Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s re-election bid is now being overshadowed by claims that as the trial of the police officer who murdered George Floyd unfolded, he had directed a cover-up of an incident in which a deputy pressed his knee against the head of a handcuffed inmate for three minutes.
Now, Los Angeles magazine has learned that the deputy at the center of the use-of-force incident, which has garnered national media attention, was previously implicated in the sharing of photos taken at the 2020 crash scene of L.A. Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.
Bryant and his daughter, along with seven other passengers, died when a helicopter transporting them to a youth basketball tournament crashed into a foggy Calabasas hillside on January 26, 2020. The crash was so violent that its horrific aftermath left even seasoned search and rescue specialists disturbed.
Deputy Douglas Johnson—who was caught on film in the act of kneeling on an inmate’s head at a San Fernando courthouse on March 10, 2021, was previously placed under administrative investigation by the internal affairs bureau in connection with his sharing of photos he’d taken illicitly at the crash site.
In an email to Los Angeles Magazine, the department declined to comment on what punishment, if any, Johnson received for his role in the dissemination of these photos. Under oath, Johnson later testified that at least four of his photos closely focused on the Bryants’ body parts.
Detective Scott Miller later offered to show them to his wife, likening the gruesome imagery to “piles of meat,” court documents show.
Critics have suggested that Johnson would not have been in a position to apply his knee to the inmate’s head on March 10, 2021 had Villanueva properly disciplined him for his involvement in the dissemination of images from the crash.
Under oath, Villanueva told attorneys he “encouraged” deputies to delete photos from the crash scene. Driving his decision was what the sheriff called a desire to diminish the “harm that those pictures can cause to the family.” Villanueva also called the idea that he had been thinking ahead to a potential lawsuit when he encouraged deputies to destroy evidence “preposterous.”
County Inspector General Max Huntsman said in a statement to Los Angeles magazine this week that on May 26, 2020, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department ignored a subpoena for records related to the destruction of evidence, which had been alleged during a pending investigation around the crash by the National Transportation Safety Board.
“While preventing our external investigation, LASD conducted its own investigation but did not interview the person alleged to have directed the cover-up: Sheriff Villanueva,” Huntsman wrote. “Ultimately he was deposed in a civil suit. [Villanueva] and all his close associates claimed they couldn’t quite remember if he ordered the destruction.”
As the carnage at the scene of the crash had been the result of an accident and not a crime, the sheriff’s deputies who arrived there weren’t authorized to take any photos.
“In this type of a scene, which is an accident, there’s only two groups of people that should be taking photos,” Villanueva told reporters when the photo-sharing was uncovered. “That is the NTSB and then the coroner’s office. No one else has any—any reason to take any photos.”
On March 3, 2020, Villanueva admitted that eight deputies had been involved in the sharing of the Kobe crash scene photos.
“Unfortunately, ever since they invented the Polaroid camera this has been a problem in law enforcement across the nation, and probably across the world because it just makes it so much easier,” he said.
Villanueva also called the behavior of his deputies at the crash site “wildly inappropriate” and vowed to push for a state law to make it a crime to take such illicit photos so “then we can do search warrants, then we can seize things.”
Within 48 hours, eight deputies had shared the photos Johnson had reportedly taken at the crash scene. Deputy Joey Cruz then blabbed to his niece about the grizzly images and then showed them to others later that night over beers at a bar in Norwalk. Another deputy, Michael Russell—who had received a photo from Deputy Rafael Mejia, who had gotten them from Versales, who had gotten them from Johnson—was at home playing a video game and chatting on headsets with Deputy Benjamin Sanchez when he sent the death photos to Sanchez’s personal cell phone.
Word of the chain of law enforcement officers sharing the images eventually resulted in a complaint being sent to the department.
Two sources well placed in the LASD told Los Angeles Magazine that the investigation into the incident launched by the Internal Affairs Bureau resulted in no punishment for Johnson.
The following year, on March 10, 2021, Johnson was on duty at a San Fernando courthouse when an inmate punched a deputy in the face inside a holding area. At the time, jury selection was underway in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was later convicted of murdering George Floyd with a knee to the neck; this is the tactic Johnson is seen using in the inmate in video footage.
Amid the Chauvin trial, which was watched nationwide, the controversy of a similar incident having occurred on their watch was too much for sheriff’s officials. Led by Villanueva, they attempted to cover up the incident, the L.A. Times reported.
Commander Eli Vera and Assistant Sheriff Robin Limon, two members of the sheriff’s inner circle of close advisers at the time, have since said Villanueva viewed the video at an aide’s desk within days of the incident. Capt. Robert Jones, who oversaw the San Fernando court, decided that the force by Johnson used on the inmate that day was unreasonable, the Times reported.
Limon filed a legal claim on April 28 alleging that she personally brought a DVD containing a video of a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed inmate’s neck to Villanueva and watched it with him and two others just five days after the incident happened.
In a statement to Los Angeles Magazine declining to respond to questions about Johnson, a department spokesperson wrote “What we can say is, Sheriff Alex Villanueva is committed to transparency and accountability.”