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Vanessa Bryant recounts dealing with 'callous' L.A. County on day Kobe and Gianna died

·6 min read
UNCASVILLE, CONNECTICUT - MAY 15: Vanessa Bryant speaks on behalf of Class of 2020 inductee, Kobe Bryant during the 2021 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony at Mohegan Sun Arena on May 15, 2021 in Uncasville, Connecticut. Kobe Bryant tragically died in a California helicopter crash on Jan 26, 2020. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Vanessa Bryant speaks on behalf of Class of 2020 inductee Kobe Bryant during the 2021 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony in May. Vanessa Bryant testified this month about the day her husband and daughter died in a helicopter crash as part of her lawsuit against Los Angeles County. (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

An assistant to Vanessa Bryant's family knocked on the door of their Orange County home last year and told her the news: that the helicopter carrying her husband, Kobe, and daughter, Gianna, had crashed.

“She told me that there was an accident and that there were five survivors," Vanessa Bryant testified earlier this month. "And I asked her if Gianna and Kobe were OK. And she said she wasn’t sure.”

Bryant called her husband, the retired Lakers legend, but there was no answer. She clung to the idea that there were five survivors as she clamored for more information. Bryant recalled phoning her mother, asking her to come over to watch her youngest two children. 

“I was trying to call my husband back," she testified, "and all these notifications started popping up on my phone, saying RIP Kobe. RIP Kobe. RIP Kobe.”

It would be hours before Bryant was officially told of the deaths of her husband and daughter, according to a newly disclosed deposition in which the wife of the late NBA Hall of Fame player detailed her account of the tragic day. Lawyers for Vanessa Bryant filed the partially redacted excerpt of her deposition in court this week as part of her lawsuit against Los Angeles County.

Bryant sued L.A. County last year, alleging that she and her family have suffered severe emotional distress after learning that L.A. County sheriff's deputies snapped and later shared gruesome photos of the crash scene where her husband, daughter and seven others died.

But the case between Bryant and L.A. County has intensified in recent weeks, including with Bryant's long-awaited deposition. 

Bryant's legal team is trying to compel the depositions of Sheriff Alex Villanueva and L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby. Meanwhile, county lawyers are seeking to force the widow to undergo an independent medical examination in advance of a trial scheduled for February 2022 at the federal courthouse in downtown L.A. 

Lawyers for the county contend that Bryant cannot be suffering from such severe distress from crash photos she has never seen and that were never shared publicly, and they want a psychiatric exam to prove their argument. 

“The fact remains that no crash site photos taken by first responders have ever been publicly disseminated, as Ms. Bryant confirmed in her deposition," said Skip Miller, a prominent Century City lawyer whose boutique firm was retained to defend L.A. County.

"We totally sympathize with the enormous loss she has suffered. But as a legal matter, we don’t believe she could be harmed by something that didn’t occur.”

Bryant's lawyers have fired back, saying that an invasive medical exam is not necessary and that her distress is plainly evident from her own testimony.

"The County’s tactics are simply a cruel attempt to extract a price for victims to obtain accountability," Bryant's legal team wrote in a court filing. "Rather than take accountability for conduct the Sheriff himself has called 'wildly inappropriate' and 'disgusting,' the County has chosen to pull out all the stops to make the case as painful as possible."

Bryant's lawyers point to her own words during the Oct. 12 deposition in which she was questioned by Miller, the outside attorney for the county. 

Bryant detailed that after the flurry of notifications saying "RIP Kobe," she went to pick up her daughter Natalia, who had been attending a college entrance exam prep class that morning.

“I told her that Daddy and Gigi were in an accident. Not to worry. I’m sure they’re fine because there’s five survivors," Bryant recalled telling her daughter. "And I’m sure Daddy and Gigi are fine. I just felt, I knew that they would be helping people.”

Bryant recalled rushing then to the airport, where she tried to board a helicopter so she could quickly fly from Orange County to Calabasas, where the helicopter carrying her husband, daughter and seven others had gone down. 

That plan was quickly scuttled, with the owner of one of the helicopters telling Bryant, "I can't fly you. The weather conditions are too bad."

From the airport, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka drove Bryant nearly two hours to the Malibu-Lost Hills station of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

"I kept asking if my husband and daughter were OK," she said. "No one would answer me."

Bryant described an ill-prepared and chaotic scene at the sheriff's station, where she was shuffled to different rooms.

"Then they walked us over to this little closet room area where we waited and waited. There was one sheriff present. And I asked him: What is happening? Why is no one telling me what is happening?" 

Eventually Sheriff Alex Villanueva walked in to greet Bryant, accompanied by a pastor and another woman, who later identified herself as a publicist. 

"I asked her to leave because I wanted privacy," Bryant said.

Villanueva proceeded to tell Bryant of the deaths of her husband and daughter, then said, "Is there anything I can do for you?"

“And I said, If you can’t bring my husband and baby back, please make sure no one takes photographs of them. Please secure the area," Bryant recalled. 

Villanueva assured her he would secure the area, prompting Bryant to make a more direct and urgent plea.

“I said: No, I need you to get on the phone right now and I need you to make sure that you secure the area," she recalled. 

Villanueva left, then returned, and according to Bryant, he told her: “All is good. The area is secure.”

But weeks after the fatal crash, a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that deputies had shared the grim images of the scene.

Bryant testified that the clothes worn by her dead daughter and husband suggest the state their bodies were in — and the horrific scene that would be contained in crash site images.

“I have my husband’s and my daughter’s clothing in my possession. And I can say that they — they suffered a lot," Bryant said. "And if their clothes represent the condition of their bodies, I cannot imagine how someone could be so callous and have no regard for them or our friends, and just share the images as if they were animals on a street.”

At multiple points in the deposition, Miller, the attorney representing L.A. County, apologized for the hours of questioning.

"I'm so sorry to put you through this, but like I said at the beginning, I've got to do my job," Miller said.

"I shouldn't have to be going through this. It's not just a lawsuit," Bryant piped back. 

"I agree," Miller said. "But you filed the lawsuit."

Bryant was blunt: "I want accountability."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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