What is known so far about the May 31 drowning death of 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson is intensely disturbing.
The same goes for the response from the state of Missouri, beginning with the Highway Patrol trooper who had custody of Ellingson when he died and extending to the silence from the office of Gov. Jay Nixon.
Nixon and other authorities seem to want this matter to go away. It will not. Ellingson’s senseless death raises questions about whether Missouri’s waters are being patrolled in a safe and competent manner. Leaders of the General Assembly should call hearings to get answers and protect the public.
Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper Anthony Piercy had apprehended Ellingson on suspicion of boating while intoxicated at the Lake of the Ozarks and was transporting him to get a breathalyzer test. Ellingson was handcuffed and wearing an unsafe type of life vest when he ended up in the deep water.
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A jury in a coroner’s inquest in Morgan County, where the tragedy occurred, took less than eight minutes to find the death to be an accident. After that finding, a special prosecutor assigned to the case said she would not bring criminal charges against Piercy. While negligence played a role in Ellingson’s death, it did not extend to criminal recklessness, Amanda Grellner told The Star.
But there were gaps in the information that Grellner and coroner M.B. Jones presented to the jurors. Those include:
▪ Testimony about the speed of the boat, which investigators have said was between 39.1 and 43.7 miles per hour just before Ellingson went overboard.
▪ Testimony from two witnesses who have told investigators that Piercy initially showed little urgency about helping the handcuffed Ellingson out of the water. Jurors did hear from a witness who testified that Piercy jumped into the water in an unsuccessful attempt to save Ellingson, whose life vest slipped off when he hit the water.
▪ Any testimony from Highway Patrol supervisors as to whether Piercy had followed policies and procedures.
Clearly, he did not. In fact, there are serious questions about why Piercy, an 18-year Highway Patrol veteran, was even operating a water patrol boat.
The vest he placed on Ellingson was the wrong type for a handcuffed person. Although in his second season as a part-time water patrol officer, Piercy told an investigator he was unfamiliar with nautical terms as basic as “port” and “starboard.” He appeared confused about how to use some of his equipment.
In a conversation with a supervisor after Ellingson drowned, Piercy worried about keeping his job and at one point referred to Ellingson as “the bastard.” The trooper may have been in a state of shock, but such disrespect for the victim is unacceptable.
Piercy’s inadequate training is a result of the way the Highway Patrol has handled a merger with the state water patrol, formerly a separate entity. The cost-saving move has resulted in inexperienced and poorly prepared officers working the waterways.
That has to stop. Nixon must be candid with the public about what went wrong, and the legislature must make sure no other citizen is endangered by the people who are supposed to be keeping Missouri’s waters safe.