Warning: This story contains descriptions that some readers may find disturbing.
LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy who took close-up photos of the bodies from the helicopter crash that killed NBA legend Kobe Bryant testified in federal court here Friday that he “had done nothing wrong” and was simply obeying an order to take pictures of the crash scene that day.
The deputy, Douglas Johnson, said another sheriff’s deputy in his command post, Raul Versales, told him to do it. He said he took around 25 photos, including those of a twisted torso and a “close-up of a shin and a foot that had a black skin tone”.
But the veracity of both statements was questioned in court Friday during questioning by lawyers for Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s widow, and Chris Chester, a financial adviser who lost his wife and daughter in the same crash.
“Do you know that MP Versales denied asking you to take photos on January 26, 2020? asked Eric Tuttle, an attorney for Bryant.
“I’m not,” Johnson said.
Tuttle then introduced “Exhibit 111-A,” an audio interview with Versales previously conducted by investigators from the Sheriff’s Office of Internal Affairs.
“All of us at the command post, including myself, did not ask for photographs,” Versales said on the recording played in court.
It was day three of Vanessa Bryant’s civil trial against Los Angeles County – and another tough day for Bryant, who again left the courtroom early for the second day in a row. Bryant and Chester sued the county in 2020, accusing county sheriff and fire department employees of taking and sharing photos of loved ones who died at the crash scene, despite having no legitimate business reason .
The case is being heard by a jury of five men and four women after a male juror dropped out after Day 2 for family reasons. On Friday, they heard testimony from three witnesses, including Johnson, who Deputy Bryant’s team said sparked the gruesome photos among sheriff’s staff after they were taken for questionable reasons.
The jury has a lot to digest: Did Johnson violate the privacy rights of the victims’ families by taking these photos for no good reason, as Bryant’s attorney suggested? Or did Johnson not know who told him to take pictures and just try to do his job and document the scene under difficult circumstances?
Johnson was on duty the morning of the crash when he answered the radio call regarding the helicopter crash in Calabasas. He drove to the scene and walked about an hour over difficult, hilly terrain to reach the crash site. What happened next is the key to the case.
According to his account, he took about 25 photos, of which about a third showed human remains.
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But another witness testified in court the day before, Thursday, to have heard a different story. That witness was Reserve Deputy David Katz, a search and rescue team leader. Katz had also been to the scene of the accident and was told by his supervisor not to take any photos.
Then, when Katz arrived on the scene, with debris and body parts everywhere, he saw a uniformed deputy doing just that – taking pictures.
The name on this deputy’s name tag was “Johnson”.
“I told him my supervisor told me not to take any pictures,” Katz said Thursday.
Johnson replied that he had already taken pictures.
“Didn’t he tell you he took over 100 pictures?” asked Jerome Jackson, Chester’s lawyer.
“I believe that’s what he said,” Katz replied.
On Friday, Johnson denied taking so many photos. After Bryant’s attorney confronted him in court about Versales’ contradictory statement, Johnson again addressed the issue under friendlier questioning by lead county attorney Mira Hashmall.
This time, he said, “I think it was the Versales deputy I spoke to on my cell phone.” He added that he also received a request from someone by handheld radio from the command post to document the scene with footage, but it may not have been Versales.
When questioned by Tuttle, Bryant’s attorney, Johnson confirmed he never put the photos into evidence and deleted them from his personal iPhone when he got home and showered. He also confirmed that he deleted his text message thread with Versales.
Before that, he said he only sent the photos to Versales and an unidentified fire department supervisor.
The photos spread from there among sheriff’s staff, eventually reaching the phone of deputy intern Joey Cruz, who showed them to a bartender in Norwalk, Calif., two days after the crash.
When asked if he knew about the incident with Cruz, Johnson replied, “I heard about it,” but said he still wouldn’t do anything different.
Hashmall said county first responders were doing their job and said the photos were never “publicly released” outside of county personnel.
Another witness tested that claim on Friday.
The fireman’s wife
Her name is Luella Weireter, the wife of a firefighter. Weireter was also the cousin of Keri Altobelli, who was among nine people who died in the crash, including Bryant’s daughter Gianna and Altobelli’s husband and daughter.
Weireter was attending the Golden Mike Awards show at a hotel in February 2020 when a group of people gathered around fire captain Tony Imbrenda during cocktail hour. Imbrenda showed the group photos on her phone as if it were a sleight of hand, she testified.
According to his testimony, another firefighter then walked away from the group, saying, “I can’t believe I just looked at Kobe’s burnt body, and now I’m about to eat.”
Weireter gave his account in court, fighting back tears. In response, Bryant leaned forward in her chair in court, covering her face and eyes with her hands. She completely avoided the courtroom during the testimony of Johnson, the last witness of the day.
Weireter was the first witness of the day and said she reported what she heard to a fire battalion chief in March.
“Something had to be done for him to show the photos,” Weireter said.
In cross-examination by the county, she said she had not seen the photos and did not know if Kobe Bryant was actually depicted in them.
The Expert Cop
Weireter was followed on the stand by an expert in police policy and procedures. His name is Adam Bercovici, a member of the Los Angeles Police Department for nearly 30 years before retiring about 10 years ago. He testified on behalf of the plaintiffs and said he charged them $28,000 for his testimony.
He spent more than three hours on the stand, mostly criticizing the sheriff’s department, including how he essentially ordered the photos in question removed shortly after receiving a complaint about the incident at the bar.
When questioned by Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li, Bercovici said he believed there was no legitimate purpose for the deputies to take and share the photos. He also testified that the department did not have sufficient policies in place to prevent the misuse of these photos, although it was not unusual for law enforcement officers to take and retain macabre photos of crime or accident scenes as “souvenirs”.
The reason they do this, he said, was that “it was something special to share with their friends” and “an object of curiosity” which is “prohibited”.
The county addressed this issue in a brief filed before the trial.
“There is no evidence that county employees have a ‘persistent and widespread’ practice of sharing ‘death footage’ within LASD or LACFD,” the county brief said earlier this month. this. “This was the first time LASD or LACFD have faced allegations of inappropriate photo sharing, and they have taken appropriate action. Every action was aimed at preventing harm, not causing it.
The trial resumes Monday morning and could stretch for another two weeks. U.S. District Judge John F. Walter told attorneys after the last witness testified on Friday that they needed to “pick up the pace.”
Follow journalist Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail : [email protected]