It was about 10 a.m. on January 26, 2020, and a helicopter had just crashed. Smoke filled the air and the first responders didn’t know if anyone had survived, perhaps trapped on the hill in need of life-saving aid.
As the trek steepened, the undergrowth thickened and the mud too deep for most deputies to navigate, all but two of them turned around. One of those who passed was Deputy Doug Johnson.
After nearly an hour of climbing through a six-foot bush, Johnson reached the wreck, a feat that could have been described as heroic.
Instead, the events that followed set off a chain reaction that led to Johnson sitting on a witness stand in federal court Friday, testifying in a civil lawsuit alleging that Los Angeles County and some of its employees violated Vanessa Bryant’s privacy. and inflicted emotional distress. , the widow of one of the region’s most beloved sports stars. Her husband, basketball player Kobe Bryant, and their daughter Gianna were among the nine killed in the crash.
In court testimony, Johnson called the scene one of the “most horrific” he had ever seen, with bodies scattered over hilly terrain that he said was the size of a football field.
But even though all nine people on board died in the crash, Johnson still had work to do. Meanwhile, a command post had been set up by the authorities, and Johnson testified that a supervisor there gave him an order.
“Take pictures, document the scene and send them to the command post,” his supervisor told him, Johnson said on the witness stand as he testified in Vanessa Bryant’s suit.
At the heart of the lawsuit are photos of the crash taken by Johnson — 25 by his count, a figure much higher according to plaintiffs’ lawyers — one-third of which, Johnson said, was of human remains, the rest of the wreckage itself.
“When you took the pictures, did you know it was Kobe Bryant in the helicopter?” Johnson was cross-examined by Los Angeles County attorney Mira Hashmall.
“No ma’am,” he said.
Jerome Jackson, the attorney for co-plaintiff Christopher Chester, whose wife Sarah and 13-year-old daughter Payton were also killed in the crash, was more blunt during the interrogation, asking if Johnson took pictures of specific body parts, to which Johnson replied, “Yes, sir” every time.
The photos aren’t the only reason the county is on the defensive. On the contrary, it is partly what would have happened afterwards.
A mysterious firefighter
Johnson said he was soon met by a fire chief who arrived on the scene with a similar task: taking pictures to send back to his command post so that a tactical response could be organized.
Johnson said he told the man he already had photos and agreed to send them to the fire chief — someone he couldn’t identify, he said at the booth.
“Do you know who he is?” asked Jackson. “Do you know where he is?”
“No,” Johnson said.
“Is he a firefighter or a mock firefighter?” answered Jackson.
“I believe he was a firefighter because of his helmet,” Johnson said.
Neither the plaintiff nor the defense have ever identified the man, which is a major argument in Bryant and Chester’s claim that they live in fear of the photos that surface.
Johnson later said he led Los Angeles County fire chief Brian Jordan around the scene to take his own photos, marking the third person to obtain photos documenting the site.
Johnson, for his part, said he went home that night and no longer needed the grim photos and deleted them from his phone.
But it wasn’t the end. In a flowchart shown in court, Bryant’s lawyer Luis Li explained what he said happened to the photos Johnson said he sent to the command post.
Li said two people spread them further. One of those deputies was an intern who had also worked on crash response and two days later showed them to a bartender whom he considered a friend, along with his niece and another deputy who they allegedly shared with another deputy during playing the video game “Call of Duty,” Li said.
All in all, Li’s flowchart suggests the photos were shared or seen by at least 13 people, not all of them for research reasons.
“Curiosity got the best of us,” one of the deputies said in an internal affairs interview played in court.
Separately, the photos taken by firefighters would have been shared or shown to at least a dozen people, prosecutors say.
Also on Friday, a former emergency medical technician, wife of a Los Angeles firefighter and cousin of one of the victims, Luella Weireter, testified that she saw an LA County firefighter sharing photos of Bryant’s remains and other images of the crash site with attendees from an awards banquet in February 2020.
After a small group of people at her table watched the footage on a cell phone, in what Weireter described as a party trick, she testified that she saw a firefighter escape from the group, saying, “I can’t believe I just went to Looked at Kobe’s burnt body and now I’m about to eat.”
During a cross-examination, the county attorney argued that Weireter had not seen the photos herself, and as an EMT, her training would have taught her to document a scene as well.
An important argument in the case is whether the photos had to be taken at all. They are what the defense calls “accident photography,” and several witnesses have testified their validity as part of an initial response to a crash.
“It would make sense that the command post would want to know what they were dealing with,” said David Katz, a reserve deputy with the county’s search and rescue team, who responded to the scene a few hours after the crash.
Deputy Johnson said in the stands that it is common for photos to be taken “before evidence can be destroyed or victims moved.”
But prosecutors argued that the horrific photos were not necessary to mount a proper response to the crash. They also claim that the county did not include the photos because it never forensically searched the personal electronics of those who received them.
The province calls its actions sufficient, pointing to the fact that the photos have not yet appeared online.
Deputy Johnson stood firm, just doing his job.
“Do you testify that taking close-ups of Kobe Bryant’s arm and hand helped the command post determine if additional resources were needed?” asked plaintiff attorney Eric Tuttle. “Yes, sir,” Johnson replied.
“Do you regret something you’ve done…?” asked Tuttle.
Johnson answered firmly.