The Biggest Bombshells From The Vanessa Bryant Trial

On January 26, 2020, famed Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna Bryant, and seven others died in a tragic helicopter accident. The group was headed to a youth basketball game when pilot Ara Zobayan lost control of the helicopter while navigating through less-than-ideal flying conditions. The crash ultimately changed the lives of all families involved, including Kobe's three surviving daughters and his wife, Vanessa Bryant. Following the accident, Vanessa filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County regarding the first responders' handling of graphic photos of the gruesome helicopter crash aftermath. She shared that these images included photos of her husband's dead body, according to court filings obtained by The Washington Post. This revelation led California Governor Gavin Newsom to sign a bill that prevents officials from sharing photos of deadly crime scenes for any reason that wasn't work-related, per CNN.

Along with the state of California, Vanessa also took legal action herself. The grieving mom and widow sought justice by filing a lawsuit against Los Angeles County for invasion of privacy, alongside co-plaintiff Christopher Chester. Following the 11-day trial in August 2022, Vanessa was awarded $15 million. It was later reported that she plans to donate this money to her husband's Mamba and Mambacita Sports nonprofit foundations, which provide resources to athletes in need. 

But before Vanessa Bryant could win her lawsuit against the county, a number of bombshells surfaced during the emotional trial.

The judge scolded attorneys

This trial got heated before it even officially began. A pre-trial conference held in July 2022 frustrated California District Judge John Walter, who explained both parties' large amount of evidence could result in an extremely lengthy court case. According to Insider, Walter said, "This has been going on since February and all I get is a document that is a couple hundred pages and is not very helpful. You need to get together and start getting these trial exhibits in some semblance of order."

During the conference, Walters extended the start date for the trial to give both parties the opportunity to narrow down their evidence and decide what they would actually use in the trial. The judge had previously made the decision to combine Bryant's case with Chris Chester's case. Chester's wife and daughter were also killed in the crash, and law enforcement shared graphic photos of this family as well. Bryant's attorney had fought to have the cases combined to "promote efficiency, reduce costs for all involved, and reduce the risk of inconsistent verdicts," per the Los Angeles Times.

First responders acknowledged sharing photos

Vanessa Bryant's invasion of privacy trial got off to a gut-wrenching start. Per The Washington Post, on the first day in court, Vanessa's attorney, Luis Li, played jurors a video of Deputy Joey Cruz showing his phone to a bartender. As he would later admit, Cruz was sharing photos taken at the accident scene. When was called to the stand, he stated that he not only regrets sharing the photos, but shouldn't have had them in the first place. "I took it too far, something I shouldn't have done," Cruz said. 

Evidently, he wasn't the only one who took it too far. "[The photos] were shared by deputies playing video games," Li noted in the opening statement, per the AP. As reported by TMZ, LASD Deputy Michael Russell stated on the stand that he did send the images to another deputy while they were gaming. 

Li's opening statement showed just how severely Vanessa was impacted by Los Angeles County law enforcement's actions. "County employees exploited the accident," the attorney declared, per Rolling Stone. "They took and shared pictures of Kobe and Gianna as souvenirs. ...They poured salt in an unhealable wound." The attorney's descriptions of the grisly pictures and the cavalier actions brought Vanessa to tears.

The digital forensics investigation findings

In July 2022, California District Judge John Walter granted Vanessa Bryant's lawyers permission to present the argument that law enforcement destroyed evidence.  Per Courthouse News, Bryant's legal team stated in 2021, "By destroying the forensic trail, defendants have prevented plaintiff from ever finding out how far the photos spread, how many other people have seen photos of her loved ones' remains, and how many photos remain unsecured and susceptible to going viral online." Explaining why he decided to let Bryant's legal team present the argument, the judge said, "The plaintiffs have been deprived of direct evidence that goes to the heart of their case."

During the trial, digital forensics expert David Freskos stated that the investigation could not be completed. Per People, Freskos said nearly all of the 11 phones that were searched were apparently purchased after the crash took place. What's more, he found Deputy Joey Cruz's phone was wiped, and the fire department turned in a laptop without a hard drive. Three officials shared accounts that supported Freskos' assessment. Among them was Captain Matthew Vander Horck, who claimed he was placed in a different role after he pushed back against the request to delete the photos.

The county's legal team, on the flip side, maintained that the photos were deleted not to destroy evidence, but to keep the images from circulating further. 

A captain was 'uncomfortable' with instructions

Vanessa Bryant's legal team showed no mercy to the Los Angeles County officials who took the stand during the trial. Captain Matthew Vander Horck was among those who responded to the deadly helicopter crash. On the stand, Vander Horck admitted that the National Transportation Safety Board and the coroner are the only parties authorized to take photos of the aftermath of a helicopter crash, per CNN. Bryant's attorney, Luis Li, asked the captain if this behavior could have contributed to a "loss of public trust," to which he agreed. Vander Horck also stated that per county policy, deputies are not supposed to take photos of bodies at aircraft-related accident sites.

Vander Horck also revealed that the Sheriff Information Bureau told him and other deputies to delete photos of the crash. According to Vander Horck, they said, "If nobody found out, they wouldn't get disciplined. If the media found out, they would get fired." He went on to share that he didn't agree with these orders. "I was told the sheriff... has full authority," Vander Horck said in the courtroom. "I reiterated that I felt uncomfortable with these directions... he told me this was the way we were going to go."

This lines up with what Vander Horck said during an internal LASD investigation. Per Insider, after he found out they were supposed to delete the photos, he asked, "How do we know that we're not breaking some obscure federal law that we're not aware of?"

More questions about the deleted photos

Vanessa Bryant was let down by Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who assured her that her family's privacy would be protected by Los Angeles County officials as they investigated the helicopter crash that resulted in the deaths of Kobe and Gianna Bryant. 

According to Los Angeles Times, Villanueva argued that Los Angeles County's internal investigators had successfully stopped the photos from circulating after the crash. He explained that although officials had passed around the graphic images, they never made it online because he ordered officials to delete the photos — a move that opened another legal can of worms. "I believe they were all deleted. I'm pretty sure that's accurate," he stated during the trial. After Vanessa's legal team questioned him further, Villanueva made it clear that while he was fairly confident the photos had been deleted, he would not guarantee the photos were gone for good. "God knows — that's about it," he stated. 

Deputy Doug Johnson's testimony also raised eyebrows. As per the Los Angeles Times, Johnson was one of the officials who took photos of the aftermath of the crash. On the stand, the deputy claimed that he captured a total of 25 photos at the site. However, in his sworn statement, Johnson said he took at least 100 images. As Insider noted, this was just one instance of the first responders giving conflicting accounts.