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Vanessa Bryant sues L.A. sheriff's office over Kobe Bryant helicopter crash photos

The lawsuit accused deputies of being the "biggest threat to the sanctity of the victims" by sharing photos of the remains of Kobe and Gianna Bryant.
Former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant watches a tribute video with his family during an NBA basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors in Los Angeles on Dec. 18, 2017.
Former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant watches a tribute video with his family during an NBA basketball game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors in Los Angeles on Dec. 18, 2017.Chris Carlson / AP file

Vanessa Bryant, widow of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles county and its sheriff’s office over photos shared by first responders of the helicopter crash that killed her husband and daughter earlier this year.

The complaint, filed last week but obtained by NBC News on Tuesday, accuses the county employees of having “showed off” photos of the remains of Kobe Bryant and 13-year-old Gianna Bryant. The father and daughter died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 along with seven others as they traveled to a basketball tournament in Thousand Oaks, California, where the 13-year-old was supposed to play.

Bryant expressed concern to the sheriff that the helicopter crash site was unprotected against paparazzi and was assured law enforcement would secure the scene, according to the lawsuit.

“But the biggest threat to the sanctity of the victims’ remains proved to be the Sheriff’s Department itself,” the lawsuit said. “Faced with a scene of unimaginable loss, no fewer than eight sheriff’s deputies at the crash site pulled out their personal cell phones and snapped photos of the dead children, parents and coaches. The deputies took these photos for their own personal gratification.”

Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva is also accused of failing to follow protocol and failing to conduct an investigation.

“He did not inform the L.A. County Office of the Inspector General,” the lawsuit stated. “ Most importantly, he did not alert the victims' families of the deputies' misconduct or the existence of the photos.”

Deputies allegedly shared the photos among themselves and with others for no law enforcement purpose, the lawsuit said. Bryant’s lawsuit alleges that a trainee deputy showed off photos to impress a woman at a bar in Norwalk, California, and that a bartender filed a written complaint with the department about the incident in January.

Villanueva instead told deputies that if they came forward and deleted the photos they would not face discipline, the lawsuit alleges. The sheriff said in March that his “Number 1 priority” was making sure the photos were deleted.

“We identified the deputies involved,” Villanueva said in March. “They came to the station on their own and had admitted they had taken them and they had deleted them. And we're content that those involved did that."

Bryant and her attorneys contend that sharing the “gratuitous” photos showed “deliberate indifference” to the widow’s right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment and California law. The suit also accuses the department of negligence for failing to prevent dissemination of such photos and failing to punish those responsible, which directly resulted in an infliction of emotional distress to Bryant and her family.

“In taking these photographs and at several points thereafter, the Sheriff's Department has chosen to act reprehensibly, and it continues to demonstrate that it either does not understand or does not care about the pain it has caused,” the complaint said. “This lawsuit seeks to impose accountability for that.”

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department responded to a request for comment with a short statement Tuesday.

“Shortly following this tragic crash, Sheriff Villanueva sponsored legislation which now makes it a crime for public safety personnel to take and share non-official pictures of this nature," the statement said. "Due to the pending litigation, we are unable to offer further comment."

CORRECTION (Nov. 2, 2021, 6 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the date of the helicopter crash. It was Jan. 26, 2020, not Jan. 29.