Vanessa Bryant trial: Witnesses squirm as they testify about Kobe crash photos

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Warning: This story contains descriptions that some readers may find disturbing.

LOS ANGELES — Vanessa Bryant had been waiting for this day for many months.

This was Day 4 of her civil trial against Los Angeles County. But it was the first day that multiple county sheriff’s and fire department employees would be required to get up on the witness stand and answer questions in front of her about what they did.

It wasn’t pretty. One witness, a retired fire captain named Brian Jordan, stepped down off the witness stand three times in distress Monday after being asked about taking photos at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed Bryant’s daughter and husband, Kobe, the NBA legend.

Jordan claimed not to remember anything about the crash scene even though he was there and took photos of what he saw.

“Kobe Bryant’s remains were in the pictures you took?” asked Luis Li, Bryant’s attorney.

“I need a break,” Jordan replied, before stepping down and leaving the court room for the first of those three interruptions.

It went like this for much of the day in federal court: After Jordan completed his testimony, three sheriff’s deputies took the stand and also claimed memory problems or gave conflicting testimony when asked key questions about sharing photos of human remains from the crash that killed all nine aboard in January 2020.

One deputy, Joey Cruz, said he made a “misjudgment” when he showed crash-scene photos to a bartender at a restaurant two days after the crash.

“I took it too far,” he said, saying he was under stress at the time and “overwhelmed.”

But he also gave conflicting testimony about what he showed the bartender and what he remembered about it.

The bartender, Cruz’s friend, testified last week that Cruz asked him if he wanted to see a photo of Bryant’s dead body. Cruz disputed that Monday in front of the jury of five men and four women.

“You did not tell bartender, 'Hey do you want to see a photo of Kobe Bryant’s body?' You never said that?” asked Craig Jennings Lavoie, one of Bryant’s attorneys.

“No, because there was no identifying features,” Cruz said, implying he couldn’t know whose body it was.

Fans gather at a mural of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna painted on the wall of Hardcore Fitness Bootcamp gym in downtown Los Angeles.
Fans gather at a mural of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna painted on the wall of Hardcore Fitness Bootcamp gym in downtown Los Angeles.

Vanessa Bryant brought this case to trial after suing the county for invasion of privacy in 2020. Her lawsuit accuses county sheriff’s and fire department personnel of taking and sharing crash-scene photos of her loved ones’ dead bodies despite not having a legitimate business reason for it. She is joined in the trial by fellow plaintiff Chris Chester, a financial advisor who lost his wife and daughter in the same crash and also sued the county for similar reasons.

Both are seeking damages to be determined at trial for the emotional distress they say they suffered after learning of the county’s conduct with the photos.

In Bryant’s case, she has indicated she also might want something more than that. In March of 2021, she amended her lawsuit to include the names of four sheriff’s deputies she blames for improperly sharing photos: Cruz, Raul Versales, Rafael Mejia and Michael Russell. She even used her widely followed Instagram account that month to highlight their names in a public post, bringing them unwanted attention and in some cases harassment.

On Monday, she finally faced three of them in court when they testified for the first time at trial. Unlike previous days in this trial, she did not break down or leave the court room to avoid graphic testimony. She instead took notes and appeared eager to hear how they would answer for their actions.

Joey Cruz’s testimony

Cruz was a deputy trainee when he and Mejia responded to the radio call of the crash that day. Later that night, Cruz received crash-scene photos from Mejia, who received them from Versales, who received them from another deputy who had hiked to the scene of the crash: Douglas Johnson.

Johnson testified on Friday that he took about 25 photos including those that contained close-up shots of human remains.

Two days later, Cruz attempted to show photos of the crash scene to his niece but testified Monday “she didn’t care to look” at them. Then at the bar in Norwalk, California, surveillance video shows him displaying his phone to the bartender and making gestures to his body.

The bartender claimed Cruz indicated they were Kobe’s remains.

But in a pretrial deposition in October, Cruz testified he didn’t remember if the photos he showed at the bar contained body parts at all.

On Monday, he testified they did contain body parts but didn’t say they were Kobe’s.

“You’re telling the truth today?” Lavoie asked Cruz, noting the conflicting testimony.

Cruz then said he only realized the photos contained body parts after “reviewing documents” following his deposition testimony in October.

“It required you to review documents that you showed photos of body parts to a bartender?” Lavoie asked.

“Yes,” Cruz replied.

“Prior to that, you had just forgotten you had showed photos of body parts to a bartender?”

Cruz’s memory lapse in October also came after a patron at the restaurant that night in January 2020 filed a complaint about Cruz with the sheriff’s department. The patron said the bartender came to his table at the restaurant and told his group about what Cruz had showed him on his phone.

Cruz learned about this complaint shortly after it was filed.

“Did you think that complaint was true?” Lavoie asked him Monday

“I knew it was true,” Cruz replied.

“You know it was true that you had showed photos of Kobe Bryant’s body to the bartender, but (more than a year) later, you testified under oath . . . in your deposition, that you forgot?” Lavoie asked.

“I didn’t recall then,” Cruz answered.

Cruz was initially suspended 10 days for his conduct before his suspension was reduced on appeal. He is expected to resume testifying Tuesday morning.

DAY 3 OF TRIAL: Why did deputy take close-up photos of body parts?

DAY 2 OF TRIAL: Vanessa Bryant leaves court during testimony about crash photos shared at bar after Kobe's death

DAY 1 OF TRIAL: Tears, testimony and details about deadly crash

Brian Jordan’s testimony

Jordan did not want to testify and had fought having to do so. His attorneys even stated in court records this month that Jordan had been “ordered by his doctors to refrain from discussing this tragic event due to the toll it has taken on his psychological health.”

But U.S. District Judge John F. Walter denied his attempt to get out of it, and there Jordan was on the witness stand Monday as the day’s first witness.

“I am here because of false allegations, so please refrain from taking my brain back to that crash site,” Jordan said from the witness stand Monday.

The L.A. County Fire Department rebuked Jordan in a letter to him in December 2020 after determining his photographs from the crash scene had “no legitimate business purpose” and “only served to appeal to baser instincts and desires for what amounted to visual gossip,” according to the letter. The letter said the photographs included one body cut from the waist down and another containing only the head and torso, among others.

The department intended to discharge him from his position before he retired early, citing his mental health, according to court records.

This information was not shared with the jury, but the jury did hear him initially say, “I don’t remember being at the crash.”

Then he said he did remember being under orders to take photos from the crash scene from Anthony Marrone, now the acting fire chief of L.A. County.

“Take pictures, take pictures, take pictures,” Jordan said he was told by Marrone.

But Marrone has denied giving that order, according to evidence cited Monday by Bryant’s attorneys.

Asked whether he took photos of Gianna Bryant, Bryant’s daughter, Jordan said, “I don’t even know who that is.”

On Friday, deputy Johnson testified that a Black man he later identified as Jordan was at the crash scene taking photos and that he helped show him around the scene.

On Monday, Jordan testified, “I don’t know what I took pictures of.”

Jordan said he did send crash-scene photos to fire captain Tony Imbrenda, who later showed such photos to a group of people at an awards gala in February 2020, triggering a citizen’s complaint. The woman who complained about Imbrenda showing off the photos said she overheard a witness saying they contained an image of Kobe’s “burnt-up” body.

Jordan testified Monday the photos he sent Imbrenda were not “offensive” because Imbrenda told him so.

Li, Bryant’s attorney, then entered into evidence Exhibit 336 A and B, an audio recording in which Imbrenda is interviewed and said he received photos from Jordan.

“There were a few graphic photos,” Imbrenda said on the audio. Imbrenda described them as “human remains from a high-impact crash.”

More LA county testimony

The county’s position is that the photos were not publicly disseminated and never were posted online after being deleted.

Versales testified he did not know Kobe Bryant was among the dead when he received the photos from Johnson. Versales also said he did not request those photos from Johnson even though Johnson testified Friday that Versales did ask him to take photos from the crash site.

After passing the photos along to other sheriff’s personnel, including Mejia, Versales said he deleted them that night.

“I did not need to have photographs,” Versales testified in a pretrial deposition.

On Monday, Versales gave a different account.

“Later after thinking about it ... I later on thought I needed it,” he testified Monday, explaining he needed the photos to pass along to others.

After Versales completed his testimony Monday, Mejia got on the witness stand and said he sent crash-scene photos to Cruz so that he could use them to write a report later if necessary, which he never did. Mejia said he would do things differently now by making sure the photos were needed for a report.

“I regret it,” Mejia testified.

Lavoie later told Mejia that many prior statements he made in this case were untrue.

“It’s not that I was intentionally trying to lie about anything,” he said. “It’s lapse in memory.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant photos trial: Witnesses squirm when asked about crash pics