- Lakers GM Rob Pelinka told a courtroom about his relationship with Kobe and Vanessa Bryant.
- He testified in Vanessa Bryant’s trial against LA County for helicopter crash site photos of Kobe.
- Pelinka said six months after the crash, he and Vanessa Bryant visited the crash site to pay tribute.
Six months after a helicopter carrying Kobe and Gianna “Gigi” Bryant crashed in Calabasas, California, killing all nine passengers on board, Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka and Bryant’s widow Vanessa Bryant took an all-terrain vehicle up the nearly 1,200-foot hill where the aircraft went down.
There, Vanessa Bryant and Pelinka – friends for over two decades – paid tribute to Kobe and Gigi, Pelinka told jurors in a federal Los Angeles court.
“Part of her journey of grief and healing was that she wanted to touch the soil from where they went to heaven,” Pelinka told the court, fighting back tears. “We just knew that they were with us.”
Pelinka’s testimony kicked off the first day of Vanessa Bryant’s trial against Los Angeles County after LA Sheriff’s Deputies and LA County Fire Captains took and shared photos of the helicopter crash site in late January 2020. He provided a window into Vanessa Bryant’s emotional state after the crash , and how her distress was compounded after learning that illicit crash site photos were taken.
On January 26, 2020, a helicopter transporting Kobe Bryant, the couple’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, as well as baseball coach John Altobelli and his family crashed near Malibu as they were heading to a girls basketball game. All nine aboard, including 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 broken by The LA Times that first responders took and shared photos of the January 2020 crash site. Chris Chester, whose wife Sarah and daughter Peyton died in the crash, is also suing county workers on the same federal and state claims and will have a consolidated 9-day trial alongside Bryant against the county.
Pelinka said that on the morning of the crash, he was in church with his family, receiving messages from Kobe Bryant as he was aboard the helicopter, asking Pelinka if he could help give a young girl aboard the flight advice about working in the sports industry.
That was Kobe’s nature, Pelinka told the court as he described meeting the NBA legend in 1998 as they were starting their careers.
“He’s still my best friend,” Pelinka told the court while weeping and recalling the day of the crash, referring to Vanessa Bryant as his sister. “Being friends with Kobe was like having a true superhero as a best friend.”
Pelinka added that Vanessa Bryant, who was dressed in black and cried through much of the proceedings Wednesday, cared so much about the “beauty she created around her children,” and that when he heard the news that county staff had taken photos of Kobe and Gigi’s remains at the crash site, he thought about the gruesome photos “juxtaposed by the ones she has up at home.”
In opening statements, county attorney Mira Hashmall said that first responders from various agencies documented the crash site per their agency policies and “put their lives on the line” to respond to the crash and put out a resulting bushfire.
Hashmall added in her opening statement that 18 different federal and state agencies responded to the crash scene, including the FBI – and claimed that media agencies were the only entities who publicly disseminated photos of the crash. Hashmall said LASD Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s deletion order to staff who took photos helped “contain” the spread of the photos amid “lapses in judgment” from County staff who sent photos to each other.
Bryant’s suit is seeking punitive damages from county defendants who are accused of taking and sharing crash site photos. Bryant is suing the county for negligence, emotional distress, and invasion of privacy claims as well as federal claims which relate to the constitutional right to the images of her deceased loved ones, and LA County agency practices that led to the alleged taking and dissemination of photos.
In an early win, Judge John Walter granted Chester and Bryant’s attorneys the ability to call a coroner who took photos of the scene, saying that the coroner’s photos are “plaintiff’s best evidence of what the photos depicted,” and added that they would not be shown publicly at all, not even to the jury.
Hashmall told Insider that the plaintiffs aim “to inflame the jury’s emotions by conflating the coroner’s photos, taken for an entirely different purpose, with the photos taken by the Sheriff’s and Fire Departments.”
Vanessa Bryant’s attorney Luis Lee claimed in his opening statements that LACFD staff went “body to body” taking photos of remains at the crash site then sent photos to a web of county staff, and said that the county “poured salt in an unhealed wound and violated the constitution.”
“Bryant’s loved ones deserve to be treated with the care and dignity that every culture in the world treats those who die,” Lee said.