Joey Cruz, Rafael Mejia, Michael Russell and Raul Versales are deputies from the County of Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in Los Angeles County, California, United States. They are accused of taking or distributing pictures of bodies from the fatal helicopter crash in Calabasas, Los Angeles County on January 26, 2020.
The crash killed all of the nine people on board including National Basketball Association legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Bryant. He was 41 while she was 13.
In September 2020, Kobe’s widow Vanessa Bryant filed an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against Los Angeles County and its sheriff’s office over photos shared by first responders of the fatal crash. Cruz, According to the lawsuit, the helicopter crash site was not protected from paparazzi but “the biggest threat to the sanctity of the victims’ remains proved to be the Sheriff’s Department itself.”
“Faced with a scene of unimaginable loss, no fewer than eight sheriff’s deputies at the crash site pulled out their personal cell phones and snapped photos of the dead children, parents and coaches,” the lawsuit continued. “The deputies took these photos for their own personal gratification.”
In March 2020, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva claimed that he ordered eight deputies to delete the photos of the helicopter crash scene that they have allegedly taken or shared. He told NBC News that the deputies involved “they came to the station on their own and had admitted they had taken them and they had deleted them” and the sheriff’s office was “content that those involved did that.”
U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter is overseeing the lawsuit filed by Vanessa. On March 8, 2021, the judge ruled that the names of the deputies involved cannot be kept secret.
The ruling allowed Vanessa to name Cruz, Mejia, Russell and Versales in new court filings on March 17, 2021. Versales allegedly sent to Mejia photos of Kobe and Gianna’s remains.
Mejia is accused of sharing the photos to Cruz and at least one other individual without any legitimate governmental purpose. Cruz allegedly shared the photos with his family and Russell, who allegedly shared the photos with a personal friend.
Cruz was a trainee deputy on the day Kobe and Gianna died. He is accused of showing off the photos at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk, California to a bartender and a fellow customer on January 28, 2020.