Trooper’s actions weren’t ‘reckless,’ special prosecutor says

While the boat was docked at Gravois Mills, Craig Ellingson, father of Brandon, noted that the life vests were not the proper type and pointed out wooden pieces used to raise the seats that elevated Brandon.
While the boat was docked at Gravois Mills, Craig Ellingson, father of Brandon, noted that the life vests were not the proper type and pointed out wooden pieces used to raise the seats that elevated Brandon. The Kansas City Star

Hours after a special prosecutor said Monday that she wouldn’t criminally charge the state trooper who handcuffed 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson before he drowned, his father said he had only begun his battle.

“They’re covering up the lies,” Craig Ellingson said in a phone interview. “They killed my son, they didn’t apologize, they didn’t admit they were wrong. ... If I did what they did, I’d be in prison.”

The news of no charges came four days after a Morgan County coroner’s inquest determined that the Brandon Ellingson’s death was an accident. Three men and three women listened to hours of testimony, including one hour from Trooper Anthony Piercy. He told them he hadn’t received enough training to handle what he encountered the day Ellingson left his boat and drowned in the Lake of the Ozarks, his hands cuffed behind his back.

Special prosecutor Amanda Grellner said she agreed with the jurors’ decision.

“I do not believe that it meets the legal definition of reckless,” she said. “Criminal recklessness is different than negligence. Do I believe there was negligence here? There’s no way to not find negligence, but it doesn’t reach to criminal recklessness.

“It’s not for me to determine civilly how negligent he was and how liable they are.”

Piercy pulled Brandon Ellingson’s boat over just after 5 p.m. May 31. The Arizona State University student was with seven friends who said they witnessed the trooper handcuffing him and tugging a Type III life vest — not meant to be used on an already-handcuffed person — over his muscular build. The friends then watched the trooper, with Ellingson beside him, speed off to a patrol zone office.

Halfway there, Ellingson ended up in the water, and his life vest came off and floated away. Piercy said he worked himself to exhaustion trying to save him.

Jurors in the inquest heard all that. What they didn’t hear in the courtroom is what concerns Ellingson’s family and friends.

Though jurors were told that the patrol boat’s GPS system showed the boat’s speed that afternoon, the lead investigator of the case did not say in the courtroom what the speed was. Records from the GPS, which The Star has obtained, say Piercy was “traveling at between 39.1 and 43.7 miles per hour just before this incident occurred.”

Grellner and Morgan County coroner M.B. Jones, who called the inquest, said they made sure jurors received that information in the exhibits they took into deliberations.

The jurors came back with their decision in less than eight minutes. It isn’t clear what they had time to read or review in that time.

When contacted by phone, juror Cecil Banner of Barnett, Mo., said he had no comment about the inquest. “I think everything was said in court.” Asked whether he and the other jurors knew the speed of the boat, he again said he had no comment.

Other jurors did not return phone messages.

The inquest jury also didn’t hear from any senior water patrol officers or commanders regarding training and procedures.

“I think it’s troubling that clearly based on information we have from the death investigation report, there was a senior water patrol officer who was Piercy’s direct commander who was present (May 31) and had a conversation with Trooper Piercy, yet he was never called to the inquest,” said Des Moines attorney Matt Boles, who represents Ellingson’s estate and family in Clive, Iowa.

Grellner said jurors didn’t need senior water patrol officers to detail procedures. “Trooper Piercy already testified that he read policies and procedures and didn’t follow them,” she said.

Her decision was announced the same day The Star published a story in which two witnesses on the lake the day Ellingson drowned said they were shocked that they were not called to testify at the inquest. Larry and Paulette Moreau of Hartsburg, Mo., told The Star they were behind the patrol boat and saw Ellingson in the water, his life vest off.

The Moreaus said Piercy didn’t ask them for help and showed no urgency in helping Ellingson as he initially treaded water. Thinking the trooper had everything under control, and not realizing Ellingson was handcuffed, the Moreaus continued on their way.

Piercy eventually dove in to try to save Ellingson. At one point, the man slipped from his grip.

The Moreaus gave accounts to a Highway Patrol investigator shortly after the drowning.

Boles said not calling the Moreaus to testify or considering their information after it was brought to light shows the process has not been fair and impartial.

“Most people would take pause and say, ‘We need to look at this closer,’” Boles said.

Grellner said she was aware of the Moreaus’ statements. She said she had reviewed and analyzed the entire file.

“We had testimony from the boat captain (Jim Bascue, owner of the Playin Hooky Water Taxi and Charter) who stayed,” Grellner said. “I gave more weight to the perspective of those who were there, rather than those who chose to go on.”

The Highway Patrol superintendent issued a statement Monday afternoon.

“This was a tragic event and many lives, including the family, officers and witnesses, have been dramatically affected and changed forever,” Col. Ronald K. Replogle said. “... 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.”

Attorneys for Ellingson’s estate and family plan to file a lawsuit. Craig Ellingson said Piercy and the patrol need to be held accountable.

“We’re not going away,” he said. “I’m not going to sit back and let these guys get away with this.

“We’re going to be a thorn in their side until Brandon gets justice.”

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