A Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy who kept on his phone gruesome photos from the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna Bryant testified Tuesday that he made “a very callous mistake” when he sent them to another off-duty deputy as they played “Call of Duty.”
“I have a deep remorse for it, sir,” Deputy Michael Russell told lawyer Jerry Jackson, who’s representing Christopher Chester in trial over privacy and negligence claims brought by Chester and Vanessa Bryant against Los Angeles County. Chester’s wife, Sarah Chester, and 13-year-old daughter, Payton Chester, died in the Jan. 26, 2020, crash while traveling from Orange County to Kobe’s Mamba Sports Center in Thousand Oaks for a basketball tournament.
Russell said he was “alleviating a lot of the stress that I had” by playing the single-shooter video game online with his friend and fellow sheriff’s deputy Ben Sanchez and made a mistake by sending Sanchez the photos.
Like other deputies who’ve testified, Russell dismissed previous descriptions of the now-deleted photos, saying he couldn’t remember if he’d warned Sanchez of their gruesomeness before sending them. He also denied telling Sanchez one of the photos contained Kobe’s remains but wavered when presented with a previous statement from Sanchez indicating he had.
Russell also acknowledged writing a three-paragraph internal sheriff’s department memo about the photos that contained five false statements, including that he’d immediately deleted the photos and that he’d only sent two when he now says it was three or four. He also omitted that he and Sanchez were playing “Call of Duty” when he sent the photos.
“I wrote the report to the best of my knowledge at the time,” Russell said, calling the false statements “mistakes.”
Russell also acknowledged looking at the photos “two to three” more times while sitting in a recliner in his bedroom. But he said he was looking not at human remains but at the wreckage and overall scene should he ever need to write a report about something similar.
Jackson referred to the activity as a “self study program” and later pressed Russell about his claimed remorsefulness, asking if it had “anything to do with the fact that you hurt my client?”
“Yes, it does,” Russell answered.
And because “you’ve hurt Mrs. Bryant?” Jackson asked.
“Yes,” Russell answered.
Jackson used a similar line of questioning with Deputy Joey Cruz, who sent the photos to Russell while a rookie training to be a patrol deputy. He’d received the photos from his trainer, Deputy Rafael Mejia, who testified Monday he looked at them at home in bed that night while messaging another deputy on Facebook about the conditions of the people who died.
Cruz, who joined the sheriff’s department after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, testified that he also offered to show the photos to a relative at his mother’s home a few hours before he went to the bar, but she didn’t wish to see them.
Cruz also admitted showing the photos to his friend Victor Gutierrez, a bartender at the Baja California Bar & Grill in Norwalk, but he denied showing them to a stranger seated next to him at the bar and said he was instead showing him a funny post on Instagram. That led to a debate during direct, cross, and re-direct examination about what the bar surveillance video shows. Bryant’s lawyer Craig Lavoie showed clips of Cruz showing his phone to the stranger, who shakes his head and turns away, and then to Gutierrez, who spends several seconds looking before grimacing. Cruz also can be seen gesturing with his arm and across his torso.
Cruz denied the discussion was about the photos, and LA County lawyer Mira Hashmall played a clip of the video zoomed in to show that Cruz was scrolling down his phone screen as one would do when browsing Instagram. However, she fast forwarded through a portion of it, so Lavoie played that part for jurors during his re-direct and noted that it shows Cruz no longer scrolling but instead zooming in on something stationary on the screen, such as a photo, then showing it to the stranger seated next to him.
“Defense counsel fast forwarded over that?” Lavoie asked Cruz.
“Yes,” Cruz answered.
“Huh,” Lavoie responded with sarcastic interest.
Cruz denied pointing out Kobe’s remains and said “you can’t identify any of them” from the photos. He said he couldn’t remember what he was referring to when he was gesturing up and down his torso with his hand nor could he say what prompted Gutierrez to laugh, but he knows “we weren’t laughing at the photos.”
“You didn’t make a joke here about the photos?” Lavoie asked.
“No, I wouldn’t do that,” Cruz answered.
Vanessa was not in the courtroom while the surveillance video played initially, but she returned to see Lavoie finish questioning Cruz. Jackson questioned him after Lavoie, as he represents Chester as a separate plaintiff in another lawsuit that was consolidated with Vanessa’s for trial.
He told Jackson he can’t remember how many times he looked at the photos and backed Mejia’s testimony that he had the photos in case he needed to write a report about the crash.
“Did you find them amusing?” Jackson asked.
“No, I didn’t,” Cruz answered.
“Did you find them entertaining?” Jackson asked.
“No,” Cruz answered.
“Then why didn’t you delete them?” Jackson asked.
Cruz said he had “never been through anything as overwhelming” as the crash, and it made a mistake and he “just used bad judgment that day.”
Cruz said he did so as soon as he realized he wouldn’t have to write a report, which was the day his trainer told him of the citizen complaint about him showing off the photos in a bar.
“I didn’t want anything to happen to the photos, so I deleted them,” Cruz said. but he also said he didn’t know how to check his iCloud account, to which his phone had been automatically updated, and no one in the sheriff’s department checked it, either.
Like most of the other deputies at the Malibu-Lost Hills substation, the closest sheriff’s station to the crash site in Calabasas, Cruz wiped the phone he was using at the time when he replaced it with an upgrade. But, he testified Tuesday, “I’d already looked at it, and the photos were deleted.”
Cruz was originally going to be suspended for 10 days, but he contested the punishment through his union, and it was reduced to a two-day suspension with three days of education. Hashmall said in her opening statement last week that Cruz regrets showing the photos “every minute of every day.” That led to Lavoie asking Cruz if he was remorseful during the minutes he bragged to Gutierrez about his lack of punishment and when he contested his suspension through his union.
Cruz’s courtroom appearance ended with Jackson asking if part of his remorse is because he knows his actions hurt Chester.
“Yes,” Cruz answered.
“And you know it’s hurt Mrs. Bryant deeply, too, don’t you?” Jackson asked.
“Yes, I do,” Cruz answered.
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