Bartender Victor Gutierrez testified Thursday that he was working an evening shift at a Mexican restaurant in Norwalk, California, in late January 2020 when an off-duty Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy sat down at the bar, pulled out his personal cell phone and started sharing graphic and gruesome photos of dead bodies.
Deputy Joey Cruz, a “regular” customer at Baja California Bar & Grill, claimed the photos were from the scene of the horrific helicopter crash that claimed the lives of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others two days prior, Gutierrez said, addressing jurors on the second day of testimony at the civil trial for widow Vanessa Bryant’s invasion of privacy lawsuit filed against Los Angeles County.
Asked how many photos appeared to show Kobe Bryant’s remains, Gutierrez struggled to answer. “I wouldn’t be able to really say because it was just parts,” he replied. Asked if he saw an image of “what appeared to be a girl,” he again said he couldn’t answer. “They were just parts,” he replied.
At the apparent reference to her daughter Gianna, Vanessa Bryant turned visibly emotional inside the federal courtroom in downtown Los Angeles. As one of her lawyers interrupted the proceeding to ask that she be allowed to leave, Vanessa couldn’t contain her audible sobbing. Seconds later, she stood up and made a beeline for the door, holding a hand up to her face.
With Vanessa outside the courtroom, another one of her lawyers, Craig Jennings Lavoie, confronted Gutierrez with multiple clips of soundless surveillance video from inside the bar that night. Jurors watched as Gutierrez moved from room to room, approaching multiple groups of people and making a series of similar hand motions after viewing the photos.
Gutierrez testified repeatedly that he couldn’t remember what he was saying while making the animated gestures toward his torso, neck and face during four separate caught-on-video conversations with people that night. But, he admitted it was hard to mistake what he was expressing when he made a slashing motion across his neck while addressing his boss and two others seated at a table. Asked if he was “gesturing” about the condition of the bodies he saw in the photographs, Guttierez replied, “I believe I was.”
The bartender was adamant he never laughed at the situation, claiming he and Cruz must have been discussing something other than the disturbing photographs when they were seen joking together at the bar. “Were you talking about human beings? Laughing about people dying?” Vanessa’s lawyer asked.
“No,” Gutierrez responded. “You got to be psycho to do that.”
Gutierrez said he didn’t want anyone to get in trouble and admitted he had a friendship with Cruz that extended into his personal life outside the bar. After he initially testified that he only viewed Cruz’s photos for a matter of seconds, he revised his estimate to “at least a minute.” He had little choice after Vanessa’s lawyer played video of him holding Cruz’s phone in his own hands behind the bar and standing behind Cruz, leaning over his shoulder, looking at the phone.
Under cross-examination by county lawyer Mira Hashmall, Gutierrez said he was a big Kobe Bryant fan. “The day I found out Kobe Bryant died, I actually was crying,” he said.
During opening statements in the case on Wednesday, Vanessa Bryant’s lawyer Luis Li said a whistleblower who was the bar that night filed a formal complaint with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office. The report led deputies to visit the bar the next day, on Jan. 29, 2020. Hashmall asked Gutierrez if the deputies demanded the surveillance video “right away,” as part of a thorough investigation of the alleged misconduct. “Right away,” Gutierrez responded.
Vanessa Bryant filed her lawsuit eight months after the horrific Jan. 26, 2020, crash, saying she suffered severe emotional distress when she learned that multiple first responders had snapped and shared unauthorized crash scene photos using their personal devices. She said the thought of strangers “gawking” at grisly images of her husband and 13-year-old daughter left her physically “ill.”
“County employees exploited the accident. They took and shared pictures of Kobe and Gianna as souvenirs,” Li said Wednesday. “They walked around the wreckage and took pictures of broken bodies from the helicopter crash. They took close-ups of limbs, of burnt flesh. It shocks the conscience.”
He played audio of one detective admitting that his own wife declined to view the photos after he described them to her as “piles of meat.”
For their part, county lawyers argue that Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit has no legal merit because no photos ever leaked to the media and none have surfaced online.
“It is undisputed that the complained-of photos have never been in the media, on the Internet, or otherwise publicly disseminated. Plaintiff Vanessa Bryant has never seen county photos of her family members,” the defense lawyers argue in their filings.
In her dueling opening statement Wednesday, Hashmall said Deputy Cruz was a rookie back in January 2020 and now deeply regrets his actions. She was adamant the county did not violate the Bryant family’s constitutional right to privacy.
“The county continues to express its deepest sympathies for the families that suffered this terrible loss. The county has also worked tirelessly for two and half years to make sure its site photos of the crash were never publicly disseminated. The evidence shows they never were. And that is fact, not speculation,” Hashmall, a partner at the Miller Barondess law firm, said in a statement shared with Rolling Stone.
U.S. District Judge John Walter consolidated Bryant’s lawsuit with a similar one filed by Orange County financial adviser Chris Chester, who lost his wife Sarah, and the couple’s 13-year-old daughter, Payton, in the crash.
Kobe Bryant, 41, was traveling with his daughter and six others to a youth basketball tournament when his chartered helicopter crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, California, amid dense fog, killing everyone on board, including the pilot.