A special prosecutor is taking a new look at the case of a handcuffed Iowa man who drowned after he fell from a Missouri trooper’s boat.
Amanda Grellner acknowledged that she is reviewing the case after receiving new information. Four months ago, she declined to press charges against Missouri Highway Patrol trooper Anthony Piercy after a coroner’s inquest found Brandon Ellingson’s death in the Lake of the Ozarks to be an accident.
For the new review, investigators with the Missouri Highway Patrol have reinterviewed witnesses in recent weeks, including a husband and wife who, with their son, saw Ellingson in the water minutes before he drowned and who saw his life vest float away.
“There are a few things that I asked them (investigators) to follow up on that I wanted to have cleared up,” said Grellner, the Osage County prosecutor.
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She would not elaborate on what aspects she is reviewing and said she couldn’t comment publicly about specifics of the investigation.
The case, which has garnered an online following across the country, also has been forwarded to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has met with Ellingson’s family and personally asked Holder to review the case to see whether any federal laws were violated. No time frame has been given on that review.
Sherry Ellingson, Brandon’s mother, said she doesn’t think her son’s death was thoroughly investigated. She emailed Grellner in the fall after Larry and Paulette Moreau told her they had contacted the special prosecutor to say that the inquest jury hadn’t heard all of their information. They were not called to testify at the inquest.
“I reached out to her (Grellner) as a mom,” Ellingson said. “I was just wanting to understand how they could have had that pass as the investigation. Not having all the testimony, not putting together a timeline.”
Having the prosecutor take another look is a “good sign,” Ellingson said. “I’m hopeful, but I can’t help but be incredibly skeptical, too.”
Grellner’s review of the case comes after The Star spent months investigating Ellingson’s death and the merger of the Missouri Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol that ultimately led to Piercy working on the water. The paper uncovered several mistakes Piercy made the day Ellingson drowned, as well as discrepancies in Piercy’s account of events. The Star also found missteps in the way the merger was handled, including the lack of training road troopers such as Piercy had before they were cleared to patrol in a boat.
Patrol officials say Piercy cannot be interviewed because of a pending civil lawsuit filed by Brandon Ellingson’s family. Lt. John Hotz, a patrol spokesman, said that all he could say about the case review was that patrol investigators had conducted additional interviews in recent weeks.
Ellingson drowned on May 31. The 20-year-old from Clive, Iowa, was partying with friends when Piercy pulled him over soon after the group left a lakeside bar and restaurant.
Piercy arrested Ellingson for boating while intoxicated and cuffed his hands behind his back. Piercy then placed him in a life vest with armholes that could not be secured on a person already in handcuffs. As the trooper transported Ellingson to a zone office for a breath test, the young man fell from the boat.
The Moreaus witnessed Piercy’s boat speed past them and saw the trooper and Ellingson seemingly chatting. Seconds later, the couple said, they saw Piercy’s boat stop ahead of them. Ellingson was in the water, keeping his head above the surface, and his life vest was floating away. They didn’t know he was in handcuffs.
In June, the Moreaus told a patrol investigator that once Piercy had maneuvered his boat next to Ellingson, the trooper showed no urgency in helping the man in the water, didn’t turn on his red lights and didn’t motion for them to assist. The family eventually left the area thinking the trooper had everything under control.
At the time of the summer interview, the couple thought that the incident had been captured on the video camera on Piercy’s patrol boat and that their recollections — which they say they briefly gave the investigator — would be used to clarify what was on tape. It was only after subsequent news stories that they realized the patrol didn’t have video of the arrest because, according to testimony, Piercy’s boat did not have a digital storage card in place that day.
Larry Moreau’s initial interview with a trooper several months ago lasted about 15 minutes. Earlier this month, he said that same trooper and another investigator interviewed him for nearly 11/2 hours.
“I don’t think the truth had been told,” Larry Moreau said. “We are tickled to death they are relooking at this.
“I feel confident they now know exactly what I saw. And I appreciate the opportunity. It’s long overdue.”
Paulette Moreau was interviewed this past week for more than an hour. She said she was able to tell in depth what she saw and how Piercy’s boat “came from out of nowhere, lickety-split.” GPS data from the boat showed it going as fast as 46 mph while Ellingson was on board and at speeds of 39.1 and 43.7 mph immediately before he went overboard.
Moreau also told the investigators that from the time her family saw the event, the trooper didn’t appear to be in a hurry to help Ellingson.
She said she did think the investigator she spoke with back in June was more engaged this time. He asked more questions and was more thorough.
“I felt like it was a different demeanor today than I experienced before,” Paulette Moreau said Wednesday, hours after she sat with the two investigators for the interview.
The Moreaus’ testimony has called some initial details into question. Piercy told jurors at the inquest that Ellingson was sitting during the transport and stood up right before he went over the side of the boat.
Yet the Moreaus said that when the patrol boat went past them, Ellingson was standing and appeared to be talking with the trooper.
Other discrepancies and missteps have come out during the investigative process.
Piercy told a supervisor shortly after the incident that once he initiated the stop of Ellingson for boating while intoxicated, he realized his boat camera wasn’t loaded with a digital storage card. The card would have recorded the entire stop and transportation of Ellingson to a patrol zone office.
But at the inquest, Piercy told jurors he discovered that the card was missing earlier in his shift when he pulled over a family for having children seated in the wrong section of their boat.
Another discrepancy centered on the fanny-pack flotation device that Piercy wore on May 31.
Jim Bascue, a water taxi captain who came upon Piercy’s boat, told jurors that he helped Piercy get back to his boat after Ellingson disappeared under the water. Bascue said the trooper took off his flotation device and threw it on the boat’s dash, saying, “This darned thing didn’t even go off. It didn’t even activate.”
The flotation device came up again in two conversations Piercy had with Sgt. Randy Henry, according to an audio recording of an interview of Henry by Highway Patrol investigators.
Later in the evening of May 31, Piercy called Henry and told him that once he jumped in the water to try to save Ellingson, he waited for his flotation device to auto-inflate. Henry told him that the type of device he was wearing doesn’t auto-inflate, to which Piercy reportedly said, “Oh, I thought they did.”
Henry said he then told Piercy: “You have to pull the ripcord.”
A few days later, Piercy talked again with Henry. At that time, Henry told the investigators, Piercy said he wished he had pulled the ripcord. He didn’t mention anything about thinking the device would auto-inflate.
At the inquest in September, Piercy told jurors that when he was in the water with Ellingson, he struggled to find the ripcord so he could bring them both to the surface. When he eventually found the cord, he said, he no longer had hold of Ellingson, so he didn’t pull it.
The goal now, said the Moreaus — as well as the Ellingson family — is for Grellner to hear all the information. They say they hope that now that some lingering questions have been answered, more action will be taken.
And in the future, Paulette Moreau said, agencies should not be allowed to investigate themselves after a critical incident such as Ellingson’s drowning.
“I hold out hope the right thing happens, but I just don’t know,” she said. “I can’t stand the thought of someone losing their life and changes not coming from it. Positive changes.”