One day after Vanessa Bryant said she was “absolutely devastated” regarding reports that first responders took graphic photos of the helicopter crash site where husband Kobe Bryant, their 13-year-old daughter and seven others died, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva admitted that eight deputies admitted to their involvement in taking, seeing and sharing the pictures.
Villanueva told NBC News that he learned of the photos during the week of the crash and made it his “No. 1 priority” to have them deleted.
“We identified the deputies involved, they came to the station on their own and had admitted they had taken them and they had deleted them,” the sheriff said, adding that he was “content” with that and told those involved that “the behavior is inexcusable.”
“I mean, people are grieving for the loss of their loved ones,” Villanueva said. “To have that on top of what they’ve already gone through is unconscionable.”
Villanueva said that the department underwent a different procedure for deleting the photos, in an effort to ensure that they didn’t become more public.
“Had we done the original, usual routine, which was relieve everybody of duty and everybody lawyers up and all that, that would increase the odds tenfold that those photos would have somehow made their way into the public domain. And that’s definitely what we do not want,” Villanueva told NBC.
The Los Angeles Times said last week that a citizen reported the photos after a deputy was showing the graphic photos from the accident at a Norwalk bar, while another source said they saw a picture of the victims’ remains.
After the Times report, the sheriff’s department began an internal investigation into the existence of the pictures.
“There is currently an active ongoing administrative investigation,” the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department told HuffPost in a statement Monday night, adding that “appropriate administrative action will be taken.”
The department reiterated that the sheriff did not personally order any deputies to delete photos and that they did it of their own volition.
“Eight employees who had images of the incident in their possession were identified. They were ordered to the Lost Hills station,” the statement added. “Those eight employees, on their own, and prior to arrival at the station, deleted the photos and content.”
Vanessa Bryant issued a statement through her attorney, Gary C. Robb, on Sunday regarding the pictures. Robb said that Vanessa Bryant specifically went to the sheriff’s office in Calabasas, California, on Jan. 26 ― the day of the crash ― to designate the area a no-fly zone to protect it from photographers.
“This was of critical importance to her as she desired to protect the dignity of all the victims, and their families,” Robb said. “At that time, Sheriff Alex Villanueva assured us all measures would be put in place to protect the families’ privacy, and it is our understanding that he has worked hard to honor those requests.”
The statement added that “first responders should be trustworthy” and added that it was “inexcusable and deplorable that some deputies from the Lost Hills Sheriff’s substation, other surrounding substations and LACOFD would allegedly breach their duty.”
“This is an unspeakable violation of human decency, respect, and of the privacy rights of the victims and their families,” the statement added. “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.”
The statement added contact information for anyone who had more information regarding the “grievous and shameful incidents,” while also thanking the individual who brought the complaints to light.
Bryant’s attorneys have also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the helicopter operator, Island Express Helicopters, for allowing its pilot, who died in the crash, to fly in heavy fog.