When she found out that Kobe Bryant’s husband and her daughter were killed in an air crash, the widow made one simple request.

In a private meeting with Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, Vanessa Bryant told him, “If you can’t bring my husband and baby back, please make sure no one takes photographs of them. Please secure the area.”

According to her pretrial deposition transcript, Villanueva had promised that he would. But now that issue is a big point of dispute in Bryant’s lawsuit against the county over photos of dead bodies from the crash scene.

Did county first responders improperly destroy such photos and other evidence at the direction of Villanueva – evidence that her attorneys say they had a legal obligation to preserve?

Oder did Villanueva honor his word and delete those photos so that they could not be shared publically?

The two parties presented their disagreements in court documents filed in federal court on Monday. It marks the latest flareup in Bryant’s lawsuit, which accuses county sheriff’s and fire department employees of improperly sharing photos of human remains from the crash scene.

“Sheriff Villanueva was keeping his promise to Bryant by making sure no photos got out,” the county said in a court document filed Monday. “The deputies, on and before January 30, 2020, deleted the photos from their phones — months before this dispute. LASD interviewed 28 civilian volunteers, deputies, reserve officers and sergeants in two days. All personnel involved in taking, sharing or receiving photos of crash sites had been deleted by the department. No one had sent a photo to anyone outside LASD.”

Bryant’s attorneys call it a “cover-up.” On Monday, they asked the court to sanction the county for destroying evidence her attorneys say it should have preserved – including photos and text messages in the aftermath of a crash that killed nine, including the NBA legend.

Bryant is suing the county defendants for invasion of privacy and is seeking compensatory and punitive damages to punish the deputy defendants and “make an example of them to the community.” The county’s position is that the crash-scene photos were taken for official government and investigative purposes, and were not publicly disseminated beyond isolated incidents at a bar and a banquet.

“By destroying evidence instead of preserving it to conduct a proper investigation, Defendants have prevented Plaintiffs from discovering how many other people saw graphic photos of their loved ones’ dead bodies,” said the filing submitted by Bryant’s attorney, Jennifer Bryant.

She has asked the court to grant an “adverse inference” at summary judgment and trial that “the lost evidence would have been unfavorable to Defendants and shown, among other things, further electronic dissemination of photos of Plaintiffs’ deceased loved ones” by county employees.

Her attorneys also want the court to issue an order precluding the county defendants from “presenting any theory denying electronic dissemination of the photos or disputing that the photos depicted each of the victims.”

Bryant was one of two victims who were killed in the wreckage. Bryant and Chris Chester are still suing the county regarding their handling of photos taken at the scene of the crash. Chester lost her husband and daughter as well.

The county reached an agreement with two other families that were victims of the crash. It paid $1.25million each to the Mauser- and Altobelli families. They each filed similar lawsuits against county officials and their settlements were approved by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors last week.

Bryant is not willing to compromise and has already completed 40 pretrial depositions with her attorneys.  The county has reacted by asking a judge for summary judgment to dismiss the lawsuit before it goes to trial.

According to law, Bryant had not submitted her tort claims until Bryant presented them. Bryant was injured in the January 2020 crash.  But Bryant’s attorneys stated Monday that nine sheriff’s deputies discarded or wiped devices after this litigation began.

County officials claimed that some of the employees had simply replaced the phones. They also noted that Kroll, an independent forensic company, was selected by the two sides to analyze the evidence.

After reviewing over 20 devices, “Kroll confirmed that there are no photos containing victims’ remains and no evidence of public dissemination,” the county stated. “Bryant’s own expert, in support of this motion, opines that when photos are deleted they are, in fact, deleted.”

The controversy dates to three days after the crash, when the sheriff’s department received an e-mail from a concerned citizen who said that a sheriff’s employee had shown crash site photos on his phone to someone at a bar in Norwalk, California, according to the filing. Joey Cruz was the deputy trainee who presented the images to the bartender.

The bartender “recalled seeing various body parts in the debris field,” according to the filing. “Deputy Cruz did not show the photos to anyone else at the bar, but he did try to show scene photos to his niece, who refused to look at them.”

Cruz made a statement after learning that the complaints had been filed.

The county contends in the document that Cruz was the only sheriff’s employee who showed photos to anyone outside the sheriff’s department.

Three other employees of the county fire service were also disciplined for taking photos. Two received notices to terminate.

“If Defendants had the photos and all the relevant cellphones, they could conclusively establish that the photos were crash site photos taken for legitimate reasons by hardworking first responders at an extremely challenging scene,” the county stated. “Defendants would also be able to show that the photos were never sent to anyone outside of the County, and that they were deleted.”

U.S. District Judge John Walter weighed in on a similar issue last December, when he dismissed a negligence claim from Bryant’s lawsuit against Villanueva.

“It defies common sense that Sheriff Villanueva’s instruction to delete the photos would somehow increase the risk of public dissemination of those very same photos or that Sheriff Villanueva’s conduct would cause Plaintiff additional emotional distress,” Walter wrote in his ruling.

Bryant’s filing Monday noted that law enforcement officials know that the “first step in investigating a complaint is to preserve evidence and that destroying evidence is improper.”

“Yet that is exactly what Sheriff Villanueva himself ordered Department personnel to do after the Department received a citizen’s complaint that a Sheriff’s deputy was showing photos of the crash site at a bar in Norwalk,” her attorneys stated.

After a sheriff’s captain questioned whether the deletions were lawful, the sheriff demoted him, according the court document. Bryant’s lawyers also stated that Tony Imbrenda, fire captain of the Fire Department, “displayed his personal collection at an awards show about crash site photos” but then deleted the images and instructed others to follow suit after the scandal was covered in the media.

He stated that “I made the decision to delete these photos” in Monday’s court declaration. “I didn’t want them misused and I recommended others to do so.”

The county’s outside counsel, Skip Miller, issued a statement Monday after the latest court filing:

“While the County continues to have the deepest sympathy for the grief Ms. Bryant has suffered, the request by her lawyers for sanctions is an attempt to distract attention from the fact that none of the routine investigative photos taken by County employees have ever been publicly disseminated.”

Brent Schrotenboer is the reporter @Schrotenboer. E-mail: [email protected]

Source: USAToday.com

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