Amid heavy fog and dense brush, eight members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department set off on foot up the remote terrain of the Santa Monica Mountains.
It was about 10 a.m. on January 26, 2020, and a helicopter had just crashed. Smoke filled the air and first responders did not know if anyone had survived, perhaps trapped on the hillside in need of lifesaving aid.
As the trek grew steeper, the brush thicker, and the mud too deep for most of the deputies to navigate, all but two turned around. One of those who forged on was Deputy Doug Johnson.
After nearly an hour of climbing through 6-foot brush, Johnson reached the wreckage, a feat which could have been described as heroic.
Instead, the events that followed set off a chain reaction leading to Johnson on a witness stand in federal court Friday, testifying in a civil lawsuit claiming Los Angeles County and some of its employees violated the privacy of, and inflicted emotional distress on, Vanessa Bryant, the widow of one of the region’s most beloved sports stars. Her husband, basketball star Kobe Bryant, and their daughter Gianna, were among the nine killed in the crash.
In court testimony, Johnson would call the scene among “the most gruesome” he had ever seen, with bodies scattered over hilly terrain he said was the size of a football field.
But even though all nine people aboard died in the crash, Johnson still had work to do. By now, a command post had been set up by authorities and Johnson testified a supervisor there gave him an order.
“Take pictures, document the scene and send them to the command post,” his supervisor told him, Johnson said on the witness stand as he testified in the suit brought by Vanessa Bryant.
At the heart of the lawsuit are photos of the crash taken by Johnson – 25 by his count, a figure plaintiffs’ attorneys allege to be much higher – a third of which Johnson said were of human remains, the rest were of the wreckage itself.
“When you took the pictures, did you know it was Kobe Bryant on the helicopter?” Johnson was asked in cross-examination by Los Angeles County’s attorney Mira Hashmall.
“No ma’am,” he said.
Jerome Jackson, the attorney for co-plaintiff Christopher Chester, whose wife Sarah and 13-year-old daughter Payton were also killed in the crash, was more blunt during questioning, asking if Johnson took photographs of specific body parts, to which Johnson replied, “Yes, sir,” each time.
The photos are not the only reason the county is on the defense. Rather, it is, in part, what allegedly happened next.
A mystery fire supervisor
Johnson said he was soon met by a fire supervisor who arrived at the scene with a similar task: to take photos to send back to his command post, so a tactical response could be organized.
Johnson said he told the man he already had photos and agreed to airdrop them to the fire supervisor – someone he could not identify, he said on the stand.
“Do you know who he is?” Jackson asked. “Do you know where he is?”
“No,” Johnson said.
“Is he a fire supervisor or a pretend fire supervisor?” Jackson replied.
“I believe he was a fire supervisor due to his helmet,” Johnson said.
Neither the plaintiff nor the defense has ever identified the man, which is a key argument in Bryant’s and Chester’s claim they live in fear of the photos surfacing.
Later, Johnson said he led then Los Angeles County fire Captain Brian Jordan around the scene to take his own photos, marking the third person to obtain photos documenting the site.
For his part, Johnson said he went home that night and, not needing the grim photos any longer, deleted them from his phone.
But it wasn’t the end. In a flow chart displayed in the courtroom, Bryant’s attorney Luis Li laid out what he said happened to the photos Johnson says he sent to the command post.
Li said two people spread them further. One of those deputies was a trainee who had also worked the crash response and, two days later, showed them to a bartender he considered a friend, along with his niece and another deputy who allegedly shared them with another deputy while playing the video game “Call of Duty,” Li said.
In all, Li’s flow chart suggests the photos were either shared or seen by at least 13 people, not all for investigatory reasons.
“Curiosity got the best of us,” one of the deputies said in an internal affairs interview played in court.
Separately, the photos taken by firefighters are alleged to have been shared or shown to at least a dozen people, the plaintiffs say.
Also on Friday, former emergency medical technician, wife of a Los Angeles firefighter and cousin of one of the victims, Luella Weireter, testified she saw an L.A. County firefighter share photos of Bryant’s remains and other images from the crash site with attendees of an awards banquet in February 2020.
After a small group of people at her table looked over the images on a cell phone, in what Weireter characterized as being like a party trick, she testified about seeing one firefighter break away from the group, saying, “I can’t believe I just looked at Kobe’s burnt up body, and now I’m about to eat.”
In cross examination, the County’s attorney argued Weireter did not actually see the photos herself, and as an EMT, her training would have taught her to document a scene as well.
A key argument in the case is whether the photos needed to be taken at all. They’re what the defense calls “accident site photography,” and several witnesses have testified to their validity as part of an initial response to a crash.
“It would stand to reason that the command post would want to know what they were dealing with,” testified David Katz, a reserve deputy with the county’s search and rescue team who responded to the site a few hours after the crash.
Deputy Johnson said on the stand it is common for site photography to be taken “before evidence can be destroyed or victims can be moved.”
But the plaintiffs argued the gruesome photos were not needed to mount a proper response to the crash. They also claim the county failed to contain the photos because it never forensically searched the personal electronics of those who received them.
The county calls its actions sufficient, pointing to the fact the photos have yet to surface online.
Deputy Johnson remained steadfast he was simply doing his job.
“Is it your testimony that taking close-ups of Kobe Bryant’s arm and hand helped the command post determine if additional resources were required?” asked plaintiff attorney Eric Tuttle. “Yes, sir,” Johnson replied.
“Do you regret anything you did … ?” Tuttle asked.
Johnson answered assuredly.