A widower suing Los Angeles County for taking and distributing photographs of his wife and daughter’s remains testified Thursday that the inconsistencies he’s heard from trial witnesses have deepened his concerns that the photos will someday surface.
“I felt like there wasn’t a clear explanation for what happened,” said Chris Chester, whose wife, Sarah George Chester, and 13-year-old daughter, Payton Chester, died in the Jan. 26, 2020, helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant. “It’s very clear to me that we have no idea the extent of the pictures, how many.”
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Chester said the public officials he spoke with were professional and showed the “utmost” sensitivity. With two teenage twin sons at home, Chester said he was trying to take the approach of “attempting to let grief walk behind us” instead of beside them. Then he learned by reading a Los Angeles Times article, published on his Feb. 28 birthday, that a sheriff’s deputy was accused of sharing photos of crash victims while drinking off-duty at a bar.
“I didn’t think they would even have photos,” Chester said. “It never crossed my mind in my wildest imagination that someone” would photograph the victims with their personal cellphones and show them to others. His feelings shifted rapidly to anger with “a little bit of rage to it.”
A judge consolidated Chester’s lawsuit with a similar lawsuit from Vanessa Bryant for trial, which began Aug. 10 and is expected to end early next week. Vanessa is to testify Friday, as is Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
No photos have surfaced online, but the number of photos, who they were sent to and where they were stored still is not known, nor is the identity of someone who was sent photos by a sheriff’s deputy who had photographed each area of human remains.
“Let’s all pray that that person doesn’t exist,” Chester testified. “But that uncertainty? Vanessa and I have to live with that fear.”
The Los Angeles County Fire Department also doesn’t have the hard drive to a county laptop used by now-former fire Capt. Brian Jordan, who photographed each area of remains up-close in what department leadership determined was insensitive to the victims and their families, according to testimony earlier that morning from William McCloud, a chief with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
“In my heart, I believe a lot of damage has already been done,” Chester said. But, “I’m fearful all the time every day” that the photos will surface publicly online.
Chester’s testimony followed testimony from Paul Westhead Jr., the son of the basketball coach and a close friend of Chester. Westhead is the current chairman of the board of trustees at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, of Sarah Chester was a member when she died. Chester’s twin sons went from their lacrosse tournament to Westhead’s home as Chester went to the Malibu-Lost Hills sheriff’s substation the day of the crash, and he’s supported Chester as he struggles to move on.
Westhead said Thursday that Chester learning of the photos taken and shared by first responders was “the equivalent of someone taking a big punch” and falling down, then while getting up “you get hit by a 2 x 4” from behind.
“You didn’t see the punch coming and you don’t get off the mat,” said Westhead, who works with Chester at Rimrock Capital Management.
Westhead said the idea of first responders sharing photos of “for sport, for laughter, for shock value” was “not just inhuman. It was inhumane.”
“He was angry, and I was right there with him,” said Westhead.
Westhead said Chester’s focus on preparing for trial seems to have helped him, but he also said the lack of concrete explanations from county officials is worrisome. He referenced a sheriff’s email that said the department would contact the families of the victims to tell them about the photographs, though Chester was never contacted by anyone, and the assurances that no photos exist.
“If you can’t believe the first one which is really easy to do, how can you believe the next one that nearly impossible to do?” Westhead said. “You don’t know when that next 2 x 4 is coming for you at the back of the head.”
LA County lawyer Jason Tokoro, a partner with Miller Barondess LLP, began his cross-examination by asking about Westhead’s educational background to draw out that he wasn’t a psychologist. He focused on Westhead’s descriptions of Chester’s pain over losing his wife and daughter, asking if Chester had anger toward the company that operated the helicopter and regret over Sarah and Payton getting on it “because if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here today.” Tokoro asked whether company officials ever apologized, with Westhead answering that they’d never promised to.
Asked by Tokoro about Los Angeles County sheriff’s Chief Jorge Valdez apologizing from the witness stand on Tuesday, Chester answered, “Yes. That was nice.” Chester also acknowledged the remorse shown by Deputy Joey Cruz, who showed crash photos at a bar, saying “he said he was sorry.” He also said that Cruz showed the photos to not just the bartender but a “patron.” Cruz denied that under oath, but plaintiff’s attorneys said it is clearly shown in surveillance video that LA County’s lawyers at Miller Barondess LLP fast-forwarded through for jurors.
Described by Westhead as typically “stoic,” Chester matched that description somewhat during his testimony, never becoming overwhelmed with emotion but speaking passionately about the day he lost his wife and daughter in the crash, which he learned of as he was at his twin sons’ lacrosse tournament in Irvine. He last saw them as they were leaving that morning.
“Payton and I had a very close relationship, and I gave her my rah rah speech and I gave Sarah a kiss and told I’ll see her tonight,” Chester said.
Chester testified it was only his wife and daughter’s second helicopter flight ever, with the first being the night before at Kobe Bryant’s invitation so Payton could play for both her school team and his club team that weekend.
“Kobe offered that up as a kind gesture to make sure Payton could make both games,” Chester said.
He later said in a light tone, “Frankly, Mr. Bryant had a quite rigorous” basketball schedule.
Chester’s sons are now 18 and set to play lacrosse in college. Chester said he worked to stay strong for them, including by making them lunch every day, to which Tokoro joked that perhaps he could make he and his co-counsel lunch, a reference to the trial schedule’s lack of a lunch break.
Chester spoke as well of the difficulty of losing his wife and daughter in a crash that also killed a global celebrity, and the ensuing news reports that regularly describe victims who aren’t Kobe and Gianna Bryant as “others.” He said the coverage has deeply bothered Sarah’s family, noting that they generally are referred to as “others” in stories about the lawsuits, too. Jackson asked him to clarify that he wasn’t “blaming Mrs. Bryant.” He said of course not and added, “I think she would rather be the others.”
According to testimony, media began calling Chester shortly after news of the crash broke, and his friends hired 24-hour security for his home. His wife and daughter’s memorial service was held at St. Margaret’s, where Payton and her brother attended, with the city of San Juan Capistrano helping close roads to ensure no media could see the service. The school also issued a statement about their deaths and asking for privacy for the family. Regarding the crush of people trying to get close to the crash site, Chester said, “I have no idea why, but basketball fans from Los Angeles were descending on the area.”
Chester will re-take the stand tomorrow, then Vanessa Bryant will testify.
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