Kobe Bryant photos trial: Bartender denies laughing at graphic photos

ByCarlos Granda and Lisa Bartley via KABC logo
Friday, August 12, 2022
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Lakers general manager testified Thursday about the emotional day he learned Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Bartender Victor Gutierrez was smiling and laughing with LASD Deputy Joey Cruz moments after they huddled over Cruz's phone looking at graphic images of the remains of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and other victims of the January 2020 helicopter crash.

But Gutierrez denied they were laughing at the victims' remains and suggested that Deputy Cruz had changed the topic in those moments and perhaps played a funny video for him on his phone.

Gutierrez asked "what type of human being" would laugh at such photos? "That would be psycho."

The bartender's testimony came on Thursday as part of Vanessa Bryant's federal lawsuit against Los Angeles County over the photos taken and shared by deputies and Los Angeles County firefighters in the days and weeks after the crash that killed nine people, including Kobe's daughter 13-year-old Gianna.

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

The County maintains the photos were taken for legitimate purposes like identifying the victims, the helicopter, and determining the resources they'd need on the hillside after the crash.

Gutierrez described much of the remains he saw in the photos as just "body parts," and that what he saw on Cruz's cell phone included what he understood to be Kobe's torso and the scattered remains of other victims.

At that point, Vanessa Bryant stood up sobbing and fled from the courtroom. She was followed by Christopher Chester, the husband of Sarah Chester and father of Payton Chester - also among the nine people killed in the crash.

Jurors were shown surveillance video from the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk two nights after the crash. Gutierrez can be seen making slashing motions across his throat, down his face and around his torso. He admits to describing the victims' injuries seen in the photos to five different sets of people at the bar that night, including a cook, his supervisor, and other patrons at the bar, including members of a softball team.

Gutierrez told jurors that Deputy Cruz appeared sad and needed to get what he'd seen the day of the crash "out of his system." He denied telling members of the softball group that Deputy Cruz told him the only way deputies could identify Kobe was by his skin tone and tattoos.

On cross-examination, Gutierrez said he was a big fan of Kobe Bryant and cried the day of his death. He'd known Deputy Cruz for a few years from the bar and that as a bartender people often vented to him, calling himself a "chief therapist." Cruz never sent the photos to him, just displayed them on his phone.

Gutierrez's testimony was contradicted by the next witness, Ralph Mendez, a member of the softball team called "Past Our Prime." Mendez told jurors he noticed Joey Cruz right away because he was right in his "line of sight" from their booth and that the sleeves of Cruz's "bright white t-shirt" were rolled up in a way that reminded him of "The Fonz" on the TV show "Happy Days."

Bryant attorney Craig Jennings Lavoie showed more video clips of Gutierrez talking to the softball group about what he'd seen in Deputy Cruz's photos. In one clip, Gutierrez is seen twisting his arm behind him and up into the air.

Mendez testified that Gutierrez was "very excited," eager to talk about what he'd seen and used profanity. "I was in disbelief, disappointed, disgusted and angry," Mendez told the jury.

On his way home, Mendez says he knew he wouldn't be able to sleep that night until he did "the right thing." He sat in his car in the driveway after midnight and filed an online complaint with the LASD about what he'd seen and heard.

Mendez told the jury that Gutierrez told the softball group that Deputy Cruz found the photos funny and that the only way they'd been able to identify Kobe was through his skin tone and tattoos.

Vanessa Bryant had briefly returned to the courtroom, sitting in the back row, but got up and again and left in tears.

Mendez refuted Gutierrez's earlier testimony, telling jurors that Gutierrez told his group that Cruz said he got bored on his long shift the day of the crash and walked back up the hill to take photos.

"I felt a sense of betrayal, him being in the position he is has a public trust and when he showed bodies to members of the public, he betrayed the public's trust," Mendez testified, his voice cracking.

Bryant's attorney asked why Mendez was so emotional. "I was expecting my first baby girl," he answered. He remembered photos of Kobe and Gianna together. "I envisioned myself in the same way with my baby girl."

The day after Mendez filed his complaint, the LASD tried to track him down. He soon spoke with Captain Jorge Valdez, who was then in charge of the LASD's Sheriff's Information Bureau.

Mendez testified about the story of the photos breaking in the Los Angeles Times in late February of 2020. In a subsequent story, LA Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian can be heard on audio asking LASD Sheriff Alex Villanueva, then-Captain Valdez, and then-Lieutenant John Satterfield what they knew about a complaint of deputies sharing the graphic photos. Jurors heard them all deny being aware of the complaint or Villanueva's order to delete the photos.

"I'm unaware of any complaint," Valdez told the LA Times on February 26th, 2020. "We're such a large organization - I mean, if there is, it hasn't come down to our office."

But that was weeks after Valdez and Satterfield had personally driven to the bar to retrieve the surveillance footage and after Valdez interviewed Mendez.

"Liar, he's lying," Mendez said of Valdez's statements to the LA Times. "He was the first person I spoke to."

Valdez has since been promoted to the rank of chief and Satterfield is now Villanueva's Chief of Staff.

On cross-examination, Mendez testified that he never saw the photos on Cruz's phone himself. Defense attorney for the County Mira Hashmall also asked him about interviews he'd done with the media. Mendez told jurors he did an interview with the LA Times and with ABC7.

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