Sheriff Alex Villanueva at a press conference at Court Hall on Tuesday February 15, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva testified Friday about the photos of Kobe Bryant’s crash site.
As the first Los Angeles County witness, Villanueva testified right after Vanessa Bryant.
Villanueva claimed he did the right thing by ordering his staff to delete the photos.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva offered a closer look at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s efforts to contain the gruesome Kobe Bryant helicopter crash site following the tragic event, and defended his order to delete the photos because of “a universe that… stretched out indefinitely”.
Villanueva, the first Los Angeles County witness called to the stand, testified against the county immediately after Vanessa Bryant on day eight of Vanessa Bryant and Chris Chester’s joint trial.
During testimony, Villanueva doubled down on the deletion order he was seeking after learning of a citizen complaint that Deputy Joey Cruz had displayed graphic photos at a bar in Norwalk, California.
“The longer we delayed, the larger the universe became, which expanded infinitely,” Villanueva said. He claimed that with demands for legal and union representation by his employees, a traditional initial investigation into who took and distributed the photos could be dragged out and the photos could be more widely distributed.
“Dealing with a crisis is more important than politics,” Villanueva said. “There was no playbook for a situation like this.”
During that meeting at the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station, Villanueva said he told his associates, “Come with photos and who you sent them to, and you will not face disciplinary action.”
He admitted during questioning that in that “first blush” investigation and deletion order on Friday after the crash, his employees’ phones were not searched at the time, and he took their word for the photos to be deleted.
Emails displayed during Villanueva’s testimony showed that on March 2, 2020, Vanessa Bryant’s attorneys requested that LASD retain all evidence related to the taking and sharing of photos at the crash site pending her lawsuit. By March 26, 2020, LASD responded, saying it was unable to assist with the request, citing in part the California Public Records Act and an ongoing internal investigation into the distribution of the photos.
The story goes on
In September 2020, Vanessa Bryant sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the County Fire Department over photographs taken at the crash site of Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s helicopter, which she alleges were owned by officers and other first responders.
By December of this year, the results of the internal investigation were shared with Bryant’s team while the case was still ongoing.
Villanueva told the court that it was determined that a “squadron of 8” deputies’ devices had possessed the photos. He added that he had not heard a statement from LASD Search and Rescue Director David Katz that Deputy Doug Johnson took nearly a hundred photos at the scene.
“The fact that it didn’t show up on social media at this point in the game means they did a good job,” Villanueva said. “I granted them amnesty to prevent the spread.”
Villanueva contradicted previous March 2020 interviews in which he said only the coroner’s office and the NTSB should have taken photos, saying that the information he has since received about the bushfire and the danger of “looky-loos” at the crash site collected, meaning some of his associates did the right thing by taking photos at the crash site to “preserve” the scene for federal investigators.
Villanueva testified that he believed his agency’s investigators were thorough and confirmed that he expected them to search cloud accounts as well as phones.
When asked if he knew for sure the photos were permanently deleted, Villanueva said, “God knows, that’s about it.”
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