Vanessa Bryant airs names of deputies in lawsuit over photos of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crash remains

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Remembering Kobe Bryant near the church across from the site of his tragic accident

USA TODAY Sports’ Mark Medina revisits the church that heard the tragic accident that took the life of Laker great Kobe Bryant and others.

USA TODAY

The widow of Kobe Bryant has revealed the names of four Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies she accuses of improperly sharing photos of her late husband’s remains at the site of his fatal helicopter crash last year.

In a series of posts on her Instagram account, Vanessa Bryant displayed documents from her lawsuit that outline how each of the deputies shared the photos, including at a bar in Norwalk, California, two days after nine people died in the crash, including the Los Angeles Lakers legend and his daughter.

Her public airing of deputies’ identities follows a ruling by a federal judge last week that denied a request by them to keep their names and ranks under seal.

One of the deputies is identified as a “trainee deputy” Joey Cruz. According to the lawsuit, Cruz boasted at a bar on Jan. 28 that he had worked at the scene of the accident, which occurred on Jan. 26.

“Cruz then showed photos of the Bryants’ remains to a fellow bar patron and the restaurant’s bartender, and he is seen on the bar’s security camera zooming in and out of the images while displaying them to the bartender,” the lawsuit states. “One of the photos showed the body of a girl, and Cruz remarked that another showed the remains of Kobe Bryant. Shortly after seeing the photos, the bartender loudly boasted to restaurant employees and patrons that he had just seen a photo of Kobe Bryant’s body and described the image in graphic detail.”

KOBE BRYANT REMEMBERED: A year after the deadly helicopter crash

Bryant is suing the deputies, the sheriff’s department, the L.A. County Fire Department and the County of Los Angeles, accusing them of invasion of privacy and negligence after deputies used personal cell phones to take and share “gratuitous photos of the dead children, parents and coaches.” She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages in a case she initially filed in September.

The other deputies named in her lawsuit are Raul Versales, Michael Russell and Rafael Mejia. Her suit states she seeks to punish the deputy defendants and “make an example of them to the community.”

A message seeking comment from the sheriff’s department wasn’t immediately returned Wednesday. Attorneys for the deputy defendants could not be reached. The lead counsel for the county and sheriff’s department declined comment.

After the alleged scene at the bar with deputy Cruz, a bar patron e-mailed a complaint to the sheriff’s department because he said it was “very inappropriate for that deputy to be there at that environment, showing those picture(s) to other individuals.”

Sheriff Alex Villanueva then summoned deputies and told them that if they “came clean” and deleted the photos, they would not face any discipline, according to the suit. “The deputies responded by claiming that they had deleted the photos and, to the extent they had transmitted the photos to others, those persons had also deleted them.”

U.S. District Judge John F. Walter allowed the unsealing of the deputies’ names in a ruling March 8.

“Although the Court recognizes that this case has been the subject of public scrutiny and media attention and that the Deputy Defendants are legitimately concerned that they will encounter vitriol and social media attacks, such concerns, by themselves, are not sufficient to outweigh the public’s strong interest in access,” Walter stated.

In response to this controversy, the California government last September passed a law that makes it a misdemeanor crime for a first responder to photograph the remains of a crime or accident victim for any purpose other than an official law enforcement purpose or a genuine public interest.

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com.

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