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'I want accountability': Kobe Bryant's widow reveals grief, harassment after helicopter crash

In deposition, Vanessa Bryant details the morning her husband and their daughter were killed and the L.A. County sheriff's promise to secure the crash site.
Image: Vanessa Bryant
Vanessa Bryant at a Los Angeles Lakers game in 2015.John Salangsang / Invision / AP

LOS ANGELES — In the aftermath of her husband's death, Kobe Bryant's widow repeatedly received disturbing images through social media of the helicopter crash that killed the NBA legend, their 13-year-old daughter and seven other people, according to a transcript of Vanessa Bryant's deposition in her lawsuit against Los Angeles County.

The images, which are alleged to have been leaked by county employees, are the subject of a federal lawsuit Vanessa Bryant filed last year against the county and several of its agencies.

Bryant, whose lawsuit alleges invasion of privacy, has claimed in court papers that she experienced "severe emotional distress" that compounded the trauma of losing her husband and their daughter Gianna. The lawsuit contends that first responders, including firefighters and sheriff's deputies, shared photographs of Kobe Bryant's body with a bartender and passed around "gratuitous photos of the dead children, parents and coaches."

"Nothing compares. Nothing's close to this. I lost my husband and child. That was the worst thing imaginable," she said in the deposition, which was recorded by videoconference this month.

Los Angeles County is seeking to compel psychiatric evaluations for Vanessa Bryant and others to determine whether they truly suffered emotional distress. Bryant's attorneys argue in court filings that the examinations are "cruel"; the county contends they are "a routine part of the discovery process."

In her deposition, Bryant revealed intimate and emotional details of the day her husband and their child were killed, repeatedly pausing to regain her composure or holding her hand up to the computer screen to block disturbing images of the crash site.

"I do not want my little girls or I to ever have to see their remains in that matter," Bryant said. "Nor do I think it's right that the photographs were taken in the first place, because it's already tough enough that I have to experience this heartache and this loss. But now to live the rest of my life having to fear those photographs surfacing is something that I have to deal with every single day."

Bryant said the morning of Jan. 26, 2020, started like any other for the parents of four.

Kobe Bryant flew with Gianna in a helicopter from Orange County to Thousand Oaks for her basketball game while Vanessa Bryant stayed home with their two youngest children. A fourth daughter was studying for her college entrance exams.

At 11:30 a.m., Vanessa Bryant learned from the family's assistant that there had been a helicopter crash. Her life has not been the same since, she said.

"Grief isn't linear. Every day is different, and I try my best to put a smile on my face for my little girls," Bryant said. "I want them to live in the love and not in the loss. And I make a conscious effort to try to portray that everything's fine for them."

Bryant initially thought her daughter and her husband had merely been injured. She rushed to the airport in hope of taking a helicopter to be with them but was told that bad weather prohibited takeoff.

She then sat in a car for nearly two hours to drive from Orange County to Malibu, near the crash site. There, she waited until Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva personally delivered the heart-wrenching news.

According to her deposition, Bryant pleaded with Villanueva to ensure that no one would take photographs. He reassured her that the area had been secured, court documents say.

After Villanueva confirmed that her loved ones had been killed, he asked Bryant whether he could do anything for her, she said.

"And I said: 'If you can't bring my husband and baby back, please make sure that no one takes photographs of them. Please secure the area,'" Bryant said. "And he said: 'I will.' And I said: 'No, I need you to get on the phone right now, and I need you to make sure you secure the area.'"

Villanueva, she said, excused himself momentarily and reassured her that the area had been secured when he came back.

Villanueva did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Villanueva has been at the center of several scandals, including his repeated refusal to enforce coronavirus mandates and allegations of fatal shootings, excessive force, deputy gangs, retaliation and other misconduct within the sheriff's department.

Last week, the county said it had filed a motion for Bryant to undergo an independent psychiatric evaluation to prove that the leaked photos caused emotional distress. Independent exams are "necessary to evaluate the existence, extent and nature of Plaintiffs' alleged emotional injuries," the county said.

Bryant's attorneys said the motion was part of the county's "scorched earth discovery tactics designed to bully Plaintiffs into abandoning their pursuit of accountability."

Bryant said in her deposition: "I just don't understand how someone can have no regard for life and compassion and, instead, choose to take that opportunity to photograph lifeless and helpless individuals for their own sick amusement.

"I want accountability," she said.