Vanessa Bryant says she still suffers from panic attacks in emotional testimony in Kobe photos trial

Friday, August 19, 2022
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Vanessa Bryant took the stand Friday in the trial over photos taken at the site of the helicopter crash that killed her husband Kobe Bryant and their daughter.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Vanessa Bryant gave emotional testimony Friday in the trial of her federal lawsuit against Los Angeles County alleging negligence and invasion of privacy by first responders who snapped cell phone pictures at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed her husband Kobe and their 13-year-old daughter.

Bryant, 40, was the final plaintiffs' witness in the federal trial of consolidated lawsuits filed by her and Chris Chester, an Irvine financial adviser who lost his wife and daughter in the same crash.

Chester and Bryant are suing the county for unspecified millions of dollars over the photos, which they have never seen. Bryant's 41-year-old husband and daughter Gianna, Chester's wife, Sarah, and the couple's 13-year-old daughter Payton were among the nine people killed in the Jan. 26, 2020, crash.

The plaintiffs allege Los Angeles County's first responders took grisly cell phone pictures of human remains at the remote Calabasas crash site for their own amusement as "souvenirs" and shared them with other law enforcement personnel and members of the public.

While giving her testimony, Bryant was overcome with emotions as she told the jury she still suffers from panic attacks and anxiety.

On the morning of the fatal crash, she said she was home with her younger children when her assistant told her what happened. However, it was Sheriff Alex Villanueva who officially told her at his office later that day that there were no survivors.

Bryant said she asked the sheriff to secure the crash site, adding she felt disgusted when she later learned from an L.A. Times report that his deputies had taken photos of the scene.

At no point, she said, did Villanueva mention that pictures had been taken or what measures were put in place to ensure the scene was secure.

Bryant added she lives under a constant fear that those images will be leaked. She also said after the crash she received a message on social media from someone threatening to post crash images.

Sheriff Villanueva was also expected to take the stand Friday, and the defense was set to start presenting its case.

The county contends all images taken by its sheriff's deputies and firefighters were deleted upon orders of their superior officers, no longer exist in any form and never entered the public domain or appeared on the internet.

Chester also alleges mental anguish over the thought that one day in the future, those photos will turn up in public.

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Asked by a county attorney why he felt he needed to sue, Chester said, "The way I look at it is, when you do something wrong, you either go to jail or (you have to pay) money."

Chester took the stand Thursday, saying when he learned that first responders had taken and shared cell phone pictures from the crash site, his reaction was "disbelief that shifted to anger."

Chester testified that he was shocked on Feb. 28, 2020 -- his 46th birthday -- when news broke that not only were crash scene photos taken by county personnel, they were displayed for others at a bar and at an awards ceremony and texted to others.

"I couldn't construct a scenario where that would happen," the even-toned Chester said during questioning by his attorney in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. "I had largely insulated my family from the details (of the injuries suffered by their loved ones). Now, I thought there would be pictures of the remains (on the internet)."

But, as the defense has frequently pointed out during the trial, the photos have not surfaced online in the two and a half years since the tragedy. Multiple county fire and sheriff's personnel have taken the stand during the federal civil trial and told jurors they deleted whatever accident-site pictures they had on their cell phones. Attorneys for the county have argued that the deletion of photos permanently prevented their public dissemination.

"I'm fearful everyday," Chester testified. "There's been a lot of things that people thought didn't exist -- that have turned up on the internet."

The jury has heard from county personnel who have admitted variously taking cell phone pictures at the accident scene, sending them to colleagues, or showing them to friends in law enforcement. In one case, a deputy sheriff expressed great regret that he took his cell phone to a bar in Norwalk and showed accident scene images to a bartender friend.

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Attorneys for the plaintiffs contend the images spread to at least 10 others, but there has been no evidence presented that the photos still exist or ever turned up in public.

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.

City News Service contributed to this report.