Jae C. Hong/AP
LOS ANGELES – Vanessa Bryant testified on Friday that she had only just begun to mourn the loss of her husband, basketball star Kobe Bryant, and their 13-year-old daughter Gianna, when she faced the fresh horror of learning that sheriff’s deputies and firefighters had. shot and shared photos of their bodies at the site of the helicopter crash that killed them.
“I felt like running, running down the block and screaming,” she said, her tears turning into sobs and her voice quickening. “It was like the feeling of wanting to run down a pier and jump into the water. The problem is, I can’t escape. I can’t escape my body.”
During her three hours on the witness stand in federal court in Los Angeles, where she is to sue LA County for invasion of privacy over the images, Bryant said she fought to get through both public and private memorials for her loved ones and seven others who were killed on Jan. 26, 2020, and thought she was ready to truly begin the grieving process about a month later. She was with friends and her surviving daughters, and was holding her 7-month-old baby, when she got a call about a Los Angeles Times story on the crash-scene photos.
“I ran out of the house and around to the side so my girls wouldn’t see,” she said. “I was blindsided, devastated, hurt again. I trusted them. I trusted them not to do these things.”
Evidence presented at trial showed that a sheriff’s deputy showed a photo of Bryant’s body to a bartender while he was drinking, prompting an official complaint from another man drinking nearby, and that firefighters shared them with each other at an awards banquet. Others shared them with spouses. A lawyer for the county said the photos were taken only because they were essential to assess the site moments after the crash, and that when LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva found out they were shared, he demanded they all be removed.
No photos have surfaced publicly, but Vanessa Bryant said she constantly worries that some still might.
“I live in fear every day of being on social media and these will pop up,” she testified. “I live in fear that my daughters are on social media and these will come out.”
She said the thought keeps her awake at night when she lies next to her 3-year-old and her 5-year-old, and sometimes leads to panic attacks in which she can’t breathe.
Under cross-examination by J. Mira Hashmall, the attorney representing LA County at the trial, Bryant testified that she had not received any medical diagnosis of having panic attacks, or any mental health illness, nor had she taken any medications for them.
She said she talked to a therapist for about 18 months after the crash, but not since.
“I feel like sometimes it helps,” Bryant said, “but sometimes it’s completely draining.”
Hashmall spent much of her 90-minute cross-examination examining the business roles Bryant now plays, including acting as president of her husband’s multimedia company, Granity Studios, overseeing the publication of one book he wrote and helping to finish and publish another, rubric the foundation started for Kobe and Gianna, and establishing several other companies.
Hashmall suggested that Bryant’s ability to do all of this meant that she was functioning well and was not overcome with fear and dread.
“It seems like on top of everything else you’re juggling a business empire,” Hashmall said at one point.
“For me, it’s a labor of love,” said Bryant, who remained calm and composed during cross-examination.
She cried often, and laughed sometimes, during the questioning of her lawyer Luis Li, who had her describe her life with her “proud girl-daddy” husband and their daughters.
“He was such a beautiful and devoted father,” she said.
Bryant chronicled the day of the crash, her anguish and her frustration at trying to learn if her husband and daughter were still alive after she initially heard from an aide that there were five survivors.
She described Sheriff Villanueva coming into a room where she was waiting at the Lost Hills sheriff’s station and confirming that her husband and daughter had been killed. He asked if there was anything he could do for her.
“I told him, if you can’t bring my babies back, then please secure the area,” Bryant said. “I worry about paparazzi.”
“Did the sheriff tell you that one of his deputies has already gone to the hill to take close-up photos of accidents?” He asked.
“No,” Bryant replied.
On cross-examination, Hashmall said the deputy, Doug Johnson, who hiked through rough terrain into the hills in north Los Angeles to the crash site and shot the photos that were later shared, was only trying to use them to assess the situation.
“You can understand why he would want the same information you did,” Hashmall said.
“I don’t think you have to take close-ups of people to determine how many people are on a plane,” Bryant replied. “I think he could only count.”
Bryant’s side rested its case after her testimony, which came on the eighth day of the trial.