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The Los Angeles County Sheriff has admitted he ordered deputies to delete graphic photos of the helicopter crash site where Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others, saying he made the order to try to prevent the images from going public.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva told NBC News that he instructed the eight deputies—including one trainee—who had seen, taken or exchanged the photos to delete them because his “No. 1 priority” at the time was to make sure the images no longer existed and that they did not make their way into the public sphere.
“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 10-fold that those photos would have somehow made it into the public domain. And that’s definitely what we do not want,” he said.
Villanueva told NBC News that authorities identified the deputies who had the images, asked them to come into the station—where he said they admitted their involvement—and requested they delete them.
“And, we’re content that those involved did that,” he said.
Authorities discovered the images existed after someone at the Baja California Bar and Grill overheard someone from the sheriff’s department claiming to have photos of the accident scene shortly after the crash, The Los Angeles Times reports.
The witness reportedly sent a written complaint to the sheriff’s office after the incident.
“He was working the day the helicopter went down and took pictures of the crash site and bodies,” the author wrote, according to the local paper.
Villanueva called the deputies' behavior “inexcusable.”
“I mean, people are grieving for the loss of their loved ones. To have that on top of what they’ve already gone through is unconscionable," he said.
He added in an interview on NBC’s "Today" show that to be “betrayed” by one of their own after authorities had worked hard to secure the crash site from the public and paparazzi was “disheartening.”
The department continues to have an open investigation into the incident—although it’s not clear whether the deputies involved could face any discipline.
"There is currently an active ongoing administrative investigation," a spokesman from the sheriff's office told Oxygen.com. "Appropriate administrative action will be taken. "
Villanueva told NBC News that the department did not have a policy in place at the time that specifically prohibited deputies from taking photos at a scene with their own personal cell phones.
He said on "Today" that the department now planned to re-do their current policies and create some that were “very specific” and included the possibility of dismissal if the policies are violated.
As news of the deputies actions has come to light, some have criticized the sheriff’s decision to have the deputies erase the images.
Patti Giggans, chair of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, told The Los Angeles Times that destroying the images “looks like a cover-up of misconduct” but said she hopes that does not turn out to be the case.
Joseph Giacalone, who teaches police procedures at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, also told the paper that the images should have been preserved and that the cell phones should have been confiscated to ensure the images were not distributed further.
“It’s now blossomed into a real mess,” he said.
Vanessa Bryant released a statement through her attorney, Gary C. Robb, calling the deputies actions “inexcusable and deplorable.”
“This is an unspeakable violation of human decency, respect, and the privacy rights of the victims and their families,” Robb said in the statement, which Bryant posted to her Instagram. “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.”
Oxygen.com reached out to Robb, but was told by someone in his Kansas City office that he would have no further comment on the situation.
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