Kobe Bryant photos trial: OC man who lost wife, daughter in crash describes day of accident

"It was grief on top of grief," he said.

ByRob Hayes and Lisa Bartley via KABC logo
Friday, August 19, 2022
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"It was grief on top of grief," said Chris Chester, an Irvine financial adviser whose wife and 13-year-old daughter were among the nine people killed in the crash.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Chris Chester took the witness stand on Thursday at the Kobe Bryant photos trial, telling the jury that learning graphic photos had been taken of his wife and daughter's remains, sent him into a second tailspin of grief.

"I was in disbelief at first," Chester testified. "It never crossed my mind in my wildest imagination" that deputies and firefighters would take and share photos of his wife Sarah and their 13-year-old daughter Payton.

"It was grief on top of grief," Chester explained. A different type of grief -- the "empty sadness" over their deaths now had "a sense of rage to it."

"I want justice and accountability," Chester told the jury.

Sarah and Payton Chester were among the nine people killed in the same helicopter crash that killed the NBA star and his daughter Gianna in 2020.

Chester and Vanessa Bryant are suing the county in federal court for unspecified millions of dollars for negligence and invasion of privacy over photos of human remains taken at the scene and shared by first responders.

Vanessa Bryant is scheduled to take the stand Friday.

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

Bryant and Chester allege mental anguish over the thought that one day in the future, those photos will turn up in public.

"I want justice and accountability," Chester told the jury.

Chester, a financial advisor in Orange County, recounted that morning of the crash: He and Sarah split the family driving duties.

The father took their twin boys to a lacrosse game in Irvine.

Sarah was taking Payton to the basketball game at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks.

"She was quite an accomplished little basketball player," Chester said of Payton. "She loved it."

Payton played on two basketball teams - one for school and the club team coached by Kobe Bryant. Payton had two games that weekend and wasn't going to be able to make it to both, but Kobe offered to make sure she could get to both games saying, "I'll get you back."

That's how they ended up on the helicopter that Sunday morning.

Chester got a text from Sarah's brother while he was at their sons' lacrosse game. Sarah's brother had heard that a helicopter had gone down - and there were reports that it might be Kobe.

"I called Kobe's assistant and she said, 'We've lost communication with them somewhere between Orange County and Calabasas,'" Chester recounted to the jury.

A friend drove Chester to the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department's Lost Hills station after he told his twin boys that "something bad had happened, but I think everything will be fine."

"I hoped I was going to the hospital," Chester said. "But when they got to Calabasas, he could see smoke on the hillside. He used Find My iPhone and realized his wife and daughter "were still on that mountain."

As the morning wore on, there was a growing media frenzy as it became clear there were no survivors. Chester told L.A. County Sheriff Villanueva that "this place needs to be locked down."

There were helicopters circling and Kobe Bryant fans trying to climb the hillside to the wreckage. Chester said that Villanueva assured him he would take care of it.

In the days to come, Chester learned from the coroner that the condition of his wife and daughter's bodies was "nothing you would want to see."

At their burial, Chester told jurors he made a promise to Sarah - "You take care of Payton, and I got the boys. I'll see you again someday."

Chester's grief was overwhelming Thursday, but he resolved to get his remaining family back on track saying, "the boys still had a lot of life ahead of them."

He said he assumed the photos would surface at any time and warned his boys to not Google anything about the crash.

"I'm fearful all the time, every day," Chester told the jury. "Nothing dies on the internet."

Chester testified that after sitting through the trial, it's clear to him that no one knows how many photos were taken and where they could be now. He takes no comfort in the fact that none of the photos have surfaced in the two-and-a-half years since the crash.

Chester referred to the "mystery fire captain" that Dep. Doug Johnson admits to airdropping his grisly photos to at the scene.

To this day, no one knows who that might have been.

Then there's now-retired L.A. County Fire Capt. Brian Jordan, who admitted to taking graphic photos on the day of the crash. Jordan eventually turned his work laptop over to investigators, but the hard drive was missing.

During Thursday's cross examination, Chester was asked by L.A. County Attorney Jason Tokoro about his emotional distress.

Was it from the photos? Or was it from their deaths in the violent helicopter crash?

"You've never been diagnosed with depression or PTSD?" Tokoro asked. Chester responded that he hadn't been to a medical doctor in years. He tried grief counseling after their deaths, but it didn't work.

"You are suing only for emotional distress, right?" Tokoro asked.

"Yes," Chester answered.

"So, it's a dollar number at the end of the day," Tokoro said.

Chester responded that it's up to the jury. "My life will never be the same."

Tokoro then asked Chester about things he enjoys in life now, asking him about hiking, surfing, fishing and yoga.

"Just because I put a smile on my face for the boys while making them lunch doesn't mean I don't have my dark moments alone," he said.

Along with Chester and Bryant's loved ones, the crash killed Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Keri Altobelli, 46; John Altobelli, 56; Christina Mauser, 38; and pilot Ara Zobayan, 50.

The defense is expected to start presenting its case on Friday, following Vanessa Bryant's testimony.

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

City News Service, Inc. contributed to this report.