About a year after Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Doug Johnson took graphic photos of Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crash scene that were then passed around, he was caught up in another scandal.
Johnson knelt on the head of a handcuffed inmate for several minutes — another incident sheriff’s officials tried to keep quiet because they feared it would cast a “negative light” on the Sheriff’s Department.
They have become two of the department’s most highly publicized scandals during Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s term — and they’re now colliding in the courtroom.
L.A. County lawyers are trying to block Vanessa Bryant, Kobe Bryant’s widow, who is suing the Sheriff’s Department for negligence and invasion of privacy over the photo sharing, from introducing the cover-up of the violent detention by Johnson as evidence in her trial, which is set for next month.
The county attorneys are arguing that the force incident and cover-up have “nothing to do with” Bryant’s claims. But they said Bryant’s attorneys would not agree to exclude questions about it during the trial. So they want a judge to decide.
“The incident at the jail and LASD’s response are entirely unrelated to the crash scene photos at issue in this matter,” county attorneys wrote in a filing Friday. “The incident is not only irrelevant, but also highly inflammatory — touching on one of the most contentious issues in our society, accusations of excessive force by police officers.”
County attorneys said in the filing that they called Bryant’s lawyers after the Sheriff’s Department’s handling of Johnson’s force incident, first reported by The Times, became national news and asked if they’d agree not to raise it at trial. Bryant’s lawyers refused, the filing said.
Skip Miller, an attorney representing the county, said in a statement his motion will prevent “the plaintiff from prejudicing the jury by introducing unproven allegations against a witness that have nothing to do with the case.”
Luis Li, an attorney representing Bryant, said Friday: “We look forward to responding in court.”
In both cases, the Sheriff’s Department sought to keep the alleged misconduct under wraps.
Days after the helicopter crash in January 2020, the Sheriff’s Department received a complaint that a young deputy was showing gruesome photos taken at the scene of the tragedy at the Baja California Bar and Grill in Norwalk.
Villanueva through his subordinates ordered the deputies involved to delete the crash photos instead of opening an investigation into the alleged misconduct. It was not until a day after The Times first reported on the photo sharing that the Sheriff’s Department requested an internal affairs investigation, according to internal sheriff’s records attached to a court filing.
Johnson said in a memo to his supervisor that he had a legitimate reason to take the helicopter crash photos, which he said he immediately deleted. Portions of his deposition testimony were also made public in a court filing in Bryant’s case.
He testified that he hiked up to the crash site, where he searched for survivors and taped off the area from hikers. He said he then took 20 to 30 photos of the site, “documenting everything,” including serial numbers and victim remains.
He said he did not think he ever wrote a report on what he documented. Nor did he book the photos into evidence. He texted the photos to a deputy at the command post and AirDropped them to a fire official.
The photos spread from there.
When Johnson was questioned about whether he still had the phone with which he took the photos, he said he lost it the next year while in Las Vegas.
Soon after the photo sharing became public, Johnson was transferred to the Sheriff’s Department’s court services division.
About a year later, deputies were conducting routine searches of inmates at the San Fernando Courthouse before their court appearances when they told two inmates to be quiet.
As the pair continued talking and laughing, Johnson ordered one of them, Enzo Escalante, to stop and face the wall. Escalante, 24, was awaiting trial on charges including murder. Security video obtained by The Times shows Johnson walking closely behind Escalante through a hallway before ushering him toward a wall.
Escalante turned around and punched Johnson in the face multiple times. Johnson and other deputies then took Escalante to the ground, face-down.
After Escalante was handcuffed, Johnson kept his knee on the inmate’s head for three minutes.
Department officials had worried at the time about the negative publicity that could come from a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed man’s head, “given its nature and its similarities to widely publicized George Floyd use of force” images, according to an internal report by a commander critical of the cover-up.
The commander, Allen Castellano, wrote in the July 2021 report that sheriff’s officials decided not to pursue criminal charges against Escalante, to avoid drawing attention to the incident. Sheriff’s officials waited until January — almost a year after the incident — to take the case against the inmate to prosecutors.
Castellano and other high-ranking sheriff’s officials have accused Villanueva of orchestrating the cover-up and lying about it, saying in legal claims filed against the county that he watched the video about five days after the incident occurred in March 2021.
Villanueva claimed that he did not see the video until several months later, and took immediate action.