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Special prosecutor removes herself from review of Brandon Ellingson drowning

Brandon Ellingson drowned last year while in the custody of a Missouri Highway Patrol trooper at the Lake of the Ozarks. Jurors at a coroner’s inquest in September found the death to be accidental. A friend of Brandon Ellingson took this photo during Ellingson’s arrest by Trooper Anthony Piercy on May 31, 2014.
Brandon Ellingson drowned last year while in the custody of a Missouri Highway Patrol trooper at the Lake of the Ozarks. Jurors at a coroner’s inquest in September found the death to be accidental. A friend of Brandon Ellingson took this photo during Ellingson’s arrest by Trooper Anthony Piercy on May 31, 2014. File photo

A special prosecutor reviewing how a young Iowa man drowned in handcuffs in the Lake of the Ozarks has stepped aside, saying it would be a conflict if she stayed on the case.

Osage County Prosecutor Amanda Grellner on Wednesday filed a motion to recuse herself. She told The Star that she was close to a decision on whether to pursue criminal charges in the death of Brandon Ellingson, but would not say what that was.

She said she had stepped down because of a “conflict that developed recently in the additional investigation that is being performed.” She would not say what that conflict was.

“I feel I have no choice,” Grellner said in a telephone interview. “I have asked the judge to appoint another prosecutor so that person can give this case the additional attention it deserves and review the additional information I was able to obtain when I reopened it. ... I believe it’s very important that a new prosecutor be appointed.”

Ellingson drowned in May 2014 while in the custody of a Missouri Highway Patrol trooper. Jurors at a coroner’s inquest in September found the death to be accidental, and Grellner announced days later that she would not file criminal charges against the trooper, Anthony Piercy.

Grellner decided to review the case in January because she had received new information. Patrol investigators re-interviewed several witnesses, and family and friends of Ellingson felt encouraged.

They were waiting for Grellner’s decision when they heard Wednesday that she had stepped aside.

“It’s frustrating,” said Craig Ellingson, Brandon’s father. “I’m not going to stop pursuing them until they are criminally charged for killing my son. ... If anything, I’m more determined than ever.”

Ellingson, along with Brandon’s mother, Sherry, and sister, Jennifer, has filed a civil lawsuit against the Highway Patrol, Piercy and several commanders, including Col. Ronald K. Replogle, the patrol’s superintendent, who has announced he will retire later this year.

The case, which has garnered an extensive online following across the country, also is being reviewed by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, asked Holder to examine the case to see whether federal laws were violated.

Brandon Ellingson was a 20-year-old college student partying with friends on May 31 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 Ellingson in a life vest with armholes that could not be secured on a person already in handcuffs. As the trooper took Ellingson to a zone office for a breath test, the young man fell from the boat. Piercy eventually jumped in to try to save him, but couldn’t.

Grellner’s review of the case came after The Star investigated Ellingson’s death and the merger of the Missouri Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol that ultimately put Piercy, a veteran highway trooper, on the water.

The paper uncovered several mistakes Piercy made the day Ellingson drowned, as well as discrepancies in Piercy’s accounts of events. The Star also found missteps in the way the merger was handled, including a lack of training for road troopers before they were cleared to patrol in boats.

The Highway Patrol did not return a phone call Wednesday regarding Grellner’s recusal. Patrol officials have said Piercy cannot be interviewed because of the civil lawsuit.

Grellner spent eight months on the case. She said Wednesday that it was tough to step aside.

The case, she said, “has been challenging because of every nuance ... including the gravity of what happened that day.”

To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to lbauer@kcstar.com.

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