- Two LA sheriff's deputies testified on Tuesday in Vanessa Bryant's case against Los Angeles county.
- Deputies Joey Cruz and Michael Russell shared photos of the crash that killed Kobe Bryant.
- Both men expressed remorse, but said they shared the photos as a way to alleviate stress.
Two Los Angeles sheriff's deputies who shared graphic photos of the 2020 helicopter crash that killed nine people, including NBA star Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, were among the first to publicly express remorse for their role in the county-wide spread of the photos while testifying on Tuesday.
Deputies Joey Cruz and Michael Russell both took the stand Tuesday morning, kicking off the fifth day of the trial between Vanessa Bryant and Los Angeles County. Bryant filed a lawsuit against the county and other defendants over allegations that LA sheriff's deputies and Los Angeles County Fire Department captains took and shared photos of the helicopter crash site in late January 2020.
Cruz took the stand first, describing how on the night of January 28 — just two days after the fatal crash — he went to the Baja California Bar and Grill to unwind after a series of stressful and overwhelming work days. While at the bar, Cruz said he started "venting" to his close friend, the bartender Victor Gutierrez.
Surveillance footage shows Cruz displaying a series of photos on his phone for under a minute while Gutierrez looks on. When Gutierrez testified last week, he told the jury that he initially winced when he saw the gruesome photos from the crash site. But moments later, security camera footage showed the two men laughing.
County officials have not denied that Cruz, a young trainee at the time, shared the photos at the bar, calling his behavior a "lapse." On Tuesday, Cruz also acknowledged that he went "too far."
"I would do everything differently about the photos," he said in court. He also admitted to the jury that he tried to show his niece graphic crash site photos the day before he visited the bar, but that she "wasn't interested," in looking at them.
The county maintains that the photos did not spread beyond the bar and were deleted shortly thereafter. But both legal teams on Tuesday asked that the surveillance footage be re-played, with Vanessa Bryant's attorneys trying to show that Cruz may have showed the photos to another patron during the encounter. County attorneys called for the playback in an effort to refute that allegation, saying Cruz was scrolling on Instagram.
Cruz testified that the bar was his regular place to have a few drinks, telling the court that his talking to Gutierrez and showing the photos that evening was a form of de-stressing.
"We handle stress differently," Cruz said of his fellow LASD officers.
In addition to showing the photos at the bar, Cruz also sent the pictures to Deputy Michael Russell, who took the stand next.
Russell also testified that he shared the photos as a way to "alleviate a lot of stress."
In a 2021 deposition, the deputy said that he was not "mentally prepared" when Cruz first texted him the photos.
"I wasn't expecting dismembered bodies," he testified at the time.
The day after he had received the photos, Russell said he texted a group of friends, which included fellow LASD Deputy Ben Sanchez, and logged on to play Call of Duty with the group. Russell then warned Sanchez, and texted him the graphic photos that Cruz had previously sent him the night of the crash.
While Russell on Tuesday maintained that playing Call of Duty and sharing information with his friend was "how he relieves stress," he also acknowledged his culpability in the pictures' spread.
"I had no business doing that," he said.
Both Cruz and Russell while on the stand offered shaky accounts as to why they had possession of photos in the first place, claiming the pictures were meant to help them understand the magnitude of the crash and help them learn how to deal with the accident.
"This was a self-study sort of program for you?" Jerome Jackson, the attorney for Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the crash, mockingly probed in response.
The testimony comes after multiple LA County Fire officials took the stand earlier this month and expressed "no regrets" for how the crash site was handled.
On January 26, 2020, a helicopter transporting Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Bryant, and the baseball coach John Altobelli and his family crashed near Malibu, California, as they were heading to a girls basketball game. All nine people aboard, including the pilot, Ara Zobayan, died in the crash.
In September 2020, Vanessa Bryant sued the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, the county's fire department, the county as a whole, and eight officers in the wake of reports that first responders took and shared photos of the January 2020 crash site.
Chester, whose wife, Sarah, and daughter Payton died in the crash, is also suing county workers on the same claims and will have a consolidated nine-day trial alongside Bryant's against the county.