A Missouri Highway Patrol trooper was charged Friday in the 2014 death of Brandon Ellingson, who drowned in the Lake of the Ozarks with his hands cuffed behind his back.
Special prosecutor William Camm Seay announced the charge of involuntary manslaughter in the first degree against Trooper Anthony Piercy outside the Morgan County Justice Center. The charge is a Class C felony carrying a punishment of up to seven years in prison, up to a year in the county jail, a $5,000 fine or a combination of those.
Piercy’s actions that day were reckless, said Seay, a former circuit judge and prosecuting attorney.
“I have reviewed boxes and boxes of reports and records in regard to Mr. Piercy’s training and experience and everything that was done in the investigation,” he said. “I have charged him (Piercy) with recklessly causing the death. ... It relates to an unjustifiable risk being taken.”
The Highway Patrol said in a statement that it had placed Piercy, 44, on leave without pay. Capt. John Hotz, a patrol spokesman, said he could not talk about specifics of the Ellingson case and referred questions about the criminal charge to Seay.
Piercy turned himself in later Friday to Moniteau County authorities on the Morgan County charge. He was released on $50,000 bond. Court records did not identify an attorney.
The charge comes after Ellingson’s parents have spent the past 18 months fighting for the trooper to be held accountable in their 20-year-old son’s death.
Craig Ellingson, Brandon’s father, said Friday that he was happy Piercy had been charged.
“But it should have been a lot earlier,” he said. “I think it has been a cover-up from the beginning. They had everything. They knew what Piercy did to my son.”
Within days of Brandon Ellingson’s death, The Star began investigating the incident. Over the next year, the newspaper uncovered many discrepancies in Piercy’s story from that day, as well as missteps in a merger of two state patrols that allowed the veteran road trooper to patrol the lake alone with minimal training.
Since then, state legislators have worked with the patrol to improve training of troopers assigned to Missouri waterways.
Ellingson, of Clive, Iowa, drowned May 31, 2014, while in Piercy’s custody. The college student had been enjoying a long weekend at the lake with friends when the trooper pulled him over for boating while intoxicated. The trooper then, according to Ellingson’s friends who watched the arrest, placed an already buckled life vest over the handcuffed man’s head and didn’t properly secure it.
Piercy pointed his boat toward a patrol zone office about 8 miles away. GPS records later indicated he reached a maximum speed of 46 mph during the ride. About halfway there, Ellingson went into the water.
His life vest came off a short time later, and though Piercy eventually jumped in, he was unable to save Ellingson. Divers recovered the college student’s body the next day from the lake bottom, about 70 feet below the surface.
Since then, calls for justice have grown more intense. Supporters have attended legislative hearings carrying signs and wearing “Justice for Brandon” shirts.
A patrol sergeant whom Piercy called the night of the drowning spoke out during hearings last year. After his retirement earlier this month, Sgt. Randy Henry has said that a litany of things went wrong from the time Piercy pulled over Ellingson’s boat.
Henry also has contended that patrol officials tried to paper over serious problems revealed by Ellingson’s death, in part to shield Gov. Jay Nixon from criticism for pushing the 2011 merger of the state Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol.
“There’s been a cover-up from the beginning,” Henry recently told The Star. “They wanted to protect the governor and the merger and protect Piercy from criminal charges because criminal charges would be a black eye for the patrol.”
A spokesman for Nixon did not return a request for comment.
In January, Grellner reopened the investigation after receiving what she described as new information.
Seay took over in March after Grellner, the Osage County prosecutor, stepped aside. Family and friends were waiting for Grellner’s decision on charges when she announced, without giving details, that a conflict had developed and she could no longer stay on the case.
“It was an investigation not concluded at that time,” Seay said. “She didn’t have it. We, my people completed the investigation. There was additional investigation after Ms. Grellner stepped down.”
When asked whether he had any concerns about law enforcement agencies investigating themselves, he said: “That’s what I’m for. I don’t have any concerns.”
May 31, 2014
The mistakes began soon after Piercy took Ellingson onto the patrol boat and arrested him following a failed field sobriety text. A toxicology report would later show that Ellingson’s blood alcohol level was 0.268, more than three times the legal limit.
After Piercy placed Ellingson in handcuffs, he didn’t grab an available Type I flotation device to put on the Iowa man. Troopers are trained to use that type of life jacket on a handcuffed passenger because it has straps that wrap around the torso and allow for the handcuffs.
Instead, Piercy went for a Type III life vest with arm holes — one that was impossible to secure on a man whose hands were already cuffed.
Piercy said he wasn’t taught which flotation device to use during an arrest.
“There’s no training on ‘use this one, use that one,’ ” Piercy said at the inquest. “It’s just one of the vests on our boat.”
Hours after Ellingson drowned, Henry said, Piercy told him key details that differed from accounts the trooper subsequently gave to Highway Patrol investigators and jurors at the coroner’s inquest.
According to Henry, Piercy said he was “in a hurry” when he put a life vest on Ellingson. Piercy also told the sergeant that Ellingson was on his feet, leaning against the boat seat, before he went into the water. That corresponds with what two witnesses saw when the patrol boat passed them moments before Ellingson went into the lake.
However, Piercy told investigators that Ellingson was sitting in the boat and then stood, turned to the water and went in.
An investigator asked Piercy, “Did he jump over? Or did he fall over?”
“I don’t know,” Piercy said. “I’ve, believe me, played this scenario through my mind a million times, and I don’t know. All I know is he’s beside me, and then he’s not.”
At the inquest, Piercy said he saw Ellingson stand, turn toward the water and step to the right side of the boat. As he told the story to jurors, Piercy began to choke back tears: “I reached for him and wasn’t able to grab ahold of him.”
GPS data showed that in the moments before Ellingson hit the water, Piercy’s boat was traveling between 39.1 and 43.7 mph.
Seay, in a statement Friday, said Ellingson was ejected from the boat when Piercy “suddenly slowed down on the choppy water to meet a large wake.”
Piercy also told Henry the night of the drowning that once he jumped in to help Ellingson — which witnesses have said took several minutes — the trooper waited for his own fanny-pack flotation device to deploy automatically. It didn’t.
Henry told Piercy that his device required him to pull a ripcord. A witness who came upon the scene that day and helped get Piercy out of the water, also told The Star that the trooper complained his device didn’t deploy in the water.
But at the inquest, three months after that conversation, Piercy described the fanny pack as one that deploys when the ripcord is pulled. He told jurors that when he was underwater, trying to grab Ellingson, he didn’t want to pull the ripcord to inflate his fanny pack. If he had, he said, he would have risen to the surface without the Iowa man.
Many have questioned why Piercy, knowing Ellingson was in handcuffs, didn’t jump into the water sooner. One witness, Larry Moreau, told The Star that he and his wife saw the trooper standing on the boat and talking to Ellingson as he bobbed in the lake. Piercy showed no urgency, Moreau and wife Paulette said.
The couple had no idea that beneath the surface, Ellingson’s hands were cuffed behind his back. They left the area before Piercy jumped in, thinking the trooper had everything under control.
Henry also has questioned Piercy’s delay in jumping into the water.
“I think his failure to jump in immediately was cowardice,” Henry told The Star recently. “If I threw somebody out and he was handcuffed and I see the life vest come off, you jump in now. You go in immediately.”
Henry spoke out at two legislative hearings after Ellingson’s death. He was the officer who signed off on Piercy, saying Piercy knew the lake well enough to navigate it. But road troopers were never intended to solely patrol on the water without more training.
Henry also was interviewed by Highway Patrol investigators. When he started to question whether Ellingson received “the highest degree of care,” quoting Missouri boating law, one investigator rushed to have the recording shut off. During that interview, Henry told The Star, he told investigators: “To me, it rises to the level of manslaughter.”
Henry was disciplined by the patrol for actions related to the case after Grellner filed a complaint against him.
After nearly 30 years patrolling the Lake of the Ozarks, he was transferred to Truman Lake and demoted to corporal. He appealed.
Grellner dismissed her complaint against Henry in October, and he filed papers to retire.
“Brandon shouldn’t have died,” Henry said. “It’s something I’m going to have to live with the rest of my life. There’s no turning the page back. Piercy shouldn’t have been out there.
“In the history of the Water Patrol, we have never killed somebody in custody.”
After the criminal charge Friday, Henry said: “I’m finally glad to see a neutral set of eyes came to the same conclusion I had all along. The whole chain of events was a gross deviation from the level of care that a reasonable person would have used in the same situation.”
Changes for patrol
Since Ellingson’s death, the patrol’s marine operations — especially along Missouri’s most popular waterways — have been under scrutiny. A special House committee met for several months last year and in January released a report calling on the state to correct flaws created by the 2011 merger of the Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol.
Combining the two units was supposed to cut costs and improve coverage on Missouri waterways. The merger ended up costing more money, and business owners and lake residents told legislators they saw fewer troopers on lakes and streams.
Many complained that the merger made the Lake of the Ozarks, Table Rock Lake and rivers like the Niangua less safe.
And at times, before Ellingson’s death, troopers without proper training — such as Piercy — were put out on the water alone. Records The Star obtained showed that Piercy, who had nearly two decades of road experience, had just two days of field training on the water before he began patrolling alone.
In the committee’s final report, legislators proposed changes that included an overhaul in trooper training for the water and recruiting specialized officers to patrol by boat.
Last month, the committee heard from the patrol that changes in training had occurred. Business owners testified that they were seeing some improvements, though a few residents still worried about safety at the Lake of the Ozarks.
Rep. Diane Franklin, a Camdenton Republican and chairwoman of the special committee, said Friday’s announcement “causes all of us to thoroughly go through that case and then see if we need to re-examine whether or not we are on the right course with law enforcement covering Missouri’s waterways.”
The merger “clearly changed” law enforcement on the lake, she said.
“I feel like they are giving it their best effort, but that best effort cannot replace the Water Patrol we had for 50 years,” Franklin said. “...You have to go 10 years or so before you could reach that competency level again.”
Lawmakers will be watching as Piercy’s case proceeds, said Rep. Rocky Miller, an Osage Beach Republican.
“The system has to work the best it can, and if something falls down, then that’s where people like myself have to look to see if there’s a way to make the system better.”
Rep. David Wood, a Versailles Republican, was at the justice center in Versailles to hear Seay announce the charge.
“Everything we do every day should be open to scrutiny,” Wood said later, “whether you’re a highway patrolman, a public official or part of the media. It needs to be transparent.
“If things were done wrong, we need to do what we can to correct those issues, and move from there.”
Never give up
The months since Ellingson’s death have been hard for his family.
His father has made repeated trips from Iowa to the Lake of the Ozarks and Jefferson City to attend hearings and demand justice. Sister Jennifer graduated from college without her little brother in the crowd.
His mother, Sherry Ellingson, started a Justice for Brandon Ellingson petition. It calls for federal authorities to step in and has nearly 135,000 signatures.
Holidays and birthdays are especially rough. Brandon would have turned 22 on Dec. 7.
The criminal charge filed Friday was a first step, Craig Ellingson said.
“I feel some relief, but I still want to get to the people who have covered this up,” he said.
In the time since his son died, he has urged state and federal authorities to help hold Piercy accountable. He has routinely called officials and gone to as many hearings as he could. He sat through the coroner’s inquest, which he later called a “joke” and a “hometown decision.”
“I never imagined something like that happening to Brandon. ... I think he felt like he was safe with Piercy, because he’s a cop. But he wasn’t.”
Craig Ellingson said he still says “Hi” when he walks by his son’s room every morning.
For Sherry Ellingson, Friday brought a feeling of “unbelievable relief.”
“I’m incredibly grateful that someone looked at the facts and determined this man should be held accountable,” she said.
Her voice broke as she talked about Brandon.
“Knowing that this didn’t have to happen will always be there,” she said, crying over the phone. “But his death exposed somebody who shouldn’t be in that position to begin with. And it exposed inadequacies in the system.
“His death had to mean something. And it did.”