It was around 10am on January 26, 2020, and a helicopter had just crashed. Smoke filled the air and first responders didn’t know if anyone had survived, perhaps trapped on a hillside in need of life-saving aid.
As the flight got steeper, the brush got thicker, the mud too deep for most deputies to navigate, all but two turned around. Representative Doug Johnson was one of those who falsified.
After nearly an hour climbing across a 6-foot brush, Johnson reached the wreck, a feat that can be described as heroic.
Instead, the events that followed set off a chain reaction that led to Johnson in a witness stand in federal court Friday, as he testified in a civil lawsuit alleging that Los Angeles County and some of its employees had violated Vanessa Bryant’s privacy and inflicted emotional distress. The widow of one of the region’s most beloved sports stars. Her husband, basketball star Kobe Bryant, and their daughter, Gianna, were among the nine killed in the accident.
In court testimony, Johnson described the scene as “the most gruesome” he had ever seen, with bodies strewn across a mountainous terrain he said was the size of a football field.
But even though all nine people on board died in the accident, Johnson still had work to do. So far, a command center has been set up by the authorities and Johnson testified that a supervisor there gave him an order.
“He took pictures, documented the scene and sent them to command center,” Johnson said at the witness stand, testifying in the lawsuit filed by Vanessa Bryant.
At the center of the lawsuit are images of Johnson’s crash – 25 by his stats, which plaintiffs’ lawyers claim is much higher – a third of which Johnson said were human remains, and the rest of the wreck itself.
“When the pictures were taken, did you know it was Kobe Bryant on the helicopter?” Johnson was asked in cross-examination by Los Angeles County District Attorney Mira Hashmol.
He said, “No, madam.”
Jerome Jackson, attorney for co-prosecutor Christopher Chester, whose wife Sarah and 13-year-old daughter Payton were also killed in the accident, was more frank during questioning, asking if Johnson had taken pictures of certain parts of the body, to which Johnson replied. “Yes sir” every time.
Pictures aren’t the only reason to advocate for the boycott. Rather, it is, in part, what allegedly happened next.
Mysterious fire supervisor
Johnson said he was soon met by a fire supervisor who arrived at the scene with a similar task: to take pictures to send back to his command post, so that a tactical response could be organized.
Johnson said he told the man he already had the pictures and agreed to air them to the fire superintendent — someone he couldn’t identify, he said on the podium.
“Do you know who this is?” Jackson asked. “Do you know where he is?”
“No,” Johnson said.
“Is he a fire supervisor or a fictitious fire supervisor?” Jackson replied.
“I think it was a fire supervisor because of his helmet,” Johnson said.
Neither the plaintiff nor the defense recognized the man, a key argument in Bryant and Chester’s claim that they live in fear of the images appearing.
Later, Johnson said he led Captain Brian Jordan to shoot in Los Angeles County around the scene to take his own photos, representing the third person to get photos documenting the location.
For his part, Johnson said he came home that night, didn’t need the dark photos anymore, and deleted them from his phone.
But it wasn’t the end. In a flowchart displayed in the courtroom, Bryant’s attorney Lewis explained to me what he said happened to the photos Johnson said he sent to the command post.
He told me two people spread it further. One of those MPs was a trainee who also worked to respond to the incident, and two days later, he showed them to a waiter he considered a friend, along with his niece and another MP they allegedly shared with another MP while playing the video game Call of Duty, Lee said.
In all, Lee’s flow chart indicates that the photos have either been shared or viewed by at least 13 people, not all of them for investigative reasons.
“Curiosity took advantage of us,” one of the MPs said in an internal affairs interview conducted in court.
After a small group of people at her table looked at pictures on a cell phone, in what Weirter described as a party hoax, she testified about seeing a firefighter break away from the group, saying, “I can’t believe I just looked at Kobe’s burnt body, and now I’m about to eat the food “.
In the cross-examination, the district attorney argued that Weireter had not actually seen the photos herself, and as an EMT, her training would have taught her to document a scene as well.
The main argument in the case is whether the pictures should be taken at all. It’s what the defense calls “crash scene photography,” and its veracity has been testified by several witnesses as part of the initial response to a crash.
“It makes sense that the command center would want to know what they’re dealing with,” testified David Katz, a backup deputy with the county search and rescue team who responded to the site a few hours after the accident.
On the podium, Representative Johnson said it was common to take photos of the site “before evidence is destroyed or victims are removed”.
But prosecutors argued that the horrific images were not necessary to provide an adequate response to the incident. They also claimed that the county failed to contain the photos because it did not criminally search the personal electronic devices of those who received them.
The county describes its actions as adequate, citing the fact that the photos have not yet appeared online.
Representative Johnson remained consistent that he was simply doing his job.
“Is it your testimony that taking close-ups of Kobe Bryant’s arm and hand helped the command center determine if additional resources were needed?” The plaintiff asked the plaintiff Eric Tuttle. Johnson replied, “Yes, sir.”
“Do you regret anything you did…?” asked Tuttle.
Johnson answered sure.
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