Video shows LASD deputy showing Kobe Bryant’s crash photos as 'gossip' and laughing
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA: The public trust in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department was undermined when a deputy shared graphic pictures of Kobe Bryant’s remains with a bartender and laughed over it, a witness told a jury at a trial over the leaking of photos which started on Wednesday, August 11.
Rafael Mendez Jr, who was around when the pictures of Kobe’s remains were being shared in public, addressed the court on the second day of Vanessa Bryant's trial against Los Angeles County over helicopter crash site photos of Kobe and Gianna "Gigi" Bryant being shared around by officers.
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Mendez told the jury he was disgusted by the way the bartender was going table-to-table and describing the pictures shown to him by his friend. He added he even filed a complaint with the sheriff’s department from the driveway of his home. “I felt I needed to do the right thing and let the sheriff’s department know what happened,” Mendez testified. “I was in disbelief of everything that I heard and I was angry.”
Vanessa’s attorney Luis Li told the jury that the cellphone photos and videos taken at the helicopter crash site were “visual gossip” viewed “for a laugh” and had no official purpose. He played security footage in the court in which an off-duty sheriff’s deputy was seen showing the graphic photos to his bartender friend and later laughing over it.
Victor Gutierrez, a Norwalk, California, bartender was working on January 28, 2020, at the Baja California Bar and Grill when his close friend, LA Sheriff's Deputy Joey Cruz, who had responded to the helicopter crash site on January 26, 2020, entered the bar. The surveillance footage captured Cruz and Gutierrez greeting each other as Cruz then showed Gutierrez a series of photos on his phone for under a minute. Moments later they were seen laughing while looking at their phones.
Further in the footage, Gutierrez was seen going to cooks, coworkers, and customers at tables and telling them what his friend had just showed him. "Did you see a person you understood to be Kobe Bryant in the photos that Cruz showed you?" Bryant attorney Craig Lavoie asked Gutierrez. "Yes," Gutierrez said while stating he doesn’t know if other victims were also in the photos as Cruz just showed him some parts. During the testimony on Thursday, Gutierrez was often forgetful and even claimed that he didn’t remember most of the conversation shared between Cruz and him.
The bartender even denied laughing at what he and Cruz saw on the phone. "We never laughed about the photos, I'm 100% sure of that – what type of human beings would we be," Gutierrez told the court. "Maybe he was showing a funny video."
County officials have not denied that Cruz shared the photos at the bar, saying the young trainee's behavior was a "lapse." They maintain the photos did not spread beyond the bar and were deleted shortly after.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the county's fire department, the county as a whole, and eight officers were sued by Vanessa in September 2020. Vanessa decided to sue after a report by the LA times claimed that the first responder at the January 2020 plane crash took photos and videos of the site.
Her suit is seeking punitive damages from county defendants who are accused of taking and sharing crash site photos. Bryant is suing the county for negligence, emotional distress, and invasion of privacy claims as well as federal claims which relate to the constitutional right to the images of her deceased loved ones, and LA County agency practices that led to the alleged taking and dissemination of photos.
Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna Bryant, and seven others died when their chartered helicopter crashed on January 26, 2020. Federal safety officials blamed pilot error for the wreck.