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Vanessa Bryant posts lawsuit against deputies to Instagram, reveals names

The lawsuit claims four deputies shared graphic photos from the crash scene where Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others were killed in 2020.

The video above is from Jan. 26, 2021.

A lawsuit by Vanessa Bryant has publicly named four Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, describing how they allegedly either took, obtained or shared graphic photos -- including those of bodies -- from the helicopter crash scene where Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others were killed last year. It also claims none of the deputies had any investigatory reason to have the images.

Vanessa Bryant posted parts of the 41-page lawsuit to Instagram Wednesday night, including the names of the four deputies -- Joey Cruz, Rafael Mejia, Michael Russell and Raul Versales. A judge last week ruled that Vanessa Bryant could obtain the names for her lawsuit.

Kobe Bryant and the others were killed Jan. 26, 2020, when the helicopter they were aboard crashed west of Los Angeles in the hills of Calabasas. The Los Angeles Times later reported that an investigation found deputies shared photos of victims’ remains. Vanessa Bryant sued, seeking damages for negligence and invasion of privacy.

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"Within forty-eight hours, at least ten members of the Department obtained and possessed images of the victims’ remains on their personal cell phones without any legitimate reason for having them," Vanessa Bryant's lawsuit reads. "The gratuitous images also became a subject of gossip within the Department, as deputies shared them in settings that had nothing to do with investigating the accident."

The lawsuit alleges Cruz, a trainee, showed photos of the victims to people at a bar. A bar security camera allegedly showed Cruz "zooming in and out of the images while displaying them to the bartender." One patron who did not see the photos but was told of them by a bartender, was allegedly so upset by it that he emailed a complaint to the sheriff's department that night.

Vanessa Bryant also alleges that Sheriff Alex Villanueva did not tell the families about the photos or launch an internal investigation. The lawsuit claims Villanueva told the deputies they would face no discipline if they deleted the photos.

"For one month, the Department’s cover-up worked.  But on February 27 and 28, 2020, the Los Angeles Times reported on the deputies’ photos and the Department’s effort to hide its wrongdoing," the lawsuit reads.

Villanueva told KNBC in Los Angeles on March 2, 2020, that he ordered eight deputies to delete the images.

"That was my No. 1 priority, was to make sure those photos no longer exist," Villanueva said, according to KNBC. "We identified the deputies involved, 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." He also called what the deputies did "inexcusable" and said having the families forced to go through that was "unconscionable."

The lawsuit claims that by deleting photos and related text messages from their phones, the deputies "knew or should have known that the evidence may be relevant to future litigation or investigations."

The suit also says the complaint from the bar patron should have been enough to trigger a formal inquiry or an internal affairs investigation, but did not.

"(Villanueva) did not conduct a standard investigation or collect, inspect, or search cell phones to determine how many photos existed, whether and how they had been transmitted, or whether they were stored on the cloud," the lawsuit reads. "He did not inform the L.A. County Office of the Inspector General.  Most importantly, he did not alert the victims’ families of the misconduct or the existence of the photos."

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's office tweeted out its response to the lawsuit. The statement read: "We will refrain from trying this case in the media and will wait for the appropriate venue. Our hearts go out to all the families affected by this tragedy."

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages. Los Angeles County, the sheriff's department and the county fire department are also named as defendants. 

An effort by Los Angeles County lawyers to keep the deputies’ names under seal was rejected March 8 by U.S. District Judge John F. Walter, the Los Angeles Times reported.

County lawyers argued that the deputies’ names should remain under seal because releasing them would make it easy for hackers to locate their personal information and addresses.

The judge wrote that Villanueva’s “promise to publicly release the (internal affairs bureau) report after the conclusion of the investigation undermines Defendants’ purported concern in the disclosure of the limited excerpts at issue here.”

The judge also wrote that the public has a vested interest in assessing the truthfulness of allegations of police misconduct.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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