Witnesses fault inquiry into handcuffed man’s Lake of the Ozarks drowning

This is the boat Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper Anthony Piercy was operating when Brandon Ellingson drowned on May 31.
This is the boat Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper Anthony Piercy was operating when Brandon Ellingson drowned on May 31. The Kansas City Star

For three months, Larry and Paulette Moreau kept quiet.

No more.

In interviews Saturday and Sunday, the Moreaus told The Star that the full truth didn’t come out at an inquest last week into the death of 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson, who drowned May 31 while in the custody of a Missouri Highway Patrol trooper.

In the days immediately after Ellingson’s death, the Moreaus sent an email to the Highway Patrol to share what they and their son witnessed that afternoon on the Lake of the Ozarks.

The patrol sent an investigator to interview the Moreaus separately and on different days. Larry Moreau said he and his wife told the investigator how Trooper Anthony Piercy had sped past them and how they saw Piercy and Ellingson seemingly chatting in the patrol boat. Seconds later, 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.

The Moreaus told the 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.

They had no idea that, beneath the water’s surface, Ellingson’s hands were cuffed behind his back. They did not know that the young man would soon slip to the bottom of the lake.

“We’ve been reading this stuff for months,” Larry Moreau, of Hartsburg, Mo., told The Star. “When the officer went back to work (days after the drowning), I bit my tongue. … I tried to stay neutral. I didn’t get terribly involved in this.

“But I thought, ‘If they come out and try to say this guy was the hero and did everything he could, I’m going to start talking.’”

The incident is like a movie for Paulette Moreau and her husband, she said. “A movie we’ve seen a hundred times in our head since it happened.

“If people could visually see what we saw, they would be outraged.”

Since the Morgan County coroner’s inquest on Thursday — when jurors heard from Piercy, two members of the Highway Patrol and one witness from the lake before finding Ellingson’s death to be accidental — the Moreaus have gone to Facebook and the comment sections on newspaper articles to share their disgust. They can’t understand why authorities kept information out of the inquest, especially testimony from more people who saw Ellingson in the water during his last minutes alive.

“The investigation has proven to be just as sickening as witnessing the event,” Larry Moreau wrote in one comment section. In a phone interview with The Star, he said the patrol has shown “a lack of bringing forth the truth.”

The couple have spoken to a lawyer for Ellingson’s estate and family in Clive, Iowa. On Saturday, Larry Moreau explained some of their concerns to that attorney, Matt Boles. Among them:

The Highway Patrol’s boating accident report gives Piercy’s estimated speed as 10 mph. Larry Moreau said he was operating his boat at 32 mph when Piercy passed him. (Moreau said he was keeping an eye on his speed because he had recently done mechanical work on the boat.)

Records from the patrol boat’s GPS system, which The Star has obtained, say Piercy was “traveling at between 39.1 and 43.7 miles per hour just before this incident occurred.” The boat’s speed was not provided in the courtroom during the inquest.

The trooper who interviewed Larry Moreau days after the drowning told the mid-Missouri man he would probably be subpoenaed at some point to explain what he saw. But Moreau wasn’t called for the inquest, and when he read a Highway Patrol report about his account, which he saw for the first time over the weekend, key parts of his information were not included.

A tearful Piercy told jurors at the inquest that he had worked himself to exhaustion trying to save Ellingson. Another witness who came upon the scene after the Moreaus said the trooper did everything he could. But Larry Moreau said that during the 60 to 90 seconds that his family observed Piercy, the trooper was close enough to touch Ellingson at least twice and didn’t jump in the water to help keep him afloat.

Piercy jumped in later, after the Moreaus had moved on, and after a failed attempt to use a pole with a hook to try to grab Ellingson.

“To tell you the truth, I really thought, my hopes were, that someone would hear our testimony and come back and say: ‘What did you see? Tell me what happened,’” Larry Moreau said.

Phone messages and emails left with Piercy’s lawyer and the Highway Patrol were not returned Sunday night.

When contacted Sunday evening, Morgan County coroner M.B. Jones said he didn’t have the final report with him and would look Monday for the Moreaus’ statements to the patrol.

For his part, Boles said he has questions about why the Moreaus were not included in the inquest.

The role of a coroner’s inquest is to determine the manner in which someone died, whether it was an accident or a crime.

Jurors listened to several hours of testimony — more than an hour from Piercy himself — and went to the lake to see the patrol boat. The three women and three men deliberated less than eight minutes before they returned their finding.

After the inquest, Jones said he would complete the death certificate and say Ellingson died from an accident.

‘Why didn’t he ask for help?’

The Moreaus were out for a boat ride on that last afternoon in May, traveling south down the Gravois Arm, when the patrol boat came up beside them before passing.

The couple’s son pointed at the patrol boat. “All three of us stared at them when they went by,” Moreau said.

As the two boats approached the Playin Hooky Water Taxi and Charter, the patrol boat was so close to the Moreaus’ boat that “I could have tossed a rock in their boat,” Larry Moreau said.

The Moreaus have a house at the lake and dock their boat at the marina near H. Toad’s Bar and Grill. The patrol has a zone office in the complex around the restaurant, and Piercy was taking Ellingson there for a Breathalyzer and paperwork for an arrest for boating while intoxicated.

Because the Moreaus dock near the zone office, they often see troopers. They didn’t think the man in the boat with the trooper that day was a suspect because he wasn’t sitting in front of the console, on a lower seat, where suspects often are placed.

Moreau said he figured the man next to the trooper was a cameraman documenting the start of the boating season.

The family didn’t pay any more attention to the patrol boat until about 30 seconds later, when they say they noticed it had slowed ahead. Then the trooper turned to the right.

“We saw the patrol boat in front of us, drifting into our path,” Paulette Moreau said.

“I said, ‘There’s somebody in the water,’” she said.

During the inquest, Piercy told jurors that after Ellingson left the boat, he turned his boat while keeping his eye on Ellingson. He saw the young man’s life vest separate from him. Piercy ended up killing the engine and then restarting it.

The life vest that came off Ellingson was a Type III, with armholes. It could not be properly secured on an already-handcuffed person. Piercy had grabbed it while arresting Ellingson, even though the trooper also had a Type I or Type II life jacket on his patrol boat. Those personal flotation devices can be secured on a handcuffed person.

Moreau said Piercy eventually let his boat coast right up to Ellingson, who bumped into the boat and slid along it.

Piercy went to the side of the boat and looked at the man in the water. “He could have reached down and slapped him,” Moreau said.

Then the trooper went to the back of the boat. “He bent down, put his hands on his knees, looking down at him. Looked to me like he was standing there talking to him. … As he was leaning over talking to him, the boat is still drifting. The whole time, Brandon is getting farther from the boat.

“The whole thing was, there was no urgency. The officer was never running, waving his arms, saying help him. Nothing. His lights were never on. There was no sense of urgency whatsoever.”

The Moreaus were at least 150 feet away. They said they didn’t move closer because they were afraid they would create a wake that would cause more trouble.

“We were sitting there, engine idling, watching this whole thing to see if anyone needed assistance,” Moreau said. “We were close enough, if we knew this boy was handcuffed, we could have helped him.

“We could have saved him. It’s disheartening that if this guy didn’t know what he was doing, why didn’t he ask for help? And even if he thought he did know what he was doing, the life jacket was off the kid.”

When Piercy went to retrieve something on the boat, the Moreaus thought everything was good. The Playin Hooky boat was coming up from behind, so the family went on to H. Toad’s.

Jim Bascue, the owner of the Playin Hooky boat, who did testify at the inquest, has said he saw Piercy try to communicate with Ellingson at the side of the boat. Bascue said he didn’t see Piercy lean down at the back of the boat to talk with Ellingson. From what he saw, and the way Piercy jumped in to save a struggling Ellingson, the trooper was acting with urgency, Bascue said.

Once the Moreaus had docked their boat, they saw a trooper coming down to his boat.

Larry Moreau hollered out to him: “Hey, your buddy lost one of the camera guys. He fell in the water.”

“That wasn’t a camera man, that was a suspect,” the trooper said. “And he’s missing.”

Moreau said: “What do you mean, he’s missing?”

The trooper said the suspect “went under water and is gone.”

“We were left there stunned,” Moreau said. “From what we saw, it was impossible for that to happen. … How did the boy drown right in front of him?”

The couple felt disbelief and anger.

“There was no reason for it,” Paulette Moreau said.

Prosecutor to decide

At the inquest, Piercy said he didn’t have enough training for what he faced on the lake that day.

The 18-year Highway Patrol veteran had received a boat course in fall 2012 and marine operations training in spring 2013.

“I used to think when I went to work, I can handle any situation thrown at me,” he testified. “This let me know how vulnerable I am.”

He said he was more comfortable working on the state’s highways. “I have more experience there.”

He was on the lake because the state Water Patrol was merged into the Highway Patrol in January 2011, a move that Gov. Jay Nixon said would allow for cost savings and greater efficiency.

Piercy said he had received no training about which type of life jacket to use on an already-handcuffed suspect.

Piercy’s patrol boat had cameras, but the digital card that records video was not in the boat that day. Piercy told jurors at the inquest that he realized earlier in his shift, before he pulled Ellingson’s boat over, that the card had been removed by another trooper to download data. Piercy continued working without it.

Special prosecutor Amanda Grellner has said she expected to review the case immediately after the inquest. Her decision on whether to file charges could come as early as this week.

Someone needs to go back and read all the witnesses’ testimony, Larry Moreau said, to make sure everything pieces together.

The Moreaus said family friends have advised them to not get involved.

“But if this was my son on that boat who drowned, I would ask for anyone who saw anything to stand up and say what they saw. I would want to know the truth.”

Moreau said he has always had respect for the Highway Patrol and knows the hardships troopers put themselves in every day. That’s why, he said, he doesn’t understand what the agency is doing now.

“I would question why the patrol isn’t saying this was handled inappropriately.”

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

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