A retired Los Angeles County fire department captain accused of taking photographs of at the scene of the helicopter crash that killed nine people, including Kobe Bryant, is expected to be called to the stand Monday in the federal civil trial of an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit brought by the Lakers star’s widow and another family.
The retired captain, Brian Jordan, was criticized by the Los Angeles County Fire Department after it determined his photographs from the crash scene had “no legitimate business purpose” and “only served to appeal to baser instincts and desires for what amounted to visual gossip,” according to court records.
Before he could be terminated from his job, Jordan retired early, citing his mental health, court records show. Steven Haney, Jordan’s attorney, wrote in a filing that his client was “simply obeying orders” when he snapped the photos at the scene of the Jan. 26, 2020, crash.
Vanessa Bryant and Irvine financial advisor Chris Chester are suing the county for unspecified millions of dollars for negligence and invasion of privacy over the photos. Her husband and 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and Chester’s wife, Sarah, and 13-year-old daughter Payton were among the nine people killed in the crash.
The plaintiffs allege Los Angeles County’s first responders took gruesome cell phone pictures of human remains at the remote Calabasas crash site for their own amusement as souvenirs and shared them with other law enforcement and public safety personnel and members of the public.
The county contends all images taken by its sheriff’s deputies and firefighters were quickly destroyed, no longer exist in any form and never entered the public domain.
Jurors at the trial — which began Aug. 10 in Los Angeles federal court — heard on Friday from a sheriff’s deputy who was among the first to arrive at the crash scene and testified that he snapped 25 pictures on his cell phone, a third of which contained close-up images of body parts, and sent the pictures to others.
The lawsuit claims a sheriff’s deputy showed a photo of Kobe Bryant’s remains to a Norwalk bartender two days after the crash. Ted Chen reports on Aug. 11, 2022.
Deputy Doug Johnson said he hiked for more than an hour through remote, brush-filled terrain to get to the site, and taped off the area before snapping photos to “document” the devastation at the request of a deputy at the command post.
Bryant and Chester said they suffer from emotional distress at the possibility of pictures of their family members’ broken bodies one day surfacing on the internet since, as one of their attorneys told the jury, “digital lives forever.”
Under questioning by a lawyer for Bryant, Johnson testified he texted the 25 photos to the command post deputy and AirDropped them to a county fire supervisor, who has never been identified.
As for the phone itself, he said he lost it the following year in Las Vegas.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs contend that after Johnson sent the photos, the images spread to at least 10 others, some of whom displayed them for members of the public.
Johnson testified it never occurred to him that having death photos on his personal cell phone was inappropriate. He said it was “common practice” among law enforcement personnel to share and receive images of dead bodies.
The deputy told the jury in downtown Los Angeles that he had used his phone at crime and accident scenes to take photos “thousands of times.”
In the case of the helicopter crash, Johnson testified, he deleted all the photos he had taken, along with a text thread with the deputy at the command post, shortly after he arrived home that night.
“I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said on the stand, and admitted he didn’t recall ever learning at the academy that family members have rights regarding the death images of loved ones.
Vanessa Bryant has left the courtroom in tears when witness testimony turns to descriptions of catastrophic injuries suffered by the victims. Her lawsuit was consolidated for trial with that of Chester, who makes many of the same allegations.
Along with Chester and Bryant’s loved ones, the crash killed Alyssa Altobelli, 14; Keri Altobelli, 46; John Altobelli, 56; Christina Mauser, 38; and pilot Ara Zobayan, 50.
The Altobelli and Mauser families settled their lawsuits for invasion of privacy and negligence against the county for $1.25 million each. They also accused county first responders of improperly sharing photos of their dead relatives.
Last year, Bryant and others settled a lawsuit against Island Express Helicopters Inc., the company that operated the Sikorsky helicopter; its owner, Island Express Holding Corp.; the estate of the pilot, who died in the crash; and another company. Terms remain confidential.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, Zobayan likely had an episode of “spatial disorientation,” and appeared to go against federal guidelines by flying into the fog.