Kobe Bryant photos trial: Deputy sent graphic images of remains while playing 'Call of Duty'

ByChristiane Cordero and Lisa Bartley KABC logo
Wednesday, August 17, 2022
Deputies testify about why they shared graphic Kobe photos from crash
Several sheriff's deputies testified how and why they shared graphic images of human remains from the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash site.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Jurors in the Kobe Bryant photos trial Tuesday heard from a deputy who shared gruesome images while playing the video game "Call of Duty," another deputy who showed them to a bartender - and a captain who raised alarms about the sheriff's efforts to keep the scandal out of the public eye.

Kobe's widow Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester are suing Los Angeles County over the taking and sharing of photos of human remains from the site of the helicopter crash that took nine lives on Jan. 26, 2020. Chester lost his wife Sarah and daughter Payton in the crash.


Deputy Joey Cruz, a former U.S. Marine, says he showed off photos of Kobe Bryant's body parts to a bartender in Norwalk because he was "overwhelmed and stressed" by the day of the helicopter crash.

"I made a mistake," Cruz told the jury. "I had bad judgment that day."

Cruz never went to the wreckage site -- spending the day at the command post before receiving the photos from his training officer that night.

Once again, jurors saw video of Deputy Cruz at the Norwalk bar two nights after the crash where he can be seen smiling and laughing with the bartender and an unidentified patron seated to his right at the bar.

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

The man who sparked the investigation over unauthorized photos taken at the site of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant is speaking out.

Cruz says he only showed the other bar patron something funny from Instagram, denying they were photos from the accident scene.

Bryant attorney Craig Jennings Lavoie asked Cruz why bartender Victor Gutierrez can be seen right after that making a swiping motion at his torso and grimacing.

Cruz claimed he doesn't remember. Although Cruz can be seen making gestures to his right arm in the video, he denies it was about the tattoos Kobe had of his daughters' names on his right forearm.

Cruz also continues to deny that he and the bartender knew they were looking at Kobe Bryant's torso. But jurors saw the Sheriff's Department internal report that concluded Cruz did know it was Kobe and that he was zooming in and out on the photos. Cruz also denies that he bragged to the bartender a few weeks later that he had not received any discipline for showing the photos in the bar.

Cruz was asked about why the phone he turned over for a forensic examination many months later was wiped and reset to factory settings. Cruz says his phone was broken and he got a new one.

"So, you acknowledge wiping your phone while this lawsuit was ongoing," Jennings Lavoie asked.

"Yes, I wiped it," Cruz replied. Cruz later added that he'd transferred all the data from his old phone to his new phone.

Cruz also admits to sending the photos to fellow Deputy Michael Russell that Sunday night after the crash. Cruz says Russell asked for the photos, so he sent them.

"So, a veteran deputy asked you -- a trainee -- to send you the photos," Chester attorney Jerome Jackson asked.

"Yes," Cruz answered.

Jackson noted that despite showing off the photos at a bar, Cruz had still graduated from patrol training and only received two days of unpaid suspension.

On cross examination, county attorney Mira Hashmall played a clip from the bar video zoomed in to show that Cruz was scrolling through Instagram at one point while he was sitting at the bar.

But on redirect examination, attorney Jennings Lavoie played the clip again and noted that Hashmall had fast forwarded through a portion of the video that shows Cruz zooming in on something stationary, like a photo, then showing it to the bar patron next to him and then to the bartender. Moments later the bartender is making a slashing motion at his torso.

"I can't explain his actions," Cruz testified.


Deputy Michael Russell followed Cruz on the witness stand Tuesday. While he admitted he asked Cruz for the photos, he testified he only did so to "understand the magnitude" of the crash scene. He says Cruz sent him four or five photos the night of the crash and that Cruz warned him they were graphic.

"I was not expecting dismembered bodies," Russell said in his deposition, portions of which were shown to the jury.

Russell told jurors that the next day, Monday afternoon, he was blowing off steam by playing the video game "Call of Duty" with several people including Deputy Ben Sanchez. While they were playing, Russell texted Sanchez to ask if he wanted to see the photos.

"I had no business doing that," Russell said of sharing the photos with Sanchez.

Jackson took Russell through a memo Russell wrote after he was called into the Lost Hills station later that week and ordered to delete the photos. Russell admitted several of his statements in the memo were either false or misleading - a "mistake," he testified.

Russell, a 15-year veteran of the LASD, also received no discipline and later got rid of his phone, although he says it had nothing to do with the lawsuit filed by Vanessa Bryant.

"I have deep remorse," Russell testified of sharing the photos.

"At the time, you didn't think that texting photos of human remains while playing "Call of Duty" -- and one of the photos might be Kobe -- you didn't think that violated any policy," Bryant's attorney asked Russell.

"It never crossed my mind," Russell replied.


Captain Matthew Vander Horck was in charge of the LASD Lost Hills station at the time of the January 2020 helicopter crash. He testified that he was notified of the civilian complaint about a deputy showing off photos of Kobe's remains at a bar three days after the crash.

He immediately assigned his top lieutenant to investigate. But Vander Horck's plan got derailed after he alerted his superiors to the complaint.

Vander Horck testified that he soon got a call from then-captain of the Sheriff's Information Bureau, Jorge Valdez.

Jurors were shown an email from Valdez to Vander Horck that Wednesday night that stated the sheriff and the undersheriff were both aware of the complaint.

Bryant attorney Luis Li then played audio of an LA Times reporter asking Sheriff Alex Villanueva and Valdez - nearly a month after the crash - what they knew about the complaint and the order by Villanueva to delete the photos.

"I'm kind of lost," Villanueva replies to LA Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian.

"There was no order given to delete photographs," Valdez said in the audio recording. "I'm not aware of any complaint."

Vander Horck confirmed to the jury that their denials were nearly a month after he'd spoken with Valdez about the complaint and nearly a month after Villanueva had ordered the photos be deleted.

Valdez has been promoted by Villanueva three times since then and is now a chief.

Li walked Vander Horck through the days after they received the complaint in late January 2020. Vander Horck told jurors he'd been awake for 36 hours on that Thursday after the crash. He woke up to news from his Operations Lieutenant Hector Mancinas.

"Hector told me that Jorge Valdez and John Satterfield had called him with directions from Sheriff Alex Villanueva," Vander Horck testified. "He got instructions from them to call in all the deputies at the scene and find out if they had any photos. If nobody found out, there would be no discipline. But if the media found out, they'd be fired."

Vander Horck told jurors he was alarmed by the order, in part because he believed they could be ordering deputies to destroy evidence. He'd never seen anything like it in his 31-year career.

He told jurors the last time deputies had taken orders from LASD executives outside the chain of command, they'd gone to prison for it -- referring to the convictions of Sheriff Leroy Baca and eight others for blocking an FBI investigation into abuse in the jails.

"I had concerns for my people," Vander Horck explained.

Vander Horck relayed his concerns to his direct supervisor - Chief Dennis Kneer - who confirmed with Sheriff Alex Villanueva that those were his orders and "that was the direction they were going in."

On cross-examination, attorney Jason Tokoro asked Vander Horck about how the LASD investigation could have gone if Villanueva had not acted quickly to contain the photos. Could attorneys have been involved, union representatives for the county? Tokoro suggested the photos were more likely to be leaked if the investigation had gone in the standard route.


When now-Chief Jorge Valdez took the stand Tuesday afternoon, jurors had already heard him deny any knowledge of the complaint to the LA Times one month after Valdez had personally collected the video from that Norwalk bar.

Valdez testified he watched the video for about a minute, just long enough to see if the deputy matched the description of Joey Cruz. He then locked it in a cabinet and left it there for two months. No one else in the LASD saw the video until early March.

"And that was after the LA Times reported on the misconduct," Bryant attorney Jennings Lavoie asked.

"Yes," Valdez replied.

Jennings Lavoie then zeroed in on an email Valdez sent to the LA Times reporter. In it she is trying to get a comment from the LASD before breaking the story of the photos scandal.

Valdez writes to reporter Tchekmedyian that "out of respect for the families of the crash victims," they will not be giving a comment. "Based on the insensitive intention to release this alleged information, we were obligated to personally contact the family members and advise them of the details surrounding your allegations."

"Did you contact the Chester family," attorney Jerome Jackson asked Valdez.

"No," he replied. Valdez says he thought someone else higher-up at the LASD would do that.

Are you aware that no one from LASD has ever contacted Mr. Chester," Jackson asked.

"I am now," Valdez replied.

Valdez apologized and offered his "deepest condolences to the Chester and Bryant families."

Jackson asked Valdez why he was only now making that apology?

"This is the first time I've seen them in person," Valdez testified.

"Is there any reason you could drive to Cerritos and Norwalk to retrieve the video, but not drive to Orange County to look him in the face and apologize," Jackson asked.

"No, sir," Valdez replied.

Valdez will continue his testimony on Wednesday morning.

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