The LA Sheriff’s deputy has no regrets about the handling

  • The first Los Angeles sheriff to take pictures of Kobe Bryant’s remains testified Friday.
  • During his conflicting testimony, he said he had been ordered to take pictures by a supervisor.
  • LA Sheriff’s Deputy Doug Johnson said he would have done it the same way again.

On the cloudy morning of January 26, 2020, when a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant and seven other passengers tragically crashed in the Santa Monica Mountains near Calabasas, California, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Doug Johnson was among the first to respond.

Reaching the crash site was no walk in the park, Johnson testified in a federal courtroom in Los Angeles on Friday, the third day of Vanessa Bryant’s trial seeking punitive damages from county defendants accused of taking and sharing photos of the crash scene.

Johnson, who remained stoic throughout his questioning Friday, trudged for nearly an hour through thick fog and deep mud with a team of eight to respond to the crash and secure the scene.

He reached the scene with another deputy, chasing away bystanders and bicyclists while others were asked to retrieve more equipment from the makeshift command post the Los Angeles County Fire Department and LASD had set up in the nearby Malibu Creek Water District.

At the top, Johnson told jurors he spent 15 minutes looking for any survivors of the crash. He then followed what he said was a command from his superior deputy Raul Versales to document the crime scene.

Johnson had arrived at the chaotic scene around 11 a.m. with that instruction. At 11:24 a.m., a TMZ alert shared that Kobe and Gianna Bryant may have been among the victims of the crash scene he combed through.

By then, Johnson told the court, he had already taken at least 25 photos “of all the victims that I thought might be victims,” ​​because of the horrific nature of the crash. He told the court he had taken close to 25 photographs of human remains at the crash site, but admitted that Versales had not specifically asked him to take photographs of human remains – just to document the scene.

“Photographs are the most thorough way to document something, especially if evidence or a scene is destroyed,” Johnson said.

No regrets

Audio from an internal LASD interview played in court showed Versales denying he ever ordered Johnson to take the graphic close-up photos of remains. And on Thursday, LASD Malibu Search and Rescue Chief David Katz told the court that Johnson informed him he had taken “hundreds of pictures.”

In September 2020, Bryant sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the county fire department, the county as a whole and eight officers in the wake of reports broken by the LA Times that first responders took and shared photos of the January 2020 crash scenes.

Johnson confirmed to the court Friday that he did not regret taking the photos or that he sent them all to LACFD Capt. Brian Jordan whom Johnson met at the scene.

He also sent the photos to another man at the scene who he believed to be a firefighter – one who has yet to be identified in the process of legal proceedings.

The Kobe Bryant helicopter crash site

Investigators work at the scene of a helicopter crash that killed former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant, his teenage daughter, and seven others in Calabasas, California, January 27, 2020. Attorneys for Los Angeles County failed to persuade a federal judge to end Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit over horrifying images of the helicopter crash. U.S. District Judge John F. Walter on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, denied the county’s motion for summary judgment, saying “there are genuine issues of material fact for trial,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, file)


‘Common practice’

Friday’s testimony revealed a troubling blind spot in the county’s handling of the accident: Officials aren’t even entirely sure they can trace back every photo, and no employees’ phones were forensically searched in internal investigations.

“It’s a common practice,” Johnson told the court, referring to LASD employees taking pictures of human remains and sharing them among employees. He added that he had been to 25 to 50 accident or crime scenes where he had taken pictures of victims or victims’ remains, and on at least 20 occasions he had been sent pictures of bodies or body parts by staff.

Adam Bercovici, a law enforcement expert called by Bryant’s team, previously told the court that during his 30 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, he was shown photos of deceased victims on several occasions by other officers – including a Polaroid from the scene of Nicole Brown Simpson’s death. Crash victims were sometimes kept by law enforcement in souvenir “ghoul books”.

Bercovici also lamented the LASD’s lack of clear site photo policy related to human remains, and the subsequent deletion order and lack of discipline by Sheriff Alex Villanueva the month after the crash.

“It wasn’t an inquiry, it was calling in deputies to delete evidence,” Bercovici said in court.

Vanessa Bryant is suing the county for negligence, emotional distress and invasion of privacy claims, as well as federal claims related to her constitutional right to images of her deceased loved ones, and LA County agency practices that led to the alleged recording and dissemination of the images.

“I know I did nothing wrong,” Johnson said in court, his tone remaining unaffected under questioning by Bryant’s attorneys. Asked if he had any regrets or would do anything differently, he replied: “No sir.”

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