Three days after the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others, a complaint alleged that an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy had been showing off graphic photos of the scene at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk. Now, the Los Angeles Times reports, some are wondering whether Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s actions amount to a cover up.
“[The deputy] was working the day the helicopter went down and took pictures of the crash site and bodies,” the complainant wrote in a statement filed through the department’s website.
Rather than following standard investigative procedures, and even after learning that as many as eight deputies were involved in the scandal, Villanueva ordered the cell phone photos deleted.
Asked about the situation, Villanueva told the Times, “I got nothing to say to you,” before hanging up the phone.
Patti Giggans, chair of the Civilian Oversight Commission, said deleting the photos “looks like a cover up of misconduct,” adding, “I’m hoping that that’s not the case.”
Legal experts say that all the cell phones in question should have been confiscated to preserve any evidence and to ensure that any photos never be disseminated to the public.
Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors wants the investigation taken out of the hands of the Sheriff’s Department and is advocating for the passage of ballot initiative Measure R on Tuesday, which would give subpoena power to the oversight commission.
“We should be having outside people investigating what’s happening inside the department that’s been riddled with corruption,” she said.
Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson says it’s an “inherent conflict of interest” for the department to investigate itself. “And let’s be honest, especially this department,” she said. Since his election in 2018, Villanueva has developed a reputation for deactivating misconduct investigations and reinstating deputies fired for misconduct; he created a “truth and reconciliation” process to consider returning to duty as many as 400 deputies and civilian employees fired under his predecessor for everything from unreasonable use of force to domestic violence.
“The idea that sheriff’s [deputies] could get to keep their phones and pinky-swear to delete evidence is not how you go about this,” Levinson added.
“Had we done the original, usual routine, which was relieve everybody of duty and everybody lawyers up and all that,” Villanueva told NBC 4, “that would increase the odds ten-fold that those photos would have somehow made their way into the public domain. And that’s definitely what we do not want.”
Gary C. Robb, attorney for Kobe Bryant’s widow Vanessa, said in a statement, “This is an unspeakable violation of human decency, respect, and of the privacy rights of the victims and their families. We are demanding that those responsible for these alleged actions face the harshest possible discipline, and that their identities be brought to light, to ensure that the photos are not further disseminated.”
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