LOS ANGELES — Vanessa Bryant sobbed on the stand Friday as she described the anguish she felt after learning that first responders leaked images of the site where the bodies of her husband, NBA legend Kobe Bryant, and teenage daughter, were found after their helicopter crashed in January 2020.
At times, Bryant wept so hard her body shook and she appeared to be hiccupping and gasping for breath. She said when she read in a Los Angeles Times story that the photos were being circulated she ran out of her house so her surviving daughters wouldn't see her cry.
“I felt like I wanted to run down the block and scream,” she told the court. "I can’t escape my body. I can’t escape what I feel.”
Bryant said she felt “blindsided, devastated, hurt and betrayed” by the county employees who leaked the photos, but said she herself has not seen them.
"I don’t ever want to see these photographs," she said. "I want to remember them as they were.”
Still, Bryant said, she is terrified they might turn up on the internet.
“I live in fear everyday of seeing on social media and having these images pop up,” she said.
On cross-examination, Bryant pushed back hard at suggestions her anxiety was due to being overwhelmed by the responsibility of having to raise her family alone while carrying on her dead husband's legacy.
"I'm willing to go through hell and back for my husband and daughter," she said.
Simply deleting the photos, as the county claims the first responders have done, would not be enough for the parents of a child pornography victim, she said.
“Evidence is evidence and should be treated as evidence,” she said.
Bryant's much-anticipated three-hour testimony came on the eighth day of her invasion of privacy trial in Los Angeles federal court. She has attended every day of the trial, sometimes wiping away tears and other times leaving the courtroom when especially painful testimony or evidence was introduced.
Dressed in black and wearing sunglasses, Bryant acknowledged the cameras with a slight smile before entering the courthouse Friday with her lawyers.
Bryant was followed on the stand by Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who testified he took the "bold step" of offering amnesty to any first responder who came forward and turned in their crash scene photos.
Los Angeles County had fought the move to depose Villanueva and other county officials, arguing that they were not defendants in the case and that generally the heads of government agencies are not subject to depositions. A local magistrate disagreed last October and ordered Villanueva to testify.
The questioning of Villanueva by Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li, turned hostile when the sheriff was forced to admit that several deputies who were part of a bungled internal investigation into the crash site photos had subsequently been promoted, including his chief of staff, Cmdr. John Satterfield.
In addressing the leaked photos, Villanueva said he believes they were all deleted but only "God knows and that's about it."
Villanueva, who is running for reelection, is expected to be followed on the stand next week by Los Angeles County Fire Chief Anthony Marrone.
Bryant and Chris Chester, whose wife, Sarah and daughter, Payton, 13, were also killed in the crash, are seeking unspecified millions for emotional distress in their federal lawsuit against Los Angeles County.
Los Angeles County previously agreed to pay $2.5 million to settle a similar case brought by two families whose relatives died in the Jan. 26, 2020, crash. But Bryant and Chester refused to settle.
Earlier this week, Chester said he was seeking “justice and accountability” after suffering added anxiety and "nervousness" as a result of the leaked photos.
"The photos have been seen," he said on the stand. "They have been paraded around in the public. Nothing dies on the internet. It's compounded grief on grief."
Chester said he has carefully shielded his family, especially his teenage sons, from the crash site photos and the coroner's report. The condition of both his wife and daughter's remains were so gruesome that even the coroner dissuaded him from looking at them.
But, said Chester, he too was stunned by the revelations in The Los Angeles Times story.
"It brought the whole thing back," he said Thursday.
Bryant's lawyer told jurors in his opening statement that the cellphone photos shot at the crash scene by a deputy and a fire captain were “visual gossip” viewed “for a laugh” and had no official purpose.
Li told jurors that Bryant and Chester learned the photos were being shared by first-responders from a newspaper report not the county. He also played security video of an off-duty sheriff’s deputy drinking at a bar and showing the photos to the bartender, who could be seen shaking his head in dismay.
“January 26th, 2020, was the worst day of Vanessa Bryant’s life," Li said. "The county made it much worse. They poured salt in an open wound and rubbed it in.”
J. Mira Hashmall, a lawyer for the county, defended the taking of the photos as an essential tool for first responders seeking to share information when they thought there was still a chance to save lives at the hard-to-reach crash scene in the Calabasas hills west of Los Angeles.
“Site photography is essential,” Hashmall said.
Hashmall said the fact that the pictures have not appeared in more than two years showed that leaders in the sheriff’s and fire department did their jobs.
“They’re not online, they’re not in the media, they’ve never even been seen by the plaintiffs themselves,” Hashmall said.
Last week, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Deputy Doug Johnson, who took close-up photos of the bodies at the scene, insisted on the stand that he “didn’t do anything wrong” and that another deputy had ordered him to take the photos.
Retired Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Brian Jordan told jurors that he did not remember being at the crash site despite telling lawyers earlier that he had walked through the scene.
Sheriff’s Deputy Rafael Mejia, meanwhile, appeared to contradict his own report to investigators. He initially said the photos were “immediately erased after the incident,” but last week said that was not true. He said he not delete them until four days after the crash.
Chester has denounced what appeared to be conflicting information and changing stories from the first responders who took the leaked photos.
Kobe Bryant, who helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to five NBA championships, was 41 when he died. His daughter, Gianna, was 13. They and six family friends were flying to a basketball game in Thousand Oaks, California when the chopper crashed into the side of a mountain.
The pilot, Ara Zobayan, was also killed.
Alicia Victoria Lozano reported from Los Angeles, Corky Siemaszko from New York City