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Firefighters to be fired in Kobe Bryant helicopter crash scene photo scandal, court docs say

A fire department probe found that two firefighters had taken crash site photos that "served no business necessity," Vanessa Bryant’s lawyers said in a court filing.
Firefighters work at the scene of a helicopter crash where Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in Calabasas, Calif., on Jan. 26, 2020.Mark J. Terrill / AP file

The Los Angeles County Fire Department planned to terminate the employment of two firefighters and suspend a third for allegedly taking graphic photos at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and sharing them with their wives and girlfriends, according to court documents filed this week.

The disclosure was made by lawyers for the late basketball star’s wife, Vanessa Bryant, in court documents related to her invasion of privacy lawsuit against Los Angeles County.

The two firefighters were sent "intention to discharge" letters in December after a fire department internal investigation concluded they had taken photos of the dead bodies in the helicopter wreckage that "served no business necessity" and "only served to appeal to baser instincts and desires for what amounted to visual gossip," Bryant's attorneys said in a declaration in support of delaying the lawsuit trial to allow time for additional investigation.

The third firefighter was said to be a media relations officer sent to the scene to interact with the press, the court document said.

None of the three was identified by name, and their employment status was not clear.

A spokesman for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, Capt. Ron Haralson, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation, and could not confirm whether or not the three firefighters had been fired or disciplined.

The union representing Los Angeles County firefighters did not respond to a request for comment.

Bryant’s lawsuit accuses a number of deputies, firefighters and other officials of taking or sharing photos of dead bodies at the scene, including those of Kobe Bryant and the couple's teenage daughter, Gianna.

Kobe and Gianna Bryant were among nine people killed in January 2020 when the helicopter they were riding in flew through thick clouds and crashed into a hillside near Calabasas. The NTSB determined the probable cause of the crash was pilot error.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva has said he learned within days of the crash that at least one deputy who worked at the Malibu-Lost Hills station had reportedly flashed gruesome accident scene photos at a bar.

Villanueva told NBC News in March 2020 the behavior was "inexcusable," "inappropriate" and "unconscionable," and said the deputies were immediately ordered to delete the images.

Bryant first filed the invasion of privacy lawsuit in state court in September, then moved it to federal court a month later, accusing county employees of having "shown off" photos of the remains of her husband and teenage daughter for no law enforcement purpose.

Bryant’s case claimed dissemination of the images was so widespread within the sheriff's department that one detective who received some of the pictures told investigators he couldn't remember who gave them to him.

The sheriff's department initially withheld from the public court file the names of four of the accused deputies, citing concerns they would be targeted for harassment or hacking if publicly identified. Last March, U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter ruled against the county and allowed the deputies' names to be published.

Bryant's attorneys then filed an amended lawsuit that listed the names of the deputies — Joey Cruz, Rafael Mejia, Michael Russell and Raul Versales — and detailed allegations against each.

The deputies were not named as defendants in the suit. Ron Hernandez, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, had previously declined to say if the deputies named by Bryant have been disciplined, are on modified duty or even if they're still employed by the department.

"It is our understanding that this is an ongoing investigation," Hernandez said in a previous statement to NBC News.

In subsequent filings, Bryant's legal team also said it learned by examining internal documents from the sheriff's department and fire department that as many as 66 county employees had knowledge of the photos and at least 18, including the four named deputies, had either taken or shared the pictures directly.

The Monday filing by Bryant's attorneys also included more specific information drawn from a confidential sheriff's department internal affairs report that said the captain of the Malibu-Lost Hills station attempted to stop deputies from deleting the photos, warning they could be violating the law by destroying evidence.

The captain, whose name is not included in the court declaration, said he was told by superiors that if deputies deleted the photos "there would be no discipline," but if the photos became public, "all bets were off and they would be fired."

Bryant previously claimed in court papers that Villanueva's direction to delete the photos amounted to an attempt to destroy evidence.

In his March 2020 interview with NBC News, Villanueva said he was focused on containing the potential distribution of the photos.

"That was my No. 1 priority, was to make sure those photos no longer exist," Villanueva said.

"Had we done the original, usual routine, which was relieve everybody of duty and everybody lawyers up and all that, that would increase the odds 10-fold that those photos would have somehow made their way into the public domain,” Villanueva added. “And that's definitely what we do not want.”

Attorneys representing L.A. County have asked the judge to dismiss Bryant's case, arguing that because the photos never made it into the public domain, Bryant hasn't suffered any actual harm and that no invasion of privacy took place. The L.A. County response also cites decisions in two unrelated lawsuits that official accident scene photographs may be made public by a government agency, even if they contain graphic images.

Bryant’s attorneys have not responded to requests for comment about the lawsuit.