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Vanessa Bryant sobs during first day of trial over Kobe crash photos

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Vanessa Bryant sobbed in a Los Angeles court Wednesday as her attorney described how sheriff’s deputies and firefighters shared photos of her late husband Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna’s mangled remains after they were killed in a helicopter crash in 2020.

The 40-year-old widow, who wore a fitted black suit and still had a band on her left ring finger, cried into a tissue as the court heard that one deputy even referred to her loved ones as “piles of meat” in a deposition.

“Jan 26, 2020 will always be the worst day of Vanessa Bryant’s life,” Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li, said to the jury during opening statements. “County employees explored and took pictures as souvenirs. They poured salt into an unbearable wound.”

Bryant’s federal invasion-of-privacy-suit trial launched Wednesday in federal court more than two years after the NBA Hall of Famer was killed along with the couple’s 13-year-old daughter and seven others in a January 2020 helicopter crash in Calabasas.

She is seeking an unspecified millions in damages in her suit against Los Angeles County over graphic snapshots of the wreck that were allegedly passed around by first responders.

The photos were shared on “at least 28 [Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies] devices and by at least a dozen firefighters,” some of whom touted the photos like trophies “in a bar while pantomiming dismemberment and showing off the photos over cocktails at an awards gala,” Bryant’s lawsuit alleges.

Vanessa Bryant wipes away tears as she speaks during the “Celebration of Life for Kobe and Gianna Bryant” at the Staples Center in Los Angeles in Feb. 2020
AFP via Getty Images
Kobe Bryant hold his arms around his daughter Gianna. Both were killed in the helicopter crash in Jan. 2020.
Images of the bodies of Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna were reportedly shared by LA County first responders, Vanessa Bryant’s lawsuit alleges.
AP

Li said that one of the deputies who responded to the crash site walked around the wreckage and snapped close-up photos of the NBA legend’s dismembered body parts.

One deputy took a firefighter up and down the crash site where he identified possible body parts and the firefighter took pictures, Li said.

In one deposition heard in court, Det. Scott Miller said the pictures were sent to him and he asked his wife if she wanted to see the gruesome pictures, but she said no.

“I told her there were piles of meat,” Miller said in an interview and then laughed loudly in the recording.

Vanessa Bryant broke down after hearing the crass comment.

NTSB investigator examines wreckage of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others.
Bryant’s suit alleges deputies who responded to the crash site walked around the wreckage and photos of the NBA legend’s dismembered body parts.
AP
Firefighters work the scene of a helicopter crash where Kobe Bryant was killed.
Bryant’s attorney said responders shared the images in public.
AP

Miller continued to say that Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and others in his department were confronted about deputies sharing the pictures at a bar and with family, but Villanueva denied knowledge of a complaint lodged to his department.

Li said a man who was at a bar in Norco, Calif when he happened to see Deputy Joey Cruz shared the pictures on his iPhone with a bartender. Li played a video of the encounter, which showed the bartender wince and step back in shock when he looked at the phone screen.

Moments later, Cruz was seen laughing at the bar. The man who witnessed Cruz sharing the photo reported it to the sheriff’s office, he said.

Around the same time, Li said, a county firefighter’s wife also reported to fire officials that several first responders were sharing and discussing the graphic crash photos at an awards show.

Capt. Matthew Vander Horch emailed his superiors about the complaint and said he would look into an investigation, Li said. However, the Sheriff’s Department intervened and stopped the investigation, Vander Horch said in a deposition.

The sheriff’s deputies were told to erase everything in their phones and buy new ones, the attorney claimed.

Villanueva was questioned a month after the crash over reports that his deputies were sharing photos. The sheriff said it was not uncommon that deputies would take pictures of the dead bodies at incidents and collect them as keepsakes in “death books.”

In a separate video, Villanueva clarified that only coroners and National Transit Safety Board officials should be permitted to take photos of these types of incidents for investigation purposes only, and that no one else is allowed to.

Kobe Bryant and Vanessa Bryant attend the 90th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood in 2018.
Vanessa Bryant wiped tears from her eyes during the opening statements of her trial against Los Angeles County on Wednesday.
WireImage
Vanessa Bryant,  Kobe Bryant, Natalia Bryant and Gianna Bryant attend the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.
Kobe Bryant, 41, and Gianna Bryant, 13, were among the nine killed in the 2020 helicopter crash.
FilmMagic

“When this type of behavior is tolerated, it creates a culture of callousness,” Li told the jurors, who were selected on Wednesday.

Attorneys representing Los Angeles County wrote in a trial brief that there is no evidence that the images were shared publicly.

US District Judge John Walter John Walter consolidated Bryant’s lawsuit with a similar claim filed by Orange County financial adviser Chris Chester, who lost his wife Sarah and their 13-year-old daughter, Payton, in the accident.

Chester also struggled to keep his composure as his attorney, Jerry Jackson, described the horrific way his wife was found by first responders.

Jackson said Sarah and Peyton’s bodies were found 100 feet away from the main impact site in a ravine. Sarah’s torso was sliced open at the waist and her organs, her private parts, colon, fallopian tubes and intestines were strewn all over the bushes in the ravine and the surrounding areas.

The violent scene was among the photos shared by several sheriffs and fire personnel, Jackson said.

“On Mr. Chester’s darkest said he thought someday, somewhere, somehow, those responsible … will face justice,” Jackson said. “Today is that day.”

Jackson said the devastated father has had a hard time dealing with his wife and daughters deaths and had turned to drinking at one low point.

Judge Walter indicated that the trial would take about a week and would be broken up into two phases, according to City News Service. 

The first phase of the trial would address Bryant’s federal claims that the taking and dissemination of photos by county personnel violated their constitutional rights. The state law claims would be argued during the second phase.

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Five State Parks to Visit This Winter

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California is home to 279 state parks, which cover more than a million acres combined and stretch from 230 feet below sea level at the Salton Sea to more than 10,000 feet above at the snowy San Jacinto Peak. The state park system, the biggest in the nation, preserves impressive waterfalls and wildlife reserves, some of the world’s largest trees and the state’s most stunning flowers.

Today I have some recommendations for state parks to visit in the winter, no matter what sort of vacation you’re craving. And you can now check out free vehicle day-use passes for most of California’s state parks from your local library.

Happy traveling.

Roughly 20 miles north of Santa Cruz, Año Nuevo State Park is one of the few places in North America where you can see elephant seals up close. The massive animals, each about the size of an S.U.V., can be viewed at the park year-round, but winter tends to be the busiest and most exciting season, as it’s when the pups are born.

From December through March, the seals come ashore to mate, give birth and nurse their young. Park docents offer guided walks starting on Dec. 15 and continuing every day until March 31, with the exception of Dec. 25. Read more about reserving a tour.

About 90 miles southeast of Sacramento in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the city of Columbia was once the second largest in California. Between 1850 and 1880, more than a billion dollars’ worth of gold was mined in the area. And in 1945, the State Legislature designated the site the Columbia State Historic Park so that a typical gold rush town could be preserved.

During the holiday season, visitors to the park can watch confectioners make giant handmade candy canes and can enjoy special events, including a Los Posadas Nativity procession and a Christmas equestrian parade.

Though spring is typically the best time to catch its famous wildflower blooms, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a lovely place to visit in the winter. The largest state park in California, it offers miles of hiking trails, sweeping vistas of the rugged Borrego Badlands, excellent stargazing and “an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wonders of the California desert,” said Jorge Moreno, a state parks department spokesman.

Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park is 2,000 acres of dense pine, fir, aspen and cedar forest along the quiet western shores of Lake Tahoe. Winter visitors to Sugar Pine Point can camp in the snow and explore miles of marked cross-country skiing trails.

Thirty miles south of Redding, William B. Ide Adobe State Historic Park is a memorial to William B. Ide, a leader of the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt against Mexican control of California. The park features an old adobe home, blacksmith shop and other historic sites, which can be toured on the weekends. The park’s annual Pioneer Christmas Party, which recreates the settlers’ earliest holiday celebrations, will take place this year on Dec. 17.

Today’s tip comes from Lyn Allred, who recommends the town of Cambria on the Central Coast:

“Right on the ocean, the peaceful wooden path has gorgeous vistas and benches on which to contemplate life. Hotels line the street across from the ocean and the quaint Old Cambria is a quick drive east. Be sure to stop by Linn’s for some yummy treats. Many hotels will welcome your dog, too.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.


Have you visited any of the travel destinations that we’ve recommended in the newsletter? Send us a few lines about your trip, and a photo!

We’d like to share them in upcoming editions of the newsletter. Email us at CAToday@nytimes.com. Please include your name and the city in which you live


The Times recently asked readers to tell us what they were thankful for this year, in fewer than 100 words. The responses touched on large moments of gratitude, like a lifesaving drug or the birth of a child, as well as the mundane joys of life, like ice cream and exercise.

Here’s a sweet one from Annalisa McMorrow, 53, who lives in Point Reyes Station:

“A tiny record store opened up in our tiny Northern California town. I am a vinyl junkie and immediately became a regular. Now, one of the owners knows my tastes so well, he’ll text me randomly: “Mule Variations and Swordfishtrombones. Interested?” I’m the round-the-clock caregiver for my disabled husband. The owners hold the LPs for me until I can make it in. Their store is a bright spot of promise and nostalgia in a life that can be sad.”


Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Briana Scalia and Maia Coleman contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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Slain Idaho student Madison Mogen’s stepdad speaks out: ‘We’re angry’

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The devastated stepfather of Madison Mogen, one of the four slain University of Idaho students, described her death as “the hardest thing in the world” — as he shared his frustration in the lack of progress in the case.

“It’s still hard to believe sometimes. We get up in the morning, and it’s like, ‘Nah this isn’t happening,’ then it kicks in,” Scott Laramie told Fox News Digital on Monday.

The 21-year-old student known as Maddie, her close friend Kaylee Goncalves, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and her boyfriend Ethan Chapin, 20, were butchered in the off-campus home in Moscow on Nov. 13.

Authorities have not yet named a suspect or found the knife used in the massacre that has left the community reeling.

Laramie said police told him they have no leads nearly three weeks after the shocking crime.

Jake Schriger and his girlfriend Maddie Mogen, one of the four slain University of Idaho students.
maddiemogen/Instagram

“They update us every day. We asked them to check in with us whether they have anything or not,” he told the outlet, as he lamented the agonizing lack of progress in the probe.

“We’re angry. Anybody would be,” he said. “I’m just hoping they come up with something sooner than later. I just would like to have justice for these kids.”

Maddie was raised by Laramie — whom she called dad — and her mother Karen Laramie in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Slain Idaho students
Slain University of Idaho students Ethan Chapin, 20, Madison Mogen, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and Kaylee Goncalves, 21.

“We love her and we miss her, and it’s the hardest thing in the world to try to figure out how to live without her,” a tearful Laramie told the news outlet.

“It’s the hardest thing to imagine right now,” he added.

On Friday, Mogen’s boyfriend, Jake Schriger, also broke his silence about losing her.


Here’s the latest coverage on the brutal killings of four college friends:


“She was the first person I talked to every morning and the last person I talked to before bed,” Schriger said at a vigil held in Post Falls, Idaho. “She was the person that I loved most.”

Laramie told Fox News Digital that he has been in touch with Schriger.

“He’s all broken up. He’s having a hard time dealing with this too. Those two, they were really good together. They really clicked,” he said.

The house where the slain roommates lived.
The four roommates shared the house with two others who were unharmed.

The scene of the Univ. of Idaho murders.
Cops have not named a suspect in the murders.

Investigators on scene of murders.
Investigators have not recovered a murder weapon.

Blood seeps through wall of murder house
Blood seeped through the exterior wall of the home.

Madison Mogen
Madison’s family has been left shattered by the shocking murders.

flyer seeking information
Authorities have not yet named a suspect or found the knife used in the massacre that has left the community reeling.

Madison Mogen and Kaylee Goncalves.
Madison and Kaylee were close friends, according to their families.

Maddie adored all things pink and sparkly and loved rewatching the 1987 flick “The Princess Bride,” Laramie told the outlet.

“Everybody just wanted to be near her,” he said. “She had the world at her fingertips, and could have done anything she wanted to do. We were just so proud of her.”

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China’s Xi to Visit Saudi Arabia for Regional Summits

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — China’s leader will travel to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for a flurry of summits bringing together heads of state from across the Middle East, a region where longtime American allies are growing increasingly closer to China.

The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, will visit the kingdom for three days and attend Saudi-China, Gulf-China and Arab-China summits, the Saudi state news agency reported on Tuesday. More than 30 heads of states and leaders of international organizations plan to attend, the report said, adding that Saudi Arabia and China were expected to sign a “strategic partnership.”

Mr. Xi’s visit to Saudi Arabia is aimed at deepening China’s decades-old ties with the Gulf region, which started narrowly as a bid to secure oil, and have since developed into a complex relationship involving arms sales, technology transfers and infrastructure projects.

The Chinese leader is expected to sign a flurry of contracts with the Saudi government and other Gulf States, sending a message that Beijing’s clout in the region is growing at a time when Washington has pulled away from the Middle East to devote more attention to Asia.

The grand state visit will inevitably draw comparisons to Donald J. Trump’s arrival in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, for his first trip abroad as president in 2017. He was greeted by streets decorated with American flags and an enormous image of his face projected on the side of a building.

Saudi Arabia has been a close American ally for more than half a century. But its authoritarian rulers have long sought to deepen other alliances to prepare for an emerging multipolar world.

U.S.-Saudi ties have been especially fractious over the past few years, with the administration of President Biden declaring a “recalibration” of the relationship and pressing the kingdom over human rights violations, including the 2018 murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — a Saudi citizen and U.S. resident at the time — by Saudi agents in Istanbul.

“Xi clearly wants to make a statement at a moment at which the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is strained,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“It’s a good moment to replant the flag, if you wish. And I think it’s a good moment for the Gulf States to say, ‘Hey, we have other options. Washington, you’re not the only ones out there.’”

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

Vivian Nereim reported from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and David Pierson from Singapore.

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