Four LASD deputies named in lawsuit for allegedly sharing photos of Kobe Bryant helicopter crash site

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Four deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have been named and accused in a lawsuit filed by Vanessa Bryant, with the widow alleging they shared photographs of the 2020 helicopter crash site where her husband, Kobe, 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others were killed. 

The lawsuit alleges one of the recipients of shared crash photos was a deputy at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, but does not indicate that any of the deputies who allegedly shared the photos worked at the SCV station. 

Last week, a U.S. California Central District judge ruled that the names of the deputies involved in the alleged act of sharing photos — which reportedly included images of some of the bodies from the crash site — would be submitted to the court, thereby becoming public record.  

On Wednesday night, Bryant posted the pages of the latest court filing, including the names of LASD deputies Joey Cruz, Rafael Mejia, Michael Russell and Raul Versales.  

Officials at the LASD Sheriff’s Information Bureau declined to confirm the names and stations of where the four accused deputies work, or where they had worked at the time of the January 2020 helicopter crash.  

The lawsuit alleges that Russell, who was working the incident that day, sent two pictures of the aircraft crash to an unidentified deputy at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff Station. The relationship between Russell and the SCV Sheriff’s Station deputy is said to be of a personal nature, and the photos were shared from Russell to his friend two days after the crash occurred. The deputy who received the pictures, which Russell reportedly said included “human remains” that belonged to Kobe Bryant, was not working the Calabasas crash site, according to the lawsuit. 

Deputy Maria Lucero, a spokeswoman at SIB, deferred Thursday morning to Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s Twitter account that had posted a tweet at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. 

“We will refrain from trying this case in the media and will wait for the appropriate venue,” Villanueva’s tweet read. “Our hearts go out to all the families affected by this tragedy.” 

According to the lawsuit, the photos shared by the four deputies were received by at least 10 members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, in addition to family members, patrons at a bar and a bartender. Some of those shown the photos said the remains of children were visible in the image, according to the lawsuit.  

Bryant alleges in her filing that she had spoken with Villanueva on the day of the crash at the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station, the LASD branch handling the investigation. She said she had “expressed concern that the crash site was unprotected from photographers,” and despite Villanueva saying the scene was secure, Bryant calls the assurance “hollow.” 

Villanueva would later acknowledge that the Sheriff’s Department on the scene had “no place to be taking photographs of anything,” the lawsuit reads.  

The ruling earlier this month by U.S. District Judge John F. Walter rejected the argument made by the county’s legal team that argued the deputies’ names should be kept private. Walter said in his opinion that the backlash the deputies will face is “not sufficient to outweigh the public’s strong interest in access” to this case. 

Bryant’s lawsuit is seeking damages for negligence, invasion of privacy and emotional distress for a presently undetermined sum of financial compensation. 

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