents, Jordan was going to be fired for a slew of policy violations but retired instead.

Jordan served as a "safety officer" that day but spent many years prior to that as a public information officer interacting with the media.

Last week, L.A. County Sheriff's Department Deputy Doug Johnson testified that Jordan arrived at the crash site that Sunday and asked to be shown where all the bodies and human remains were located.

Johnson says he complied because he thought Jordan was with media relations. Johnson had already taken between 25 and 100 photos of the wreckage, including graphic photos of human remains. Johnson testified that as he guided him around the wreckage, Jordan took photos similar to his own, which included images of a torso, an arm, and a hand with black skin tone.

RELATED: Vanessa Bryant's attorney argues photos of Kobe Bryant's remains shared 'for a laugh'

Jordan told jurors he "is here because of false allegations," and that he was ordered by then-Deputy Chief Anthony Marrone that day to take the photos.

"Take pictures, take pictures, take pictures," Jordan recounted of what he says Marrone told him.

Jurors then heard audio of Marrone denying that in a previous interview.

At one point, Jordan was asked by Bryant attorney Luis Li if he also took photos of Kobe's daughter, 13-year-old Gianna.

"I don't even know who that is," he responded.

While Jordan testified that he didn't remember being on the hillside that day, he periodically had flashbacks on the stand, telling jurors it "hurt" to remember the scene.

At one point, Jordan referred to the scattered human remains by saying, "you could put all the parts in a bag and make it gumbo or something."

RELATED: Whistleblower details night LASD deputy shared Kobe Bryant crash-scene photos at Norwalk bar

Jordan then announced he needed another break and left the courtroom for a second time.

Jordan never turned over his personal cellphone to investigators, which has been a point of contention in this lawsuit. He did turn over his county-issued devices, but Bryant's attorney Li had a question about that for Jordan.

"Why did the HP laptop you returned have its hard drive removed?" Jordan was asked.

"I have no clue," Jordan replied, adding that he did not manipulate any of the devices or remove the hard drive.

Jordan also denies sending graphic photos of human remains to Tony Imbrenda, an L.A. County Fire captain and public information officer. Jurors then heard interview audio of Imbrenda saying he got photos from Jordan and that some of them were graphic human remains. Imbrenda, who was later fired, showed the photos off to other firefighters and their wives at an awards gala in mid-February.

On cross-examination, Jordan testified that he retired in 2021 because of the injuries he suffered "from whatever I saw up there... my memory is not clear." He also reiterated claims that he was ordered to take the photos by Marrone and says he never sent the photos to anyone outside the fire department.

Deputy Raul Versales took the witness stand next and testified that Deputy Doug Johnson sent about 30 photos to his personal cellphone that day. Versales says he was the point person for communications between Johnson at the wreckage site and the command 1,200 feet down the hillside. Versales also refuted Johnson's testimony last week that he told Johnson to snap the photos but said it's possible someone else told him to.

Versales then forwarded the photos to four other members of the LASD - Deputy Rafael Mejia, Detective Scott Miller, Deputy Scott Jauregui and Sgt. Travis Kelly. Versales claims he sent them the photos because he thought they might have some investigative role to play at the scene and because he knew of no policy that prohibited sending the photos.

Versales insisted that the photos he saw did not contain any body parts, but attorneys for Vanessa Bryant then put up a slide with Detective Miller's description of those photos in his interview with LASD's Internal Affairs Bureau.

"You'd have a better chance identifying a deer that got hit by a Mack truck on the freeway," Miller said of the remains, adding that "hamburger is hamburger."

Bryant attorney Craig Jennings Lavoie walked Versales through the LASD's investigation into the photo scandal, eliciting testimony from Versales that LASD investigators only spent two minutes inspecting his phone two months after the crash and that one of the investigators admitted he didn't know how iPhones work.

Versales says no one at LASD ever told him to preserve his phone despite Vanessa Bryant's lawsuit. He replaced it in October 2020 and the phone he later turned over for a forensic examination was his new phone.

On cross-examination, Versales told jurors that he is now a training officer at the LASD Lost Hills Station where he teaches young deputies new to patrol. The LASD's Internal Affairs investigation found him in violation of six separate policies, but he was never disciplined.

Next up on the witness stand was Deputy Rafael Mejia who testified he received between 15 and 25 photos from Versales while at the command post that day. Mejia was fuzzy on whether the photos contained human remains and stated he was focused on the wreckage in the photos in case he could help identify the helicopter.

Mejia told jurors he sent the photos to two deputy "trainees," Joey Cruz and Ruby Cable because he thought they may be tasked with writing reports later that night or taking over his duties at the command post. Mejia says he warned Cruz not to share the photos with anyone. Cruz has admitted he showed the photos to a bartender in Norwalk two nights later and has admitted they contained body parts.

"Did it ever occur to you that the photos you sent might contain images of a child?" Jennings Lavoie asked Mejia.

"Yes, but it's for documentation," Mejia replied, adding that there is "no age limit" on what they document.

Mejia told the jury he is still a training officer at the Lost Hills Station and while the Internal Affairs investigation found he violated policies he was not disciplined.

"I wouldn't do it again," Mejia said of sharing the photos with Cruz and Cable. "I regret it, I regret doing that."

He says he didn't mean to hurt anybody and believed at the time he was doing the right thing.

Mejia also got a new phone in March of 2021, but denies it was because he knew he'd be named in Vanessa Bryant's lawsuit. The phone he later turned over for a forensic examination was a new phone.

On cross-examination, Mejia told the jury that the scene was chaotic that day with "fans storming the area" and "jumping over fences." He says they needed the photos to identify the helicopter and determine how big of an area to cordon off from the gathering crowds.

Mejia's trainee at the time, Deputy Joey Cruz, took the witness stand late Monday. He admits showing photos that included human remains to that bartender in Norwalk on the Tuesday night after the crash. Cruz denies, however, that the body parts were the focus of the photos. Under questioning by Bryant's attorney, Cruz eventually admitted that he had no legitimate reason to have the photos.

Cruz also admits to showing the photos to his adult niece that same Tuesday while sitting on the couch at his mom's house but says he doesn't recall if the photos contained human remains.

Cruz says he also forwarded the photos to another deputy - Michael Russell - on the night of the crash.

Cruz's discipline was initially going to be a 10-day suspension, but he appealed it and got it knocked down to a two-day suspension with no pay and three paid days spent at a training session.

"I took it too far," he told the jury of showing the photos to the bartender who he says is a close friend. Cruz testified he was sad and struggling at the time and did not find the photos humorous or funny.

Attorney Jennings Lavoie was about to play video of Cruz at the bar that night when court ended for the day.

Got a tip? Email ABC7 Investigative Producer Lisa.Bartley@abc.com