Missouri state troopers need more training to work on water, lawmaker says

A handcuffed Brandon Ellingson drowned while in the custody of a state trooper on the Lake of the Ozarks on May 31. In this photo, the boat in the middle of the Gravois Arm is positioned where Ellingson went into the water.
A handcuffed Brandon Ellingson drowned while in the custody of a state trooper on the Lake of the Ozarks on May 31. In this photo, the boat in the middle of the Gravois Arm is positioned where Ellingson went into the water. Missouri Highway Patrol

State troopers assigned to work Missouri waterways must have more training, a state lawmaker said Tuesday at a hearing examining the 2011 merger of the state’s Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol.

Rep. Diane Franklin, the chairwoman of a House committee examining the effectiveness of the merger, said that since the merger officers assigned to work the Lake of the Ozarks and other waterways haven’t spent adequate time swimming and testing their skills before taking on water duties.

“I think everyone agrees you must have the level of swim training the former Water Patrol had,” said Franklin, a Camdenton Republican, after nearly three hours of testimony at a hearing at Osage Beach City Hall. “Being a strong swimmer and knowing survival skills, that is an absolute. We have to have that again.”

After two committee hearings, Franklin said her group plans to recommend that training, especially in swimming, be improved. Current training in the water is only a fraction of what it was before the merger, veterans from the former Water Patrol have said.

Other recommendations, which the committee plans to detail in a report to House Speaker Tim Jones before the General Assembly’s next session, will develop as three more hearings are held across the state. The next one is scheduled for Jefferson City in early November.

Before Tuesday’s hearing, about a dozen people — some who traveled from Iowa and other parts of Missouri — held a rally outside. Many wore black shirts and carried signs calling for justice in the death of Brandon Ellingson, the catalyst for the committee and hearings.

The 20-year-old college student from Clive, Iowa, was hanging out with friends on the lake May 31 when Trooper Anthony Piercy — an 18-year road trooper who received marine operations training in March 2013 — arrested him on suspicion of boating while intoxicated. During the transport to a zone office, and moments before a handcuffed Ellingson fell into the water, Piercy’s boat hit speeds between 39.1 and 43.7 mph.

Piercy eventually jumped in to try to save Ellingson, and though he has said he had hold of him at one point, the college student soon slipped to the bottom of the lake. Divers found Ellingson’s body under about 70 feet of water the next day.

Those at the rally said they wanted their presence to be peaceful and powerful.

“We want our voices heard,” said Paulette Moreau, who was with her family on the lake May 31 when she saw Ellingson in the water. She and her husband have said they didn’t think the trooper initially did enough to save the Iowa man. “We are Brandon’s voice.”

Some signs at the rally read “Speed kills” and “Justice for Brandon Ellingson.” A man from Columbia with a “This is Brandon” sign had his hands cuffed behind his back and a life vest jammed over his head and halfway down his torso. Those who witnessed Ellingson’s arrest said that’s how Piercy put the vest on Ellingson. It came off him soon after he entered the water.

Steve Zeller, whose daughter Leah was a friend of Brandon’s, drove from Des Moines to be a part of the rally. He stayed for the hearing.

“I think changes will occur,” said Zeller, who described the small amount of swimming time that troopers had to have after the merger as “unfathomable.” “But it happens at the expense of someone’s life.”

Two troopers — who spent decades with the Water Patrol before the merger — told committee members about the training they had in the 1980s when they went through the Water Patrol’s academy. Lt. Dave Wall and Sgt. Randy Henry both spoke of swimming every day for four months and having to pass a rigorous test that included treading water for an extended time and swimming one mile in their clothes.

“By the end of the academy, you were a pretty darn good swimmer, I imagine,” said Rep. Don Phillips, a Kimberling City Republican and committee vice chairman.

At the first hearing earlier this month, Col. Ronald Replogle — who was also there for Tuesday’s hearing — and several officials with the Highway Patrol spoke to committee members. As they testified, members homed in on the number of officers patrolling the waterways since the merger and the training of troopers who now work the water. They questioned whether it was too much to ask troopers to work both the road and the water.

Officials also disclosed that none of the nine commanders over the nine troops have had marine operations training.

That issue was briefly addressed Tuesday when Wall, who worked for the Water Patrol at the Lake of the Ozarks for 30 years, told the committee that since the merger he has been reassigned.

“So someone else is in charge of marine operations?” Phillips asked.

“Yes,” Wall said.

“Does that person have a marine operations background like you have?” Phillips said.

“No, sir.”

At the first hearing, Henry, who was in uniform, told legislators that field training on the water for part-time road troopers was minimal. When asked then what that training consisted of, he said that on advice of counsel he couldn’t comment. He told the committee that parameters were spelled out in an email he had.

Tuesday, he attended the hearing in street clothes and told members he could answer their questions.

“I’m on my own time,” Henry said.

When asked whether he had any memos or emails he could share, Henry gave each committee member a copy of an email he and other sergeants at Troop F, which covers the Lake of the Ozarks, received from Lt. Darewin Clardy in April 2013. The Star obtained that email.

Before the new marine trained officers were allowed “solo boat time,” Clardy said he wanted assurances that they had demonstrated a “reasonable level of competence in Donzi navigation on the waters of the Lake of the Ozarks.” Donzi is a brand of boat that some troopers use.

No specific field training was outlined, only that they have skills to navigate on the water.

“Quite frankly, this limited group of officers gives me no concern on judgment, interaction, enforcement etc.,” Clardy wrote. “But navigational where-with-all on a lake like that is something we need to have some oversight of.”

Piercy was in that group of officers.

In the last hour of the hearing, members of the public told members their perceptions since the merger.

Everett Kelly, a sheriff’s deputy in Dallas County, Mo., said he took the day off to talk to legislators.

“We lost the Water Patrol is the way I feel about it,” Kelly said, referring to waterways in his area, including the Niangua River. Before the merger, he said, he would see Water Patrol officers working the water two or three times a week.

“Now (Water Patrol officers) have been turned over to traffic cops, and we’ve lost them,” Kelly said. “The public doesn’t see them.”

At the Lake of the Ozarks, resident Max Fisher said, boating is out of control. He said he’s not seeing the level of officer presence he used to years ago.

“The reason you guys are here is to make the water safe,” Fisher said. “What I’m hearing is, I don’t think it’s going to work if (the Water Patrol) sticks with the Highway Patrol.

“It’s going to cost money, be expensive, but what is the cost of safety? You got to do it.”

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