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 dead bodies from the helicopter crash that killed NBA legend Kobe Bryant, testified in federal court Friday that he “did nothing wrong” and simply obeyed an order to take pictures of the accident site that day.
The deputy, Douglas Johnson, said another sheriff’s deputy at his command post, Raul Versales, instructed him to do so. He said he took about 25 photos, including those of a twisted torso and a “close-up of a black-skinned shin and foot.”
But the truth of both statements was questioned in court on Friday under questioning by attorneys 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 Deputy Versales has denied asking you to take pictures on January 26, 2020?” asked Eric Tuttle, Bryant’s attorney.
“I’m not,” Johnson said.
Tuttle then introduced Exhibit 111-A, an audio interview with Versales previously conducted by investigators for the Sheriff’s Office of Internal Affairs.
“All of us at the command post, myself included, did not ask for pictures,” Versales said on the recording played in the courtroom.
This was day 3 of Vanessa Bryant’s civil lawsuit against Los Angeles County—another tough day for Bryant, who left the courtroom early for the second day in a row. Bryant and Chester sued the county in 2020, accusing county sheriff and fire officials of taking and sharing photos of their deceased loved ones from the scene of the accident, despite having no legitimate business reason to do so.
The case is being heard by a jury of five men and four women after a male juror withdrew for family reasons after Day 2. On Friday, they heard testimonies from three witnesses, including Johnson, who Deputy Bryant’s team believes started the distribution of the horrific photos among sheriff’s staff after they took them for dubious reasons.
The jury has a lot to deal with: Did Johnson violate the privacy rights of the victims’ families by taking these photos for no good reason, as Bryant’s lawyer suggested? Or was it unclear to Johnson who told him to take pictures and was just trying to do his job and document the scene under difficult circumstances?
Johnson was on duty the morning of the crash when he responded to the radio call about the helicopter crash in Calabasas. He drove to the accident site and hiked for about an hour through difficult, hilly terrain to reach the accident site. What happened next is the key to the case.
According to his account, he took about 25 photos, about a third of which showed human remains.
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But another witness testified in court the previous day, on Thursday, that he heard a different story. This witness was reserve deputy David Katz, leader of a search and rescue team. Katz had also walked to the scene of the accident and had been told by his supervisor not to take pictures.
When Katz arrived at the scene, with debris and body parts everywhere, he saw a uniformed sheriff’s deputy doing just that—taking pictures.
The name on this deputy’s nameplate was “Johnson.”
“I did tell him that my supervisor told me not to take pictures,” Katz testified on Thursday.
Johnson replied that he had already taken pictures.
“Didn’t he tell you he took more than 100 photos?” asked Jerome Jackson, Chester’s attorney.
“I believe he said that,” Katz replied.
On Friday, Johnson denied taking that many photos. After Bryant’s attorney confronted him in court about Versales’ contradictory statement, Johnson addressed the matter again under friendlier questions from the county’s chief attorney, Mira Hashmall.
This time he said, “I think it was Deputy Versales I spoke to on my cell phone.” He added that he also received a request from someone over the command post’s portable radio to document the scene with photos, but that it may not have been Versales.
When questioned by Bryant’s attorney Tuttle, Johnson confirmed that he never posted the photos as evidence and deleted them from his personal iPhone when he got home and took a shower. He also confirmed that he deleted his texting thread with Versales.
Before that, he said he only sent the photos to Versales and an unidentified fire chief.
The photos spread from there among the sheriff’s staff, eventually reaching the phone of Deputy Intern Joey Cruz, who showed them to a bartender in Norwalk, California, two days after the crash.
When asked if he was aware of the Cruz incident, Johnson said, “I’ve heard about it,” but said he still wouldn’t do anything else.
Hashmall has said the county’s first responders were doing their job and said the photos were never “publicly” distributed outside of county staff.
Another witness tested that claim Friday.
The Fireman’s Wife
Her name is Luella Weireter, the wife of a firefighter. Weireter was also the nephew of Keri Altobelli, one of nine killed in the crash, including Bryant’s daughter Gianna and Altobelli’s husband and daughter.
Weireter attended 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 his phone like it was a party trick, she testified.
According to her testimony, another firefighter then walked away from the group and said, “I can’t believe I just looked at Kobe’s burned-out body and now I’m about to eat.”
Weireter told her story in court, fighting back tears. In response, Bryant leaned forward in her courtroom chair and covered her face and eyes with her hands. She avoided the courtroom altogether during the testimony of Johnson, the last witness of the day.
Weireter was the first witness of the day, testifying that she told a fire chief what she heard in March.
“Something had to be done to get him to see the pictures,” Weireter said.
During a cross-examination by the county, she said she has not seen the photos and does not know if Kobe Bryant is actually depicted in them.
The police expert
Weireter was followed to the booth by an expert on police policy and procedures. His name is Adam Bercovici, who was 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, saying he charged them $28,000 for his testimony.
He spent more than three hours in the stands, mostly criticizing the sheriff’s department, including essentially ordering the removal of the photos in question shortly after receiving a complaint about the incident to the bar.
Under questioning by Bryant’s attorney Luis Li, Bercovici testified that it was his opinion that there was no legitimate purpose for the officers to take and share the photos. He also testified that the department did not have adequate policies to prevent misuse of such photos, although it was not uncommon for law enforcement officers to take and preserve horrific crime scene or accident photos as “souvenirs.”
The reason they do this, he said, was because “it was something special to share with their friends” and “a curio” that is “forbidden”.
The county addressed this issue in a brief filed for the lawsuit.
“There is no evidence that county officials have a ‘persistent and widespread’ practice of sharing ‘images of death’ within LASD or LACFD,” the county said earlier this month. “This was the first time LASD or LACFD had been confronted with allegations of inappropriate photo sharing, and they took appropriate action. Every action was aimed at preventing harm, not causing it.”
The trial will resume Monday morning and could take another two weeks. U.S. District Judge John F. Walter told attorneys after the latest witness testified Friday that they “need to pick up the pace.”