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‘I Need a Break’: Ex-Fire Captain Repeatedly Leaves Witness Stand While Testifying in Vanessa Bryant’s Suit Against Los Angeles County

Vanessa Bryant

Vanessa Bryant leaves the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on Monday, Aug. 15, 2022, the fourth day of trial in lawsuits from her and widower Christopher Chester against Los Angeles County. (Photo: Meghann M. Cuniff, Law&Crime)

A retired Los Angeles County fire captain left the witness stand on Monday while testifying about his time at the site of the helicopter crash that killed basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant, repeatedly saying he’s the victim of false accusations while denying any memories of what he did there beyond that he was instructed to take photos.

The approximately two hours Brian Jordan spent on the stand was punctuated three times by Jordan’s sudden departure from the courtroom, with him first standing after Vanessa Bryant’s lawyer asked him if he’d photographed Kobe’s remains. “I need a break,” Jordan said as he stepped off the stand. His lawyer went with him, and they returned about a minute later to resume his testimony.

“I’m sorry, your honor, I just had an image in my head that is not pleasant,” Jordan told U.S. District Judge John F. Walter.

Jordan denied sending photos to anyone outside the sheriff’s or fire departments but also repeatedly said he doesn’t “really remember being at the accident” and he doesn’t “remember what was up there.” He also had no answers when Bryant’s lawyer Luis Li asked why the county laptop he handed in was missing its hard drive, and if he knows what happened to the drive.

“I have no clue,” Jordan said, but added: “I did not manipulate any devices.”

He warned: “These images I’ve been dealing with every day” are “difficult to handle.”

“I might walk out of here a few more times,” Jordan said.

He did twice more, and throughout his testimony he decried “false allegations” that he said pin everyone else’s actions on him. Asked if he’d photographed Gianna Bryant’s remains, he said, “I don’t even know who that is.” He looked at Vanessa at the plaintiff’s table and said casually, “sorry for your loss” but emphasized, “I don’t know what I was photographing.”

“I’m here because of false allegations, so please refrain from take my brain back to that crash,” he told Li.

Jordan’s testimony began the fourth day of trial in lawsuits brought by Bryant and Christopher Chester, whose wife, Sarah George Chester, and daughter, Payton Chester, also were killed in the crash, over photographs of human remains sheriff’s and fire officials distributed. The photographs have never been published and are not available online, but part of Bryant and Chester’s case is that the county didn’t do a thorough enough investigation to determine how many photos were distributed and where, and that both will always live with the fear of them one day becoming public.

The final witness of the day was Deputy Joey Cruz, the rookie who showed the photos to bartender Victor Gutierrez and sparked the citizen’s complaint first reported by the Los Angeles Times a month after the crash. Jurors also heard Monday from Deputy Raul Versales as well as Deputy Rafael Mejia, who sent the photos to Cruz and others and testified he’d looked at them at home in bed while messaging a deputy friend on Facebook,

Having served a two-day suspension over the photos, Cruz on Monday denied that he’d asked Gutierrez if he wanted to see a photo of Kobe Bryant’s body, and said he was instead confiding in a longtime friend about “how it was at the crash site.” He acknowledged zooming in on body parts in the photos as seen on surveillance video, and he said he now knows he shouldn’t have shown him the photos.

“He’s a close friend that I always talk to,” Cruz said. He said he was “said and struggling emotionally” and “I took it too far.”

Like Gutierrez did last week, Cruz denied thinking the photos were funny. Trial ended for the day just as Bryant’s lawyer Craig Lavoie was getting to surveillance video from the bar that shows Gutierrez and Cruz laughing.

But Jordan’s testimony was the most bizarre of the trial so far, with his witness stand exits coupled with a memory that was at times completely erased and at other times crystal clear. The Los Angeles County Fire Department notified him of plans to fire him over the photos, but turned it into a retirement. Jordan earlier tried to get out of testifying, with his lawyers referencing his emotional trauma over his time at the crash site and filing medical records under seal, but Walter rejected his request in a sealed order.

In his testimony Monday, Jordan didn’t deny, and he said he’s never denied, sending the photos he took at the crash site to LA County fire Capt. Tony Imbrenda, who showed photos from the crash during a cocktail hour at a gala. Imbrenda’s wife asked Luella Weireter if she wanted to see them, apparently not knowing that Weireter is a cousin of Keri Altobelli, who died in the crash with her husband, John Altobelli, and their 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa Altobelli.

Jordan said he doesn’t remember taking any photos, let alone how many he took, but he’s sure they “were not offensive.” But the witness before him, Deputy Douglas Johnson, testified that Jordan contacted him at the scene and said he was a public information officer with media duties who needed to photograph the scene. Johnson testified that he walked Jordan around to the different area of human remains as he photographed them, even though Johnson had already photographed the scene himself.

Chester’s lawyer, Jerry Jackson, asked Jordan if he can’t say Johnson is telling the truth, to which Jordan replied, “You’re not going to put me against my brother sheriff’s deputy.” He also walked off the witness stand briefly during Jackson’s questioning and later told the attorney he was trying to “twist my busted arm with false allegations about me.”

But according to Jordan’s testimony, his memory is clear that then-Deputy Chief Anthony Marrone instructed him to take photos.

“He said, ’Take pictures, take pictures, take pictures,” Jordan said, describing the stairwell they were in when Marrone said he told him to. He said later: “Maybe that’s the one time I should have been insubordinate.”

Now the acting chief, Marrone denies instructing Jordan to take photos and instead says he instructed everyone not to photograph any crash victims “as taking such photographs would neither be right nor appropriate,” according to an Aug. 31, 2020, report from attorneys at Sheppard Mullin LLP, a law firm hired by the Fire Department after Weireter complained on March 4, 2020, about fire officials passing around photos of the victims as entertainment.

Sheppard Mullin partner Ronda Jamgotchian interviewed several people who are now witnesses in trial, and Li played clips from some of those interviews while asking Jordan about conflicting accounts and changed stories. In one, Deputy Chief Dennis Breshears, who is in the courtroom sitting at the defense table, tells Jamgotchian he was a safety officer, the same role Jordan held at the time of the Jan. 26, 2020, crash, and he sees no business reason to photographs of victims. The position is meant to identify and potential safety hazards at site where fire officials are responding.

Li was questioning Jordan about this when Jordan said something about indiscernible body parts then mumbled that someone could “take all the parts and put it in a bag and make a Gumbo.” He again stood up and walked out of the courtroom, returning about a minute later. “I apologize for the interruption, your honor, Sorry,” Jordan told Walter, who didn’t reply. Walter later could be heard reassuring Jordan, “Hang in there. Hang in there.”

Jordan had a defiant tone from the beginning, answering Li’s questions with curt and overemphasized “Yes, sir” or “No, sir.” When Li asked if he’d even trained that there was no business purpose for taking recovering human remains, Jordan said he didn’t remember that he “forgot most of the stuff I probably knew about the job.”

Li again played the clip of Breshears saying he sees no business purpose to photograph the decedents.

“This explains why Chief Marrone denied telling me to take pictures,” he said. asked to expand, Jordan said Marrone “knew something was wrong.” But as to overall training about photos and the Constitutional privacy rights of the families members of decedents, “I’ve had a lot of training in my career, and I don’t remember all of it. And I don’t recall.”

Versales took the stand after Jordan, and he denied Johnson’s claim that he’d instructed Johnson to photograph the scene. After Bryant’s lawyer Craig Lavoie reminded him of his deposition testimony, Versailles acknowledged being surprised when he received the crash scene photos from Johnson, who was one of only two deputies to successfully hike up the steep mountain incline to the crash site.

“I was in communication and did not need to have photographs,” he testified. Versales acknowledged sending the photos to others including Scott Miller, the fire captain who said in a recorded interview he’d offered to show them to his wife. Miller also said he’d simply asked Versailles, “Oh, can I see them?” and he sent them over, which Versales said he didn’t remember. He also repeatedly said the now-deleted photos did not contain as much human remains as suggested, and dismissed Miller’s recorded description of the photos as “hamburger” as a matter of perspective”

“I can be thinking of McDonald’s and you can be thinking of Burger King,” Versales told Lavoie, Versales received a performance log entry about his misuse of the photos that’s dated Feb. 27, 2020, the same day the Los Angeles Times first published an article about them. That’s when Deputy Mejia received his, too.

Jackson emphasized that performance logs are commonly used to address slight issues such as grooming mistakes, and that Versales was never suspended, demoted or fired, nor has he “lost so much as a day’s pay.”

Versales said the entry still can hurt him in the future, including if he seeks a promotion.

“But that hasn’t happened yet, ha sit sir,?” Jackson asked.

“No,” Versales answered.

Following Versales, Mejia wavered on whether Cruz and the other rookie deputy he’d sent the photos to needed to see them. He ended up insisting that while he sent them well after everyone knew Kobe and his daughter had died in the crash, he did so because he truly believed they may need them for work. Cruz might need to write a report that could benefit from referencing them, he said, and Deputy Ruby Cable may need to take over the command center as a rookie at the larges event he’d ever worked should Meija be called away.

But still, he said, “I regret doing it” and said he should have made sure Cable and Cruz truly needed them for work before he sent them.
But at the time, “I felt like I was doing the right thing.”

He also told Jackson he looked at them “only once” though they were one his phone until he deleted them at the order of Sgt. Phillips on Jan. 30, and he said his bedtime Facebook message to another deputy that he wrote while looking at the photos contained only information that was “general information that everybody already knew.” He also said he disagreed with a statement from Sheriff Villanueva after the scandal broke that the National Transportation Safety Board and the coroner were the only agencies with a legitimate need to photograph the crash scene.

Cruz returns to the stand Tuesday at 8 a.m. in Los Angeles. Follow Meghann Cuniff on Twitter for updates from the courthouse.

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A graduate of the University of Oregon, Meghann worked at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, and the Idaho Statesman in Boise, Idaho, before moving to California in 2013 to work at the Orange County Register. She spent four years as a litigation reporter for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and one year as a California-based editor and reporter for and associated publications such as The National Law Journal and New York Law Journal before joining Law & Crime News. Meghann has written for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Bloomberg Law, ABA Journal, The Forward, Los Angeles Business Journal and the Laguna Beach Independent. Her Twitter coverage of federal court hearings in a lawsuit over homelessness in Los Angeles placed 1st in the Los Angeles Press Club's Southern California Journalism Awards for Best Use of Social Media by an Independent Journalist in 2021. An article she freelanced for Los Angeles Times Community News about a debate among federal judges regarding the safety of jury trials during COVID also placed 1st in the Orange County Press Club Awards for Best Pandemic News Story in 2021.