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‘I Trusted Them’: Vanessa Bryant Takes Stand for First Time at Trial Against LA County, Recalls Moment She Was ‘Blindsided’ by Crash Photos


Vanessa Bryant leaves court on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, with her lawyer Luis Li. (Photo: Meghann M. Cuniff/Law

Vanessa Bryant testified Friday that sheriff’s deputies and fire officials who photographed her daughter’s remains the day after the deadly 2020 helicopter crash were “taking advantage of the fact that her daddy couldn’t protect her because he was at the morgue.”

“I expected them to have more compassion, respect. My husband and daughter deserved dignity,” Bryant said in trial in her lawsuit against Los Angeles County over first responders taking and distributing photos of human remains at the site of the crash that killed Kobe Bryant and 13-year-old Gianna Bryant. Christopher Chester, whose wife, Sarah Chester, and 13-year-old daughter, Payton Chester, died in the crash, also is suing.

She wept as she described how Kobe’s remains were recovered on the first day, but Gianna’s weren’t recovered until the second day, and anyone who photographed her body then had to have gone out of their way and moved a sheet.

Bryant testified she has “mixed feelings” about therapy and hasn’t gone since last year because it can be “draining” and she needs to stay strong for her daughters. She said kind comments from Kobe’s fans have “really helped me,” but she recalled turning off comments after receiving a taunting message threatening to release photos of Kobe’s body.

“I want to remember my husband and daughter the way that they were,” she said. She defined Kobe’s “Mamba Mentality” motto as “Put one foot in front of the other “ working to make the day a better day than yesterday. It’s a “mental toughness,” she said.

Bryant’s approximately two hours on the stand began lightly, with her attorney Luis Li asking about her childhood — she was a tomboy — and her family — her grandmother’s husband is a retired police captain. The attorney segued into her relationship with Kobe, with Vanessa repeating what Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka told jurors last week: “He’s still my best friend.”

She and Kobe loved to compete with each other, down to who would press the elevator button first, and he teased her about having “only-child syndrome” because she’d have no qualms about turning off the TV or changing the channel when he was trying to watch a game.

Gianna, she said, “had the kindest heart.”

“She still is my sunshine,” Bryant testified. “She was competitive and funny and thoughtful.”

“Was she a daddy’s girl?” Li asked.

“Yes,” Bryant answered.

“And she loved basketball?” Li asked.

“Yes,” Bryant answered.

“And she was a good teammate?” Li asked.

“Absolutely,” Bryant answered.

Gianna’s classmates wrote her beautiful cards “about how amazing my daughter was to them,” including a girl who was interested in basketball but reluctant to try out for a team. Gianna spent recesses helping her build her skills.

“Is that something Kobe would have done?” Li asked.

“Yes,” Bryant answered through tears.

Bryant said she wanted a boy, but Kobe wanted all girls because he was “a proud girl dad” who doted on his daughters and knew he didn’t rule the household and “was OK with that.” He’d tell her, “I’m happy taking care of business on the court and you rule the house,” Bryant said.

Kobe planned to help Gianna hone her basketball skills and get into her dream school, the University of Connecticut. Then he wanted to coach his youngest daughters Bianka and Capri, who are now 5 and 3. He knew he couldn’t coach two teams at once so “he’s like well, Capri’s going to have to play up,” and she and Bianka are on the same team. Vanessa and Kobe also had plans “to travel the world together and get to do all the things he couldn’t do when he was playing.”

“Do you feel you have the right to remember Kobe and Gianna in this way?” Li asked.

“Yes,” Bryant answered.

That led to what Li described as “a difficult subject”: Jan. 26, 2020. Bryant was at home when Kobe’s assistant came to the door asking if she was home alone. She told her of the helicopter crash but said there were five survivors. Then she started getting notifications and messages on her phone saying “RIP Kobe.” She thought of their oldest daughter, Natalie, who was at a tutoring club preparing for the ACT test. She picked her up and they went to the Orange County airport, with Bryant still thinking Gianna and Kobe had survived. There they met Pelinka, who drove them to the Malibu-Lost Hills substation.

She remembers blank stares upon arrival.

“I just kept saying, ‘Where are they?’” Bryant testified. She eventually met privately with Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who told her her husband and daughter were dead. Li asked if he also told her a sheriff’s deputy had hiked up to the crash site and photographed human remains up close as part of what the deputy testified last week was standard practice for a major incident. But he did tell her he’d make sure the scene was protected from paparazzi and drone photography, including by implementing a no-fly zone.

Nearly a month later, Bryant spoke at a huge memorial for Kobe and Gianna at the Staples Center, held on Feb. 24 in honor of Gianna’s #2 and Kobe’s #24.

Four days later, she learned of a Los Angeles Times article about a sheriff’s deputy sharing a photo of Kobe’s remains at a bar. A friend called as she and friends were watching TV at her home with the girls and friends Pau Gasol – Kobe’s former Lakers teammate – and his wife,  Catherine McDonnell.

“I just remember not wanting to react because the girls were in the room,” Bryant testified. She was nursing Capri, but she handed the baby to McDonell and ran outside to the side of her house where she knew the girls couldn’t see her “and I broke down and cried.”

“I wanted to run. I wanted to run down the block and just scream,” Bryant said, comparing it to removing her clothes and running down a pier and into the ocean.

But she said, “I can’t escape my body. I can’t escape what I feel.”

Li confirmed that no one from Los Angeles County contacted Bryant about the photos.

“They just let you get surprised by it?” Li asked.

“Yes,” Bryant answered.

She said she felt “blindsided … because I trusted them.”

“I trusted them not to do these things,” Bryant said.

Li got in front of expected cross-examination from LA County lawyers by asking Bryant about a photo she’d posted to Instagram of herself dressed as Cruella de Vil for Halloween with the caption: “They say there are five stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Well, I’d like to add one more . . . revenge.”Bryant said because her daughters wanted to be princesses, “almost every year, my husband and I would get stuck being the villains.” Li asked her about a photo from a previous Halloween of her dressed as Darth Vader for Halloween 2020 with the caption, “Luke I am your father.” As with de Vil’s quote about revenge, Bryant said she was simply repeating a movie quote.

“I am not anyone’s father,” Bryant testified.

“I only post things that are more surface based,” Bryant said.

Li returned to Bryant’s public imagery at the end of his exam, with Bryant describing Kobe’s approach to the large number of dying children who told the Make-A-Wish Foundation that their final wish was to meet Kobe. Bryant said the scenes often made her cry, so Kobe told her that he wouldn’t mind if she didn’t want to be there, but if she did “we’ve got to put on a brave face and make this the best moment” of their lives.

“If I can do that for complete and total strangers, I can do it for my own girls,” she said.

In cross-examination, LA County’s lawyer Mira Hashmall, a partner at Miller Barondess LLP in Los Angeles, asked Bryant about the stress of taking over her husband’s business coupled with the grief of losing her husband and daughter. She asked about Bryant about her lawsuit against the helicopter company, which settled and, Bryant said, was handled entirely by lawyers. As for what Hashmall described as “a very public lawsuit” filed against her by her mother, Bryant said her mother “thought she was entitled to money” and the saga was “definitely hurtful.”

“I’m sure you felt betrayed?” Hashmall asked.

“Yes,” Bryant answered.

“And I’m sure that has been stressful,” Hashmall said.

“It wasn’t easy,” Bryant said, adding that Kobe didn’t “ever imagine that he wouldn’t have survived her” her mother. She also rebuffed Hashmall’s suggestion that the incident was a major additional stress by saying of her mother, “She gave birth to me. She raised me” and her mother “is not a new stress” for her.

Hashmall went through the covers of children’s books written by Kobe that his wife has had published since his death, with Bryant describing the importance of helping ensure they were published and how much it meant to Kobe to try to help children through his books. She also testified: “He just used different inspiration from our lives and his experiences to try to help kids.”

Hashmall asked about Pelinka’s business involvement, at one point describing he and Bryant as “thick as thieves.”

“I wouldn’t say, ‘thick as thieves,’ but we’re definitely close,” Bryant answered.

Hashmall also went through trademarks and other intellectual property work involving Kobe and Gianna’s names that Bryant said was handled entirely by lawyers, some to get ahead of other people registering them in their own names. Hashmall said she was “juggling a business empire” through Kobe Bryant LLC, to which Bryant replied, “I wouldn’t say juggling.”

Bryant also told Hashmall the photos are “like COVID” with how it spreads, which was echoed in testimony from the following witness, Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who said the photos were “like a pandemic disease.” Unlike Bryant, though, Villanueva, said he was sure the internal investigation was thorough and believed the photos had all been deleted, though he didn’t know of a missing laptop hard drive from fire Capt. Brian Jordan, who photographed the scene, nor did he know that Deputy Doug Johnson says he sent the photos he took of the crash site, including human remains, to a fire captain who’s never been identified.

He was told of Thursday’s testimony from fire Chief William McCloud, who described the unsuccessful efforts to identify him.
In a light moment, Bryant said being in trial is a big change of pace because “the fact that I’m using the bathroom stall by itself is like totally different.”

Regarding the crash photos, “I believe they were all deleted. 2 1/2 years later, I’m pretty sure that’s true.”

“But you don’t know?” Li asked. “Well, God knows. And that’s about it,” Villanueva answered. That was the end of Li’s cross-exam.

With Bryant, Hashmall also gently pressed about the broad publicity the trial is receiving, and the gory details that have been revealed through the litigation and detailed in trial. Bryant said it was hard to hear – she has purposely not been in the courtroom for some of the testimony – but went through crass descriptions from fire and sheriff’s officials in testimony and said, “I’m willing to go through hell and back to get justice for my husband and daughter.”

Hashmall on re-cross asked if she understood that jurors can’t fire county personnel – she does – and tried to ask how much money she’s seeking in damages before Judge John F. Walter sustained Li’s objection. Li followed up afterward by asking Bryant what she wants.

“I want justice for my husband and daughter,” Bryant answered.

“You want accountability?” Li asked.

“Yes,” Bryant answered.

Testimony continues Monday at 8 a.m. in Los Angeles. Follow reporter Meghann Cuniff on Twitter for live updates from the courthouse.

(Photo: Meghann Cuniff/Law&Crime)

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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.