Jae C Hong/AP/Shutterstock Vanessa Bryant
A digital forensics expert testifying in Vanessa Bryant's lawsuit against Los Angeles County said that law enforcement personnel who took photos at the scene of the 2020 helicopter crash that left Kobe Bryant and eight others dead "permanently destroyed" digital evidence.
Bryant, along with Chris Chester, the father and husband to two other victims, Payton Chester, 13, and Sarah Chester, 46, is suing L.A. County for emotional distress and mental anguish after learning that the crash scene photos were publicly shared on at least 28 devices owned by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and by more than a dozen first responders.
After the sheriff's department received complaints from witnesses who say they saw first responders sharing the crash photos publicly, deputies were instructed to delete the photos off of their devices.
More than a year and a half after the crash, in Sept. 2021, L.A. County and Bryant's legal team jointly hired Kroll, a forensics firm, to analyze devices from the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and Fire Department to see if there were any remaining photos or evidence that had been improperly sent.
During court proceedings on Wednesday, Bryant and Chester's lawyers called up digital forensics expert David Freskos, whom they had hired to analyze Kroll's report. Freskos said he found that nine of the 11 iPhones turned over to Kroll from the sheriff's department were new phones, and not the ones used at the crash site. One of the phones — belonging to Joey Cruz, who has been accused of showing crash photos to a bartender — had been completely wiped clean and reset to factory settings.
Two laptops turned in from the fire department were not able to be analyzed: one laptop had an encrypted password that was never shared, and therefore could not be analyzed, while a second laptop was missing an internal hard drive.
Freskos said his findings showed that the defendants had permanently destroyed digital evidence. He also said that the sheriff's department violated fundamental forensic principles and made it more difficult to investigate dissemination of the photos.
"Mobile devices have volatile data and must be forensically preserved to prevent loss," Freskos explained.
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A sheriff and two fire captains involved in the investigation also testified Wednesday, and a pattern has emerged during the trial where those who agreed to delete the photo evidence were lightly disciplined and even promoted, while those who fought against the order have not moved up. Captain Matthew Vander Horck, the commanding officer at the scene on Jan. 26, 2020, testified Tuesday that he had disagreed with the order to delete the photos and said that the demand went around his authority. He said that he was then transferred from his position.
This is the sixth day of trial proceedings in Bryant's case against L.A. County. Nearly a dozen witnesses have taken the stand, from sheriffs to first responders to witnesses who say they saw law enforcement improperly sharing photos from the crash site. One witness was former bartender Victor Gutierrez, who said he was shown photos of Kobe's body by deputy trainee Cruz during his bartending shift. He was followed by Ralph Mendez Jr., a bar patron who said he witnessed the interaction and then filed a formal complaint with the sheriff's department.
The jury was also shown video footage of Cruz and Gutierrez at the bar, which reportedly showed the two men looking at Cruz's phone and laughing. Gutierrez is then seen motioning to his throat, head, and torso, which Bryant's attorney suggested was in reference to the condition of the victim's bodies. USA Today stated that Gutierrez refuted the idea, telling the courtroom, "You gotta be psycho to do that."
Cruz testified Monday and admitted to trying to show the photos to his niece, who refused to look. He was reprimanded, but remained on the force.
Stefanie Keenan/Getty Vanessa and Kobe Bryant in 2019
L.A. County had tried to dismiss Bryant's lawsuit in Dec. 2021, but a judge refused their request. In her declaration filed in response to a motion, Bryant said she's felt "tremendous pain and distress."
Bryant said in part, "It infuriates me that the people I trusted to protect the dignity of my husband and daughter abused their positions to obtain souvenirs of their deaths, as though possessing pictures of their remains somehow makes them special."
Along with Kobe, their 13-year-old daughter Gianna and Payton and Sarah Chester, the 2020 helicopter crash also claimed the lives of 14-year-old Alyssa Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, 46, John Altobelli, 56, Christina Mauser, 38, and pilot Ara Zobayan, 50.