More than three years after a handcuffed Iowa man drowned in the Lake of the Ozarks, Trooper Anthony Piercy will learn his punishment for what transpired that day.
Piercy, who pleaded guilty in late June to a misdemeanor boating violation, is scheduled to be sentenced at 1 p.m. Tuesday in a Versailles, Mo., courtroom. It’s the first time cameras will be allowed inside a hearing since the case began.
By pleading to a charge of negligent operation of a vessel, Piercy avoided an involuntary manslaughter trial in the 2014 death of Brandon Ellingson. On the misdemeanor, the trooper faces up to six months in jail and/or a $500 fine. The special prosecutor in the case also can ask that Piercy be barred from law enforcement for life.
Ellingson’s father is expected to speak at Tuesday’s sentencing. Craig Ellingson plans to tell the court who his son was, about his kind heart and how he excelled in anything he did. He’ll also explain the impact his son’s death has had on the family.
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“Piercy’s the ultimate reason Brandon’s not here today,” Craig Ellingson recently told The Star. “His ultimate negligence and lack of compassion for Brandon’s safety. ... I hope he gets the max.”
The trooper pulled Brandon Ellingson, 20, over May 31, 2014, on the Lake of the Ozarks for suspicion of boating while intoxicated. During the stop, Piercy handcuffed the Iowa man’s hands behind his back. Witnesses told authorities that the trooper then stuffed an already-buckled life vest — the wrong one for a handcuffed person — over Brandon Ellingson’s head.
On the way to a field office for more testing, Piercy traveled at speeds of up to 46 mph. At one point, after the boat hit a wave, Ellingson was ejected. While in the water, his improperly secured life vest soon came off. Piercy eventually jumped in to try to save him, but couldn’t.
A toxicology report would later show that Ellingson’s blood-alcohol level was 0.268, more than three times the legal limit. His family thinks the test was inaccurate because Ellingson’s body wasn’t recovered from the water for more than 18 hours.
Days after Ellingson’s death in the Gravois Arm of the lake, The Star began investigating. Through interviews and records requests, the newspaper discovered that after Missouri merged the Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol in 2011, some road troopers weren’t adequately trained to work on the water.
Piercy — who at the time of Ellingson’s death was an 18-year veteran of the road — received just two days of field training before he was cleared for “solo boat time.” Before the merger, Water Patrol recruits were required to receive at least two months of field training.
Nearly four months after Ellingson drowned, a coroner’s inquest determined the death was accidental and the special prosecutor assigned then to the case declined to file charges. During the inquest, Piercy told jurors that he wasn’t trained for what he encountered May 31, 2014.
After the first prosecutor reopened the case in early 2015 for more investigation, she soon recused herself. In December of that year, special prosecutor William Camm Seay charged Piercy with involuntary manslaughter.
Late last year, the family received a $9 million settlement from the state and earlier won a lawsuit over records. A judge in that case ruled that the patrol knowingly and purposely violated the Sunshine Law by not handing over some information or delaying the release of other documents.
On unpaid administrative leave from the patrol, Piercy now makes $12 an hour as an analyst for Jefferson City’s Guarded Exchange, according to information in three pages of a report prepared in advance of Piercy’s sentencing. ABC-17 in Columbia obtained the partial sentencing assessment report from a courthouse computer terminal in Boone County. The television station shared the incomplete document with The Star.
The partial report was never supposed to be shared with the public, said Lori Moon, circuit clerk for Morgan County where the sentencing will be held.
“It was not coded correctly when transmitted to our office, which resulted in three pages of the Report being temporarily accessible to the public,” Moon told The Star. “The partial report was then deleted and rescanned at the correct security level.”
Piercy’s wife reportedly told the preparer of the report that her husband has “suffered emotionally and financially as a result of this case” and that the family is “literally hanging on by the skin of our teeth.”
“Laura (Piercy) states that Anthony has endured sharp criticism and derogatory comments from people in their small community,” the report said.