THE sheriff’s department where four cops accused of leaking graphic photos of Kobe Bryant’s dead body work allegedly has a long history of sharing grisly murder scenes and dead bodies, The Sun can reveal.
Several deputies have blown the whistle on the culture of fear around the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which is at center of a lawsuit brought by Vanessa Bryant after gruesome pictures of the helicopter crash were leaked.
Lawyer Vincent Miller, who is representing several of the whistleblowers, said he did not know if any of the four cops named in the suit as sharing the gruesome picture of Kobe were connected to any gangs, including a violent clique known as the Banditos.
Joey Cruz, Rafael Mejia, Michael Russell and Raul Versales are named in Vanessa Bryant’s suit as the deputies who leaked the graphic images.
Miller added that it didn’t surprise him pictures were leaked, such is the culture at the LASD.
Even addressing reporters in March 2020, Sheriff Villanueva stated: “Unfortunately, ever since they invented the Polaroid camera, this has been a problem in law enforcement across the nation, probably across the world, because it just makes it so much easier. And then there’s – there’s cops – they keep death books, for example, where . . . they have photos from crime scenes throughout their careers.”
In her lawsuit, Vanessa’s lawyer Lui Li wrote: “The Sheriff’s and Fire Departments’ outrageous actions have caused Mrs Bryant severe emotional distress and compounded the trauma of losing Kobe and Gianna.
“Mrs Bryant feels ill at the thought that sheriff’s deputies, firefighters,
and members of the public have gawked at gratuitous images of her deceased husband and child, and she lives in fear that she or her children will one day confront horrific images of their loved ones online.”
The lawsuit comes after the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department refused to disclose whether the four officers – Cruz, Mejia, Russell and Versales – were still serving officers when asked by The Sun.
The LASD repeatedly refused to answer any questions or provide any information into whether they had investigated the matter or taken any disciplinary action against the four cops when contacted by The Sun. It is not yet known if they have employed lawyers themselves.
The Sun has now submitted six official public record request to the LASD.
Miller, who is currently suing the department over the wrongful conduct of an internal LASD gang called the Banditos, told The Sun he’d heard from other deputies it was common practice to share grisly pictures of dead and mutilated bodies.
“Well, I can’t say it surprised me one bit unfortunately because I know for a fact that deputies, it’s a common practice among [them]… this is not the first time – let’s put it this way – that the deputies have shared, knowingly, and without reason photos, crime scene photos with each other.
“There’s deputies who like to snap pictures of grisly murders and dead bodies and pass it around to each other.
“So it’s not an unheard of practice to do that. And then Kobe’s a celebrity. So, just based on that, it didn’t shock me. It’s disgusting, obviously, it’s horrifying.
“It makes you wonder about who would want to look at stuff like that. It’s understandable, obviously why Kobe’s family would be very offended and upset over it.
“And then the other thing why it wouldn’t surprise me is just because of those history of a lack of accountability for wrongful conduct.”
Just this week, 47 deputies were added to Miller’s lawsuit alleging they were members of a criminal gang of deputies called the Banditos, who beat, intimidated and harassed fellow deputies.
They have been called gangs because they wear matching skeleton tattoos with a giant mustache, a sombrero and a bandolier and pistol, and also have initiation rituals.
Miller said he didn’t know whether three of the four accused deputies, who were not mentioned in his lawsuit – were members of the Banditos or other deputy lead gangs – but says the whole culture encourages things like this to happen.
“There was a failure to hold deputies who are engaged in wrongful conduct accountable,” Miller said
“And that’s unfortunately the environment when you have that kind of culture, it would make it more likely for things like that to happen like with the Kobe Bryant thing.
“I don’t know those deputies, I don’t know if any of them belong to a deputy gang that were involved in the Kobe situation, but really with the culture being so dominant and this lack of accountability in general, it just opens the door for these kinds of behaviors to happen.”
Now, The Sun can also reveal how the beleaguered department has faced a huge 106 lawsuits since January 2020, including 71 naming Sheriff of Los Angeles County Alex Villanueva as a defendant or respondent, either as an individual or in his official capacity. Villanueava is not named in Miller’s case.
Complaints range from prisoner civil rights to unreasonable search and seizure and battery.
And the Banditos and other cops gangs have also used violence against other cops, including knocking them unconscious and glassing them in order to keep the code of silence, according to Miller.
“This latest thing that happened, the fact that my clients spoke up, you know, two of them were put unconscious by the Banditos in front of a bunch of other deputies, including some in uniform at a station event, and nobody did anything.
“And they were threatened and warned to not speak up. And they went ahead and spoke up and suffered a tremendous amount of retaliation. But it’s what galvanized the community and the media’s attention. And there’s a lot of heat now on the Sheriff’s department on the sheriff and the department to actually fix the problem.
The lawsuit filed in Superior Court demands a jury trial on allegations of bullying, assault and battery with “some hit and choked unconscious”, had their lives put at risk by seniors not sending back up on dangerous calls, were denied promotions and were harassed and discriminated against.
A total of 49 cases brought against the department or individual officers are now settled or they have been removed as defendants, while 57 remain open, including the one filed by Kobe Bryant’s widow.
The star’s widow, 37, has alleged members of the LASD shared multiple gruesome and unauthorized images of the crash scene.
Bryant’s lawsuit alleged that within 48 hours of the crash, photos had spread to at least 10 members of the department.
One deputy, it is alleged, had taken between 25 and 100 photos of the crash scene on his cell phone.
There are also disturbing allegations about what those deputies did with the photos of Kobe, Gianna and the other passengers.
The Los Angeles County Fire Department also stands accused of spreading gruesome photos but they declined to comment when approached by The Sun.
The second part of the lawsuit she shared included allegations that officer Joey Cruz showed crash photographs to a bartender at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk, California.
Miller is now hoping to take his trial to court but says he does only not want money, he is “demanding massive reform at the Sheriff’s department.”
Sheriff Alex Villanueava previously tweeted about the case: “We will refrain from trying this case in the media and will wait for the appropriate venue.
“Our hearts go out to all the families affected by the tragedy.”
When asked whether the four officers are still serving members of LASD, the department’s public information officer directed The Sun to the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Department where they are believed to have been based.
The watch commander then told The Sun he was refusing to answer whether the four deputies were still serving all not because they were protected by the California Police Officer’s Bill of Rights.
When pressed again, the public information officer said: “I was instructed by my command staff that we are only referring to the twitter statement from the sheriff.”
The LASD is also facing a state civil right probe into corruption and wrong doing, but the Attorney General was unable to comment on an active investigation when approached by The Sun.
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Although LASD wouldn’t comment on ongoing litigation they did highlight a 2020 statement in which Alex Villanueava announced 26 department employees will receive letters of intent to suspend or terminate as a result of their “involvement in a fight between deputies”.
“Following that incident, allegations arose about a deputy clique within the Department at the East Los Angeles patrol station of a subgroup known as the “Bandidos….After 20 months in office, we have taken the legal and procedural steps necessary to ensure that we are holding our employees accountable to the rule of law.”