One year after Brandon Ellingson drowned in handcuffs, family still sees a ‘lack of accountability’

Brandon Ellingson
Brandon Ellingson

This weekend, Craig Ellingson will go to the Lake of the Ozarks, where his only son, 20-year-old Brandon, drowned one year ago.

He’ll probably go by the family’s former vacation house, which he sold within weeks of Brandon’s death. And then Sunday, he’ll join others across the country and light a candle for his son who died, hands cuffed behind his back, in the custody of a state trooper.

“Every morning, I wake up shaking my head,” said Ellingson, of Clive, Iowa. “I walk by his room, look in there and always say hi to him. You just can’t believe it happened.”

In the year since Brandon Ellingson died, slipping to the bottom of the Gravois Arm, legislators have worked to make state waterways safer, and family and friends have pushed for answers. They have fought to hold the trooper, Anthony Piercy, accountable. More than 133,000 have signed an online “Justice for Brandon Ellingson” petition.

So far, family members say, they haven’t gotten that justice. Although a special prosecutor has been investigating — taking on the case in March after another prosecutor recused herself — charges have yet to be filed. The U.S. Department of Justice also is reviewing the case.

“I probably spend more time in frustration than anywhere else,” said Sherry Ellingson, Brandon’s mother. “I’m frustrated all of the time. It’s just the lack of accountability. … In a normal situation, there’s a boss that holds their people accountable. There’s no one holding anyone accountable.”

Jurors at a coroner’s inquest in September found the death to be accidental, and special prosecutor Amanda Grellner announced days later that she would not file criminal charges against Piercy. Early this year, however, she reopened the investigation after she said she received new information. Patrol investigators reinterviewed several witnesses, and family and friends of Ellingon felt encouraged.

[Jurors at Brandon Ellingson inquest find drowning to be accidental]

They were waiting for Grellner’s decision on charges when she announced in March that a conflict had developed and she felt she could no longer stay on the case. When Grellner stepped aside, she asked the court to appoint another prosecutor because she thought the additional information she had she had received deserved attention. She has not elaborated on what that information was.

Special prosecutor William Seay, who received the case after Grellner, did not return calls for comment. If he decides to charge Piercy, the statute of limitations for a misdemeanor runs out Sunday, a year after the drowning. Prosecutors would have two more years to file a felony charge, according to Missouri law.

Details that emerged after Ellingson’s drowning revealed a lack of training inside the Missouri Highway Patrol’s water division and missteps by Piercy, who arrested the college student on suspicion of boating while intoxicated. After cuffing Ellingson, witnesses told authorities, the veteran road trooper stuffed a buckled life vest over the young man’s broad shoulders and failed to secure it properly.

Piercy’s patrol boat reached speeds of up to 46 mph as he transported Ellingson to a field office for a breath test. Moments before Ellingson went into the water, the boat was traveling between 39.1 and 43.7 mph. Piercy, a veteran road trooper who volunteered on the lake after the Missouri Water Patrol merged into the Highway Patrol, eventually jumped in to try to save the college student, but he couldn’t.

[Eyewitnesses recall the day Brandon Ellingson drowned in the Lake of the Ozarks]

Since Ellingson’s death, the patrol’s marine operations — especially along Missouri’s most popular waterways — have been under scrutiny. A special House committee met for several months last year and in January released a report calling on the state to correct flaws created by the 2011 merger.

[Trooper training criticized following the Lake of the Ozarks death of Brandon Ellingson]

Those proposed changes included an overhaul in trooper training for the water and recruiting specialized officers to patrol by boat. The committee also called for an update from the patrol in six months and a thorough inspection of changes in two years.

“They have wholeheartedly embraced the recommendations,” said Rep. Diane Franklin, a Camdenton Republican who chaired the committee. “And they are implementing them.”

A patrol spokesman would not discuss specific changes in operations or improvements in training. But Franklin said troopers have begun working 12-hour shifts this season to allow for more coverage at the Lake of the Ozarks.

A patrol captain, formerly with the Water Patrol, has assessed the amount of training of those working the water, Franklin said. If troopers don’t have the required courses or field training, another trained trooper will work with them until that training is acquired, she said.

Calls to the Highway Patrol were not returned, but Capt. John Hotz emailed a statement:

“The Missouri State Highway Patrol continually reviews and adjusts its procedures, training and staffing assignments to make sure they are as responsive as possible to the needs of the state and to help ensure the safety of the public. The patrol appreciates the General Assembly’s time and attention to assist in this effort.”

[Amid account of Brandon Ellingson’s drowning, Missouri trooper worried about mistakes, job]

Patrol officials next month will give legislators an update on the agency’s progress.

In an extensive investigation into Ellingson’s death, The Star discovered that Piercy had just two days of field training before he was released to patrol on the water alone.

Ellingson’s mother, father and sister Jennifer have filed a civil suit against the Highway Patrol, Piercy and several commanders, as well as the county coroner who oversaw the September inquest.

Depositions in the civil suit begin Monday — another day of reliving what happened a year ago, Craig Ellingson said.

Earlier this week, Ellingson thought back to the day a year before, when his son worked for him the last time. Before he headed to the lake with his friends for a fun weekend, Brandon mowed lawns of many properties his dad owns in the Des Moines area.

Craig Ellingson did those same lawns this week.

“I’m following what he did,” Ellingson said. “Just to remember him.”

Next week, Ellingson also plans on being there when members of the state patrol are questioned. Piercy is up first.

“That’s the day I get to see him,” Ellingson said. “I want to look him in the eye.”

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