Kobe Bryant photos trial: LA fire captain admits showing graphic photos at awards gala cocktail hour

ByChristiane Cordero and Lisa Bartley via KABC logo
Thursday, August 18, 2022
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In court, an L.A. County fire captain said he showed some photos from the 2020 helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and eight others. The photos were mostly of the debris field, he told the court, and he denied showing photos of Bryant's remains or even having photos of his body.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- A top-ranking Los Angeles County Sheriff's official returned to the witness stand Wednesday to explain why he and Sheriff Alex Villanueva lied to a reporter about whether they knew about a citizen "complaint" of a deputy showing off gruesome photos of Kobe Bryant's remains at a bar.

"I bungled that interaction with the reporter," Chief Jorge Valdez told the jury. "I got hung up on a technicality."

Jurors have repeatedly heard an audio recording of Valdez, Villanueva and then-Lt. John Satterfield all denying any knowledge of the complaint and any orders by Villanueva to delete the photos.

"You don't know of any complaint," Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian asked.

"No, I'm kinda lost," Villanueva replied in the recording.

"So, you're denying knowledge of a complaint and that deputies in the Lost Hills Station were ordered by you to delete photos from their phones," she asked again.

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"We've never seen, no, I'm unaware of any complaint," then-Capt. Valdez replied.

Valdez, a 27-year veteran of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, who then led the department's media response team, had personally gone to get the video of the deputy showing photos at the bar -- a month prior to the L.A. Times reporter's questions.

"I wish I had handled it differently," Valdez told the jury of his statements to the reporter.

Valdez testified that he didn't consider the citizen complaint an official "complaint" because it came in through the department's website.

Vanessa Bryant's attorney Craig Jennings Lavoie referred to an internal LASD document that said one reason for finally opening an Internal Affairs investigation was due to the "high media attention."

Valdez testified that during the initial inquiry "time was of the essence," and that once all the deputies at the crash scene were ordered to the Lost Hills Station for interviews, some requested a representative from their union.

Kobe Bryant crash: Ex-LA fire captain walks off witness stand 3 times

He says that's why Villanueva then said that if the deputies told the truth and the photos "never saw the light of day," they would only receive a minor notation on their personnel record -- no discipline.

Valdez testified that he did not consider the photos to be "evidence," because the helicopter crash was not a crime - it was "an unfortunate aircraft collision." Valdez testified that, yes -- the NTSB was doing a federal investigation, but the agency had made clear to him it was not a criminal investigation.

"So it's OK to destroy potential evidence by asking deputies to delete the photos in an administrative investigation by the NTSB?" Lavoie Jennings asked Valdez.

"Yes," Valdez replied.

Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester, who lost his wife Sarah and 13-year-old daughter Payton in the helicopter crash, are suing the L.A. County because deputies and firefighters took and shared photographs of their loved ones' remains.

Chester's attorney Jerome Jackson asked Valdez if the sheriff's department had ever "gotten to the bottom" of how many photos were taken by deputies and how far they had spread. Valdez replied that he did not know.

Jackson then asked Valdez again about why no one from the LASD ever called the Bryant or Chester families to warn them about the photos, apologize or explain how this could have happened.

"Isn't it true that if the L.A. Times hadn't broken the story, the LASD would have never told the families," attorney Jackson asked.

"No," Valdez replied.

Former L.A. County Fire Capt. Tony Imbrenda testified Wednesday that it was "very common" for him as the department's media spokesperson to receive graphic photos from incident scenes.

In fact, he received a "flood of photos" from the scene of the January 2020 helicopter crash that killed nine people, including Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.

Imbrenda estimated that he received a total of between 35 to 45 photos from eight to 11 different people at the scene that Sunday and Monday. But he testified that most of the photos came from people he can't identify because he didn't have their names stored in his phone.

Imbrenda says he received photos from now-retired L.A. County Fire Capt. Brian Jordan but claimed Jordan's photos were not graphic, did not include visible human remains and did not include the remains of Kobe Bryant.

Imbrenda told jurors that he did take a few photos himself on Monday, the day after the crash, when he went to the scene with his colleague Fire Capt. Arlin Kahan. Imbrenda says the photos he took himself were of the debris field and contained visible human remains "indicative of a high-impact crash."

Imbrenda says he also received several "graphic" photos from taken by Kahan on that Monday.

Vanessa Bryant's attorney Luis Li asked Imbrenda if the bodies were covered by Monday, and would someone have to lift up the blanket or tarp to snap the photos.

"Yes," Imbrenda replied.

Imbrenda testified that human remains were not the focal point of the photos and that as a public information officer, he regularly uses photos of scenes to help relay information to the public and media.

On February 15, 2020 -- a few weeks after the crash -- Imbrenda was part of a group of public information officers being honored at the Golden Mike Awards. He admits he showed photos to his colleagues during the event's cocktail hour, but denies the photos included Kobe Bryant. He also denies that he showed those photos to the wife and girlfriends of his firefighter colleagues.

Last week, the jury heard testimony from Luella Weireter, the wife of one of the firefighters at the gala. She testified that Imbrenda, Fire Capts. Sky Cornell and Erik Scott were "huddled" around Imbrenda's phone looking at photos along with their wives and girlfriends. Imbrenda denied that his girlfriend excitedly asked Weireter if she wanted to look at photos of Bryant's body.

Imbrenda was asked about Weireter's testimony that after the huddle, L.A. County Fire Capt. Sky Cornell said something along the lines of, "I just saw Kobe's burned up body and now I have to go eat."

"I just don't know how that could be true," Imbrenda said. "I had no photos of Kobe Bryant."

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

Jurors then heard an audio recording of L.A. City firefighter/public information officer Erik Scott being questioned by county investigators in March of 2020. Scott told investigators the photos he saw on Imbrenda's phone at the Golden Mike awards included "feet, a torso or somebody bent in half... and different body parts."

"I'm not sure what he saw," Imbrenda testified. "I didn't see that much detail."

Imbrenda said as far as he knew, taking and sharing photos of human remains did not violate any fire department policy.

"It wasn't a good decision," Imbrenda told the jury, adding that he wouldn't do it again.

While Imbrenda initially downplayed the graphic nature of the photos he displayed at the Golden Mikes awards gala, Chris Chester's attorney Jerome Jackson pressed him on the details.

"Did the photos contain chunks of flesh?" Jackson asked.

"That's a fair statement," Imbrenda replied.

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

"Did the photos contain the insides of humans splattered on bushes?" Jackson asked.

"Yes," Imbrenda replied.

"And these were the photos you showed at the Golden Mikes gala?" Jackson asked.

"Yes," Imbrenda said.

"So, the photos you showed at the Golden Mike awards contained feet, a torso and human organs?" Jackson asked.

"Maybe a combination of those things," Imbrenda replied. "I can't deny that."

Imbrenda testified that he and the other firefighters were "talking shop," and that the focus of the conversation was on firefighting tactics and how public information officers should handle such a devastating event.

"You discussed firefighting tactics with a picture of a torso," Jackson asked. Imbrenda replied by talking about the magnesium fire burning at the wreckage. Jackson pointed out that fire was out on Sunday.

"How do guts on a bush and internal organs splashed on a bush have anything to do with fire tactics?" Jackson asked. Imbrenda insisted they were looking at the overall debris field.

Jurors will hear from L.A. County Fire Capts. Sky Cornell and Arlin Kahan on Thursday, along with Deputy Fire Chief William McCloud. Chris Chester is also expected to take the witness stand later in the day.

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

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