The state of Missouri’s response to the May 31 drowning death of 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson while he was in custody of the Missouri Water Patrol is infuriating.
It’s clear by now the criminal justice system in rural Missouri is not going to side with an out-of-state college student who partied excessively with his friends over a career Highway Patrol trooper with deep community ties. The process is looking like a whitewash.
As The Star reported today, a special prosecutor has said she won’t bring criminal charges against Anthony Piercy, the trooper who fitted the inebriated and handcuffed Ellingson with an unsafe type of life vest, and then drove a patrol boat at speeds approaching 43 miles per hour. Ellingson ended up in the water, the life vest floated away and Ellingson slipped underneath the waters of the Lake of the Ozarks and drowned.
Special prosecutor Amanda Grellner announced her decision days after a jurors for a Morgan County coroner’s inquest took less than eight minutes to find the death to be an accident.
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“There’s no way to not find negligence,” Grellner told The Star. “...but it doesn’t reach to criminal recklessness.”
Morgan County coroner M.B. Jones, assisted by Grellner, was selective in the information he presented at the inquest.
Jurors heard a long account from a tearful Piercy, who said he never received any training in proper usage of life vests when he transitioned from the Highway Patrol to part-time Water Patrol duties. No one from the Water Patrol was asked to verify that assertion.
Highway Patrol investigator Cpl. Eric Stacks read an investigative summary to jurors. He told them the report included information about the speed of Piercy’s boat but he didn’t specify what it was.
Jurors heard from a boater on the lake who testified that Piercy jumped into the water in an attempt to save Ellingson. Jones and Grellner did not produce two other witnesses, Larry and Paulette Moreau of Hartsburg, Mo., who reported to the Highway Patrol that Piercy initially showed no urgency in helping the handcuffed Ellingson out of the water.
Jurors did learn that Ellingson’s blood-alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit, and he had cocaine in his system.
Ellingson’s family may fare better in a civil case, the planning for which is well underway. But it is highly disturbing that a Missouri law enforcement officer handled a citizen in such an incompetent manner.
Ellingson was hardly the first intoxicated boater taken into custody on a Missouri waterway. The police are supposed to be trained and competent to deal with that kind of situation.
We really need to hear from Gov. Jay Nixon on this. It was he who ordered a merger of the Highway Patrol and Water Patrol, citing efficiency. Inadequate training appears to have played a large role in Ellingson’s death. But the Democratic governor has been mum about the tragedy.
We did hear from Col. Ronald K. Replogle, superintendent of the Highway patrol.
“This was a tragic event and many lives, including the family, officers and witnesses, have been dramatically affected and changed forever,” Replogle said in a statement. “... As with any critical event, I wanted to personally assure the public the Patrol will continue the review of all procedures related to this incident.”
It’s too bad procedures weren’t reviewed more adequately before Brandon Ellingson lost his life at age 20. Replogle’s deliberately bland statement doesn’t lend any confidence to parents that their kids would be safe in the custody of the Missouri Water Patrol.
To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @bshelly.