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Sheriff ordered Kobe Bryant crash photos deleted. A captain objected, calling it improper

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva‘s directive to deputies to delete any photos on their cellphones of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash scene may constitute an order to destroy evidence and could lead to their arrest, a now former Lost Hills station captain warned his bosses, according to court papers filed Monday.

Attorneys for Vanessa Bryant suing Los Angeles County over deputies and firefighters who allegedly shared grim photos of the helicopter crash revealed Monday that the station captain at the time had advised and tried to block the sheriff’s directive to all personnel to delete the images in an effort to stop their potential destruction. The crash killed the Lakers star, his daughter Gianna and seven others.

The latest documents filed in the lawsuit allege that information gathered from internal affairs documents turned over to Vanessa Bryant’s legal team involves the sheriff’s statement to underlings that if they came clean and deleted any photos in their possession, they would not be punished.

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The former captain of the Lost Hills station halted the order to delete the photos and called his supervisor to express concern that the sheriff’s order might constitute an instruction to destroy evidence, according to the filing. The captain told his boss “the last time our deputies got instructions from our executives” of a similar nature “they were arrested and tried for crimes,” according to the court filing based on internal affairs documents.

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The captain seemed to reference a conspiracy to cover up abuse in the county jails that saw former Sheriff Lee Baca and 20 others including deputies convicted in the obstruction scheme. Baca ordered a criminal investigation of the FBI agents conducting an undercover investigation, and he directed that the informant be concealed from federal investigators.

The current sheriff’s decision, the captain said, was “very out of the ordinary” and he already initiated a standard investigation after a deputy shared graphic photos of Kobe Bryant’s remains in a Norwalk bar and a citizen complained. After checking with the sheriff’s office, that captain’s supervisor replied “this is the direction we are going.” Vanessa Bryant’s lawyer Luis Li in the motion said the evidence shows there was more time for discovery in the federal civil suit.

The attorneys also said documents showed that while initial information shared by the Sheriff’s Department showed eight deputies shared images, evidence turned over now shows those possessing photos at the scene numbers at least 18 county employees, while 66 county employees have knowledge of the misconduct.

Villanueva, after learning of the photo-sharing, said that all the images had been deleted, later acknowledging making that decision to prevent them from becoming public.

The court papers are the latest in a legal battle over the photos.

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According to the lawsuit, Deputies Raul Versales, Rafael Mejia, Joey Cruz and Michael Russell shared images of the crash scene in Calabasas.

The crash occurred in dense fog the morning of Jan. 26, 2020, as Kobe and Gianna Bryant, the pilot and six others were on their way from Orange County to Thousand Oaks for a youth basketball game. The pilot had become disoriented by the poor visibility and crashed into the side of a hill, killing everyone on board.

The lawsuit alleges that Versales obtained multiple photographs of the crash scene while stationed at a makeshift command post that was set up near the crash site and shared them with members of the Sheriff’s Department, including Mejia and a detective. Mejia stored the images on his personal cellphone and shared them with at least two people, including a deputy who was controlling traffic at the scene, the lawsuit says.

In a Jan. 30 memo to the Lost Hills station captain, Mejia wrote that he received and sent the photos “to answer some questions regarding the color, numbers and identifying features of the aircraft as well as crash scene details,” according to the lawsuit. But in an interview two months later, he admitted to investigators he had had no legitimate reason to send the photos to the traffic deputy.

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