Christopher Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the helicopter crash that also killed Kobe Bryant and six others, took the stand Thursday, testifying he lives in fear that the graphic photos taken of his loved ones’ bodies may resurface one day.
“I’m fearful all the time, every day,” he told the court.
Chester is a co-plaintiff in a federal civil lawsuit with Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, alleging Los Angeles County invaded their privacy and failed to fully contain the spread of the photos, inflicting emotional distress.
His wife, Sarah Chester, 13-year-old daughter Payton, and seven others, including Kobe and Gianna Bryant, were flying to a girls’ basketball game at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks on January 26, 2020, when the helicopter carrying them dove into a hillside in Calabasas, leaving no survivors.
Vanessa Bryant is set to testify Friday morning.
The trial has so far seen testimony by several law enforcement personnel, including a deputy who testified he showed graphic images from the scene while at a bar, another deputy who said he shared photos while playing a video game, a deputy who sent dozens of photos to someone he didn’t know and a fire official who showed the images to other personnel during an awards ceremony cocktail hour.
Chester’s turn on the stand followed several days of testimony from these officials – some of whom offered apologies, detailed the graphic nature of the photos, explained why they were taken and shared as well as why orders were given to delete them.
A deputy previously testified he shared dozens of photos of the bodies on the day of the crash with someone he didn’t know but believed was a fire supervisor.
More than two years after the crash, the LA County Fire Department still doesn’t know if this person existed, if he got any photos or how many he received, LA County Deputy Fire Chief William McCloud testified Thursday.
“The inconsistencies, the level of uncertainty, it’s very clear to me that we have no idea the extent of pictures,” McCloud said of the other testimonies he had heard so far. “There wasn’t a clear explanation for what had happened.”
Chester told the court it was “very concerning” that a “mystery person out there” had been airdropping photos.
“Let’s all pray that person doesn’t exist but that uncertainty – Vanessa and I will have to live with that forever,” he said.
‘I told them I’ll see them that night’
On Thursday, Chester described the morning his wife and daughter left for the helicopter ride. “I gave Sarah a kiss and I told them I’ll see them that night,” he said.
That was the last time they spoke. “I’m grateful every day that I did give her a kiss and say ‘I love you’,” Chester said.
Chris and Sarah Chester met in college and got married shortly after, eventually having three children: twin boys and Payton.
Chester said he normally received regular text updates from his wife, but that morning, he didn’t hear from her about a safe landing and his texts went unanswered.
He was at his twin sons’ lacrosse game in Orange County when he heard there had been a helicopter crash, Chester told the court. He said he called Kobe Bryant’s assistant, who informed him that they had “lost communication” with the aircraft.
Now worried, Chester said he set out towards Los Angeles County. On the way, news surfaced that Kobe Bryant was on the helicopter that had crashed.
“Lots of things were going through my mind but I was hoping I was going to a hospital,” Chester said.
Chester was later told to go to the Lost Hills Sheriff’s station, he said. He arrived to a chaotic scene, Chester told the court, with smoke rising from the nearby hills and a station filling up with family members. Vanessa Bryant later arrived at that same station, searching for answers.
After learning there were no survivors, Chester said he rushed back home to Orange County, worried about his sons who had seen an online article about the crash while at the game.
Throughout that day and night, Chester said he tracked his wife and daughter’s phones using the “Find my iPhone” feature. The phones had somehow survived the crash, he said, and he could see that they were on the mountain.
Paul Cryil Westhead, Chester’s close friend and business partner, also provided emotional testimony Thursday, describing what it was like seeing his typically “even-keeled” friend devastated after learning of his wife and child’s deaths.
He described hugging his “broken” friend and crying together.
“I’d never seen him like this,” Westhead told the court, speaking through tears. “The eyes were hollow. Just that first glance was brutal.”
Chester teared up on one occasion Thursday, too: when describing the promise he made to his wife at the funeral. “‘Take care of Payton. I got the boys. I’ll see you again someday,’” he said.
Defense seeks to separate issue of photos from crash
Chester testified that he assured by the coroner’s office that photos taken by the coroner were secured and placed in vault.
Weeks later, when news broke of deputies sharing photos of the crash scene that contained human remains, Chester said he felt “disbelief, at first.”
“I couldn’t construct a scenario in which that could happen,” he added. “It didn’t seem fair that this could happen.”
In cross examination, the county’s defense sought to separate the issue of photo sharing from the helicopter crash, suggesting much of Chester’s grief stems from the crash itself.
If the crash didn’t happen, “we wouldn’t be here,” said defense attorney Jason Tokoro.
“Of course, and that would be great,” Chester said.
When the defense asked whether Chester’s main source of distress was caused by the crash and not by the photos, he said the crash brought on “an empty, sad feeling” but his reaction to the spread of the photos “had a little rage to it.” He said he felt grief compounded with grief, and that the additional emotional distress did not need to happen.
The defense also brought up Chester’s initial outrage over media reports that one of the deputies shared the crash scene photos in a bar to impress a woman.
“That turned out not to be true, correct?” asked Tokoro. Chester agreed.
The attorney was referencing a sheriff’s deputy who earlier this week testified he showed photos of the crash scene to a bartender who he considered a friend.
Tokoro also pointed out that Chester has never seen any county photos online and hasn’t hired anyone to investigate their existence.
The defense also sought to mitigate Chester’s level of emotional distress over the photos by pointing out that he didn’t seek therapy and never went to a doctor to seek treatment.
“Doesn’t mean I don’t have my dark moments while alone in the car or in the shower,” Chester replied.