Amid thick fog and dense brush, eight members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department set out on foot through the remote terrain of the Santa Monica Mountains.
It was around 10 a.m. on January 26, 2020, and a helicopter had just crashed. Smoke filled the air and first responders were unsure if anyone had survived, possibly trapped on the hillside and in need of life-saving assistance.
As the hike got steeper, the brush thicker, and the mud too deep for most deputies to navigate, all but two turned around. One of those who continued was Deputy Doug Johnson.
After nearly an hour of climbing through 6-foot brush, Johnson reached the wreckage, a feat that could have been described as heroic.
Instead, the events that followed set off a chain reaction leading to Johnson taking the witness stand in federal court on Friday, testifying in a civil lawsuit alleging that Los Angeles County and some of its employees violated the Vanessa Bryant’s private life and inflicted emotional distress on her. , the widow of one of the region’s most beloved sports stars. Her husband, basketball star Kobe Bryant, and their daughter Gianna were among the nine killed in the accident.
In his court testimony, Johnson would call the scene “the most gruesome” he had ever seen, with bodies strewn across a hilly terrain he said was the size of a football field.
But even though all nine people on board died in the crash, Johnson still had work to do. By then, a command post had been set up by authorities and Johnson testified that a supervisor gave him an order.
“Take pictures, document the scene and send them to the command post,” his supervisor told him, Johnson said on the witness stand as he testified in the suit brought by Vanessa Bryant.
At the heart of the lawsuit are photos of the crash taken by Johnson – 25 by his count, a figure plaintiffs’ attorneys allege is much higher – of which a third Johnson says were human remains, the rest were the wreckage itself.
“When you took the pictures, did you know it was Kobe Bryant in the helicopter?” Johnson was questioned in cross-examination by Los Angeles County Attorney Mira Hashmall.
“No ma’am,” he said.
Jerome Jackson, the attorney for co-plaintiff Christopher Chester, whose wife Sarah and 13-year-old daughter Payton were also killed in the crash, was more blunt during questioning, asking if Johnson had taken any pictures of specific body parts, to which Johnson responded. , “Yes, sir”, every time.
The photos aren’t the only reason the county is on the defensive. Rather, it is, in part, what would have happened next.
Johnson said he was soon greeted by a fire supervisor who arrived on the scene with a similar task: to take pictures to send back to his command post, so a tactical response could be organised.
Johnson said he told the man he already had photos and agreed to airmail them to the fire supervisor – someone he could not identify, he said. said at the bar.
“Do you know who he is? Jackson asked. “Do you know where he is?”
“No,” Johnson said.
“Is he a fire supervisor or a fake fire supervisor?” Jackson replied.
“I believe he was a fire supervisor because of his helmet,” Johnson said.
Neither the plaintiff nor the defense have ever identified the man, which is a key argument in Bryant and Chester’s claim that they live in fear that the photos will surface.
Later, Johnson said he led Capt. Brian Jordan, then a Los Angeles County firefighter, around the scene to take his own photos, marking the third person to get photos documenting the site.
For his part, Johnson said he returned home that evening and, no longer needing the grim photos, deleted them from his phone.
But that was not the end. In a flowchart posted in the courtroom, Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li, explained what he said happened to the photos Johnson says he sent to the command post.
Li said two people spread them further. One of those assistants was an intern who had also worked on accident response and two days later showed them to a bartender he considered a friend, as well as his niece and to another deputy who allegedly shared them with another deputy while playing the “Call of Duty” video game, Li said.
In total, Li’s flowchart suggests the photos were shared or viewed by at least 13 people, not all for investigative reasons.
“Curiosity got the better of us,” one of the MPs said in an interview with Home Affairs broadcast outside the court.
Separately, the photos taken by the firefighters were said to have been shared or shown to at least a dozen people, according to the complainants.
Also on Friday, former emergency medical technician, wife of a Los Angeles firefighter and cousin of one of the victims, Luella Weireter, said she saw an LA County firefighter sharing photos of Bryant’s remains and other images of the accident site with the participants of a prize. banquet in February 2020.
After a small group of people at her table viewed the footage on a cellphone, in what Weireter called a sleight of hand, she testified to seeing a firefighter walk away from the group, saying, “I can’t believe I just looked at Kobe’s burnt body, and now I’m about to eat.
On cross-examination, the county attorney argued that Weireter had not seen the photos herself and that as an EMT, her training would also have taught her how to document a scene.
A key argument in the case is whether the photos had to be taken at all. This is what the defense calls “the accident site photograph,” and several witnesses testified to its validity in an initial response to an accident.
“Obviously the command post would want to know what they were dealing with,” said David Katz, a reserve deputy with the county search and rescue team who responded to the site hours after the incident. accident.
Deputy Johnson said on the stand that it is common for photographs of sites to be taken “before evidence can be destroyed or victims can be moved”.
But the plaintiffs argued the gruesome photos were not necessary to stage an appropriate response to the accident. They also claim the county failed to contain the photos because it never forensically searched the personal electronic devices of those who received them.
The county calls its actions sufficient, pointing to the fact that the photos have yet to surface online.
Deputy Johnson remained convinced that he was simply doing his job.
“Is it your testimony that taking close-ups of Kobe Bryant’s arm and hand helped the command post determine if additional resources were needed? asked plaintiff’s attorney Eric Tuttle. “Yes, sir,” Johnson replied.
“Do you regret something you did…?” Tuttle asked.
Johnson responded confidently.