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Family seeks federal investigation into drowning of handcuffed man

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

Craig Ellingson plans to meet with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad Wednesday afternoon in a first step toward getting federal authorities to look into the investigation of his son’s death at the Lake of the Ozarks.

He then plans to talk with U.S. senators from Iowa. His goal is to get the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate how the Missouri Highway Patrol operates.

“This is bigger than what Brandon is,” Craig said Wednesday morning. “This is public safety and what they do.”

Des Moines attorney Matt Boles, who represents the estate of Brandon Ellingson and his family, said the patrol made too many missteps in its investigation into the 20-year-old man’s death May 31.

State Trooper Anthony Piercy arrested Ellingson for suspicion of boating while intoxicated, cuffed his hands behind his back and tugged the wrong kind of life vest over his shoulders, witnesses said. While Piercy was transporting him, Ellingson entered the water. The life vest quickly came off and he drowned.

During last week’s coroner’s inquest into the death, jurors heard from Piercy for more than an hour. What they didn’t hear is how fast his boat was going before Ellingson entered the water and testimony from a mid-Missouri couple who told the patrol that from what they witnessed, Piercy did not initially act with urgency to help Ellingson or call for help from those nearby.

The jurors later ruled that Ellingson’s death was an accident. On Monday, a special prosecutor said she agreed and would not be filing charges against Piercy

“It’s clear, so far, there has not been an honest and accurate evaluation of the fact surrounding Brandon Ellingson’s death,” Boles said Wednesday morning. “We welcome the opportunity for all of those involved to withstand the scrutiny of federal investigators.”

Piercy pulled 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.

Records from the patrol boat’s 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.” His boat got up to 46 mph while he was transporting Ellingson.

Halfway to the zone office, Ellingson entered the water, and his life vest came off and floated away. Piercy said he worked himself to exhaustion trying to save him.

Piercy told jurors that he had a hold on Ellingson at one point, but the young man slipped through his hands. Divers recovered the college student’s body the next day in 69 feet of water.

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

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