Christos and Lesli Catsouras know the pain Vanessa Bryant is going through amid her ongoing lawsuit over photos that were allegedly taken at the helicopter crash that killed her husband Kobe Bryant and daughter Gianna.
The Catsourases lost their 18-year-old daughter Nikki on Oct. 31, 2006, after she clipped another car and lost control while traveling at 100 MPH. Her vehicle then crossed over the median and slammed into a concrete toll booth, where she was instantly killed.
Afterward, authorities told them they would not be allowed to identify their daughter’s body because of how gruesome her injuries were, but weeks later, images of the wreck surfaced online. Many of them, featuring Nikki’s mutilated body, were anonymously sent to the Catsouras family with disturbing messages, the family says.
A six-year lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol (CHP) later ensued, as the Catsourases’ legal team fought against the state agency that allegedly leaked the images.
Though they reached a settlement in 2012, Christos tells PEOPLE that his family was never able to have the graphic photos removed from the internet, despite hiring lawyers and “trying everything.” The family has since been harassed by internet trolls, which they say has caused years of mental trauma, nightmares and a constant feeling of helplessness.
“We both deal with a lot of anger and sadness and grief,” Lesli explains. “These trolls were sending the photographs to us, disguising them as anything they could think of. We didn’t know how we could get help. Nobody could help us. Nobody wanted to help us.”
Eight years after the Catsourases reached a settlement, the couple was devastated to learn that Vanessa, 39, was fighting a similar battle over photographs of the helicopter crash that killed her husband Kobe, their 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others on Jan. 26, 2020.
In March 2020, Vanessa filed a legal complaint against Los Angeles County, as well as its sheriff’s office and fire department. In her lawsuit, which cited the Catsourases’ case, her attorneys claimed that eight L.A. County Sheriff’s Department deputies took graphic photographs of the victims and “publicly disseminated photos from the helicopter crash site” after she personally requested “that the area be designated a no-fly zone and protected from photographers.”
Sheriff Alex Villanueva confirmed to reporters at the time that only the county coroner’s office and investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board were permitted to photograph the crash scene.
In her lawsuit against L.A. County, Bryant complains that first responders shared the photos among themselves, and “laughed about” and “gawked at” the photos. She alleges that “the photograph-related actions or inactions proximately caused the allegedly severe and continuing emotional distress for which [Bryant] seeks monetary compensation.”
The county has asked the court to dismiss Bryant’s lawsuit. “I feel sick at the thought that deputies and firefighters have gawked at photos of my husband’s and child’s bodies without any reason,” she said in a declaration filed earlier this month. “I also feel extreme sadness and anger knowing that photos of my husband’s and daughter’s bodies were laughed about while shown at a bar and an awards banquet. Given how many people had the photos, I am confident these were not the only times the photos were shown off.”
Vanessa has been embroiled in litigation, with a judge ordering her to submit mental health records to prove that she has suffered emotional distress and mental anguish. (The judge previously denied the county’s request to require Bryant to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to prove her emotional distress.)
Most recently, in November, lawyers for Los Angeles County sought to dismiss Vanessa’s lawsuit, claiming it was “without legal merit” because their staff “worked tirelessly to protect the crash site, identify the victims, and notify the families.”
Vanessa’s lawyers hit back on Dec. 6, stating in a declaration obtained by PEOPLE that Vanessa has been in a “constant cycle of distress,” suffering from “tremendous pain and distress” since the images were leaked.
Of Vanessa’s ongoing lawsuit, the Catsourases say they were “shocked” to hear what she was going through — especially because of how much her story mirrored their own.
“We had hoped that our situation would’ve helped send a message to police, first responders and the general public, that you can’t do this… It’s completely wrong on every single level,” Christos says. “But this is still happening. I feel like if [our case] had truly made an impact, then we wouldn’t be where we are.”
“I just feel desperately sorry for the Bryants,” Christos notes, adding how he and his wife had to undergo psychiatric evaluations to prove their mental distress.
For Lesli, she says learning about Vanessa’s case was “a trigger” to her own past trauma — but also a potential light at the end of a dark tunnel.
“I was so angry. How do people think they can do this? How does anyone think this is okay?” she says. “Under the circumstances of who this person was in this plane crash, they should have known better. They should have done a better job, for everybody.”
“I had given up hope that we were ever going to have our situation solved. But with Vanessa, I was having hope again that maybe she could fix this because of who she is and how she’d have an army behind her,” she adds. “I just get angry that she has to go through all that. And nobody’s going to understand how she feels because nobody else is going through it.”
Though the Catsourases believe that their situation wasn’t as devastating as Vanessa’s because they “had each other” to lean on, the parents are hoping that by speaking out, it’ll ring the alarm about why change is overdue.
“It shouldn’t have happened with [Vanessa],” Lesli says. “With us, it was so long ago and it’s never happened before, so they didn’t know. But at this point, they should take cell phones at any crime scene before they can leak them… investigative camera photos shouldn’t even be able to go out digitally. One person should be able to put those into some sort of format where they get locked up in their safe.”
“In Europe and Argentina and the Philippines, there’s a law called the Right to be Forgotten, where under certain circumstances, pictures are removed from the internet,” Christos explains. “And if somebody tries, you can get in trouble for posting those and they just take them off. If they can do that in those countries, why can’t we do it in the United States?”
“There’s got to be something put into place,” he adds. “People who do those horrible things should be held accountable.”
With just months to go until Vanessa’s trial on Feb. 22, 2022, the Catsourases are firmly standing behind the mom of four, hoping that she’ll win the case so that this issue stops once and for all.
“Before you hit send — whether it’s a text, an email, whatever source of digital thing it is — think to yourself, ‘Can this affect anybody’s life? Can it hurt somebody’s feelings?'” Christos says. “You can’t tell somebody how to think, but just be a good person and think about the consequences of hitting send and what it can do to that person’s family or that person.”
Adds Lesli: “I just hope Vanessa fights and wins. I know that they’re going to do everything they can to knock her down and make her give up. And I hope she doesn’t. I hope she continues, and I hope she makes it to the end and makes it worthwhile.”
In response, the County issued a statement summarizing allegations contained in its motion to the court: “It is an undisputed fact that none of the investigative photos taken by County’s first responders at the January 2020 crash site were ever publicly disseminated or ‘leaked’ — a fact Ms. Bryant herself acknowledged in her deposition and in court filings. The County has and continues to express its deepest sympathies for the Bryant family, but it has also made clear that the facts in this case are nothing like those in the Catsouras matter. No LA County first responders ever emailed or texted crash site photos to members of the public, and there are no County crash site photos on the Internet, in the media, or anywhere.”