At times crying, a Missouri Highway Patrol trooper testified at an inquest Thursday that he wasn’t properly trained the day a handcuffed man drowned in his custody in the Lake of the Ozarks.
Trooper Anthony Piercy said he never was taught how to secure the proper life vest on a handcuffed person during a boating arrest or told to use one type of life jacket over another. The 18-year Highway Patrol veteran told the jurors that he didn’t even know the exact name of the vest — a Type III — that he used on 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson until after Ellingson’s death.
“Evaluating this after the fact, I realize more training is definitely needed,” Piercy told jurors during the Morgan County coroner’s inquest. “Could I be a better marine operations officer? Yes. There are a lot of things I need to learn.”
After less than eight minutes of deliberation Thursday afternoon, the jurors came back with their ruling on Ellingson’s death: It wasn’t the result of a crime, but an accident.
The unanimous decision came after the three women and three men listened to Piercy for more than an hour and watched him demonstrate how he said he put a life vest on Ellingsonbefore the Iowa man drowned in 69 feet of water in the lake’s Gravois Arm.
The jurors declined to comment as they left the Morgan County Justice Center.
Ellingson’s father, Craig, sat through hours of testimony from four witnesses. When the coroner took the jurors to nearby Gravois Mills to see the boat Piercy was operating on May 31, the father went along and sat in the seat where his only son last sat.
He left the courtroom thinking the inquest and decision that his son’s death was an accident was “a joke.”
“It’s a hometown decision,” he said. “They (Piercy) didn’t put the life jacket on right. If they had put it on right, Brandon would still be here.”
Inquests are uncommon in Missouri but can be called in questionable deaths so a jury can determine the manner in which someone died. That ruling is not binding but is given as a recommendation to a prosecutor who determines whether charges will be filed.
In Brandon Ellingson’s case, Osage County Prosecutor Amanda Grellner has been appointed special prosecutor. She assisted Morgan County coroner M.B. Jones during the inquest.
Jones said he thought justice was served Thursday. “I think they made the right call,” he said.
Matt Boles, a Des Moines, Iowa, attorney for Ellingon’s estate and family, said the jury’s ruling “clears Trooper Piercy in the minds of the Highway Patrol. Also, it appears to validate that this was an accident and unavoidable.”
But, Boles said, “This was 100 percent avoidable.”
The inquest was the first time anyone in the public or media has heard from Piercy, who was represented Thursday by two private attorneys.
Before he took the stand, the jurors heard details from Ellingson’s autopsy and from the patrol’s final report.
The young man died of drowning, Jones said. Jurors were told that Ellingson’s blood-alcohol level was 0.268 percent, more than three times the legal limit, and that he had cocaine in his system.
Highway Patrol Cpl. Eric Stacks, the lead investigator in the case, read his investigative summary to the jurors. He said the report included information about how fast Piercy’s boat was going that day, but he did not say what the speed was.
The patrol’s initial online report said Ellingson stood, stepped to the right side of the boat “and fell or jumped overboard.”
“At this point, I think we’re still inconclusive” about how Ellingson left the boat, Stacks said.
No one besides Piercy saw Ellingson leave the boat. It was equipped with cameras, but the digital storage card that would have recorded what happened was not loaded.
The jury also heard from Jim Bascue, the owner of Playin Hooky Water Taxi and Charters, who testified about watching Piercy struggle to save Ellingson in the water. At one point, he said, Piercy took hold of Ellingson, but “he slipped out of his hands.”
Piercy received training in the patrol’s marine operations academy in March 2013, two years after the state Water Patrol was merged into the Highway Patrol. He testified that he received some boating education in the fall of 2012.
At the time of the merger, state leaders called the move an effective way to share resources. But retired officers with the water patrol have said the merger jeopardized safety because training of troopers assigned part time to the water was not taken seriously or emphasized. They have said Ellingson’s drowning while in custody was about a lack of training and experience.
“There are a lot of things I would have liked to do different that day,” Piercy said, responding to a juror’s question. “I wished the cameras would have been working. I think they would have answered many questions we have. I wished maybe I would have used a different life vest. … I didn’t intend for any of this to happen.”
Piercy said he gave Ellingson several sobriety tests and a portable breath test that indicated he was well above the legal alcohol limit. That testimony conflicted with what friends of Ellingson who were on his boat told investigators in separate taped interviews. They said the trooper conducted only an eye test.
Once he determined Ellingson was intoxicated, Piercy told jurors, he asked the young man to stand and cuffed his hands behind his back.
“After you secured him in handcuffs, what did you do?” attorney Shane Farrow, one of Piercy’s lawyers, asked him.
Piercy answered: “I took the life vest and put it on Mr. Ellingson.”
The trooper then opened a taped evidence box containing the vest he used that day. He began to show jurors the vest.
Craig Ellingson spoke up: “Why don’t you stand up a little bit — I can’t see it.” A court employee approached Ellingson and told him not to speak aloud in court.
Piercy told jurors he wasn’t aware that the life vest had a crotch strap that could have been used to secure it on a handcuffed subject.
Farrow asked if he was ever trained to use that vest during an arrest.
“There’s no training on ‘use this one, use that one,’” Piercy said. “It’s just one of the vests on our boat. … I thought since it was good enough for the state to give me to wear, I thought it was good enough for someone else to wear.”
His boat that day also had a Type I or Type II vest on board that could have been properly secured on a handcuffed man.
Piercy told jurors that as he was transporting Brandon Ellingson to a zone office, the Iowa man was seated next to him.
At one point, the trooper said, he noticed waves from another boat coming toward his patrol boat and began to slow the vessel.
After the first wave, he said he saw that Ellingson was standing next to him.
“I went to turn my head to say, ‘Sit down,’” he told jurors. “Before I got the words out, he went out of the boat.”
He said once Ellingson stood, he saw him turn toward the water and step toward the right side of the boat.
As he told the story, he began to choke back tears: “I reached for him and wasn’t able to grab ahold of him.”
Near the end of his testimony, Jones said he had one more question. The coroner said the trooper could choose to answer it or not.
“How do you feel this has affected you personally?” Jones asked.
“It’s hard,” the trooper said, adding that it has affected his personal life and weighs on him.
“I think about it all the time. It’s a hard situation.”
During the lunch break, the coroner said the jurors had asked whether they could see a demonstration on how the vest was put on Ellingson. Piercy agreed, Jones and prosecutor Grellner said.
So at 1:30, when jurors went back to the courtroom, the trooper and a Morgan County deputy put on a demonstration. Ellingson’s father and attorneys hadn't returned to the courtroom yet and only a few members of the media were present.
Piercy cuffed the deputy’s hands behind his back and and sat him in a chair within feet of the jurors. He took the vest and wrapped it around the deputy’s shoulders, as he said he did to Ellingson. He snapped each of the three buckles, which is in direct contrast to what Ellingson’s friends say they witnessed.
“Then I pulled the straps tight,” Piercy told jurors, and tugged on each one.
Piercy stood behind the deputy and tried to yank the vest up: “See, it’d be pretty hard to come off.”
Jones then asked the trooper to show “how the other people” said it was put on. Ellingson’s friends told investigators Piercy maneuvered an already-buckled Type III vest over the young man’s muscular build and was able to tug it only halfway down his chest.
Piercy then took the buckled vest, which still had the straps tightened from the previous demonstration, and tried to tug it down around the deputy. He could not get it past his shoulders.
“See, it’s almost impossible to pull down,” the trooper told jurors.
After the jury’s decision, Craig Ellingson left the justice center and headed back to Iowa. He’d come to Missouri, he said, to hear what happened to his son. He left thinking about how a “good kid” was taken too soon, needlessly.
The special prosecutor, he said, needs to look at the case again. Piercy made several missteps that day and should be held accountable, he said.
Thursday was “a sad day for Brandon,” Ellingson said, “but hopefully we get justice on the civil side.”
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