- Chris Chester lost his wife Sarah and daughter Payton in the crash that killed Kobe and Gigi Bryant.
- He and Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit against LA County over photos of their loved ones at the crash site is coming to an end.
- He shared his story publicly for the first time on Thursday, saying he felt “anger” at the actions of first responders.
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Chris Chester kissed his wife Sarah Chester on the morning of Jan. 26, 2020 and delivered his “rah rah” speech to his 13-year-old daughter Payton before their first of two back-to-back basketball games. Her brothers, both 16 at the time, were hosting a lacrosse tournament across town.
Chris and Sarah Chester would split responsibilities as usual, and that morning he took the boys and Sarah, a nervous aviator, set off with Payton to get her game-day Starbucks breakfast and greet her coach Kobe Bryant, her teammate Gigi Bryant and others in Bryant’s helicopter.
Since Payton had two games in one day, Kobe suggested that Sarah and Payton accompany them by helicopter from their home in Orange County, California to Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California to save time.
On the seventh day of Vanessa Bryant and Chester v. LA County’s trial over photos taken and shared by first responders of the remains of members of the two families, said Chester, who spoke publicly about the crash in which his wife and daughter died for the first time He was grateful that he said goodbye to Sarah and Payton one last time that morning and said “I love you.”
Chester said in federal court in Los Angeles that when he learned the helicopter carrying his college girlfriend and daughter went down, he felt a “hollow sadness.”
He left his boys at the lacrosse tournament where his friend and business partner would pick them up and went to the Lost Hills Police Station as soon as he got in touch with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
“I was hoping I would go to a hospital,” Chester told the court. He stayed at the station for hours, accompanied by Vanessa Bryant, until they learned there were no survivors.
Afterward, they asked Sheriff Alex Villanueva to “lock down” and ensure no fans or media made it to the crash site to take photos or souvenirs.
He was driven home by a friend and stopped at a supermarket on the way.
“Everyone in the grocery store was talking about the crash and they were wearing Kobe jerseys,” Chester said. “The energy was building. And I was like, ‘Here come the crazy ones.'”
Vanessa Bryant and Chester filed lawsuits against the county and other defendants alleging that Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy and Los Angeles County Fire Department officials took and shared photos of the helicopter crash site in late January 2020, and are currently leading a consolidated lawsuit against the district.
County attorneys have claimed that given the crash, weather conditions and the resulting media frenzy, first responders had to take photos at the scene to relay the nature of the scene to the command post.
We “Trying Not to Let the Grief Run Ahead”
Over the next few weeks, Chester and his sons were heartbroken.
They “were trying not to let the grief get the better of us,” he told the court, and after weeks of support and adjustment to their forever-changed lives, Chester said his trajectory was upwards.
Then, on February 28, 2020 — his birthday — he learned through a story in the Los Angeles Times that first responders who were at the helicopter crash site took and shared photos of human remains, then deleted the photos after a citizen complained had complained that they were shown a bar.
“There was anger,” Chester said quietly and between sniffles. “And there was a bit of anger involved.”
When he found out about the scandal, his path to the top took a turn for the worse. He began missing work and drinking to self-medicate, saying it “brought the whole thing back again.”
“It’s like someone takes a big punch, falls to the mat, gets up and then gets hit in the back of the head with a 2×4 and doesn’t get up again,” Chester business partner Paul Westhead told the court Thursday about Chester’s mental distress.
The news hit Chester at rock bottom, he testified. He said that some days just making his bed is enough work. Chester testified that he was a fiercely private person, but he sued the county knowing he was “risking the public for justice.”
In his testimony, he criticized the “humiliation component” of LASD and LACFD’s actions. He praised the first responders who did a difficult job on the day of the crash but gave conflicting testimonies.
“The inconsistencies, the level of uncertainty, we still have no idea how widely the photos were shared,” Chester said, referring to sometimes conflicting testimonies the court heard from LASD and LACFD staffers who took the photos and had shared. “There seems to be a consistent theory that every time someone comes to the booth, there are fewer and fewer photos to see, first it was 100 and now it’s 10.”
After the remains of his loved ones were scientifically identified and processed by the morgue, he finally renewed his commitment to his late wife and daughter.
“I told Sarah to take care of Payton and I got the boys,” Chester said. “See you on the other side.”