Parents of man who drowned in handcuffs file suit against trooper, Missouri Highway Patrol

One of Brandon Ellingson’s friends took this picture of his arrest by Trooper Anthony Piercy (right) on May 31.
One of Brandon Ellingson’s friends took this picture of his arrest by Trooper Anthony Piercy (right) on May 31.

Two days before Brandon Ellingson would have turned 21, his parents on Friday filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Missouri Highway Patrol, patrol leaders and the trooper who had him in custody when he drowned.

Craig and Sherry Ellingson of Clive, Iowa, contend that Trooper Anthony Piercy’s actions and inactions on May 31 caused the death of their only son, who was in handcuffs when he drowned. They say Piercy was negligent and violated their son’s constitutional rights.

Jurors at a coroner’s inquest in September ruled that the young man’s death was an accident, and a special prosecutor declined to file charges against Piercy.

“We’ll get the truth in civil court because they’ll have to do depositions,” Craig Ellingson said Friday afternoon in a telephone interview. “And I’ll be there. They can look right in my eye and lie in my face. They’re going to have to look at me.”

When contacted about the lawsuit, a patrol spokesman said the agency doesn’t comment on civil litigation. Capt. Tim Hull referred questions to the Missouri attorney general’s office; a spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster said, “We decline to comment at this time.”

After arresting Ellingson for boating while intoxicated, Piercy cuffed the college student’s hands behind his back and then put a Type III life vest, with arm holes, on him. Witnesses say Piercy stuffed an already-buckled vest over Ellingson’s stocky build and was unable to get it over his entire torso. Piercy was taking Ellingson to a zone office for a breath test when the young man went into the water.

“As Piercy sped through rough waves, Brandon was involuntarily ejected from the boat into the water,” according to the lawsuit. “Piercy, in his subsequent reports, falsely stated that Brandon had jumped, hands cuffed behind his back, from the moving vessel.”

The life vest came off Ellingson in the water. Piercy eventually jumped in and tried to save the college student but couldn’t.

“Trooper Piercy’s attempts at a rescue failed as he did not know how to operate his own state-issued equipment,” a statement about the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit, filed by Des Moines, Iowa, lawyer Matt Boles and other attorneys, says Piercy wasn’t adequately trained to work the water. It also says the Missouri Highway Patrol is liable in Ellingson’s death. It names 11 people as defendants and specifies eight counts.

The parents take offense to the investigation completed by Cpl. Eric Stacks and Sgt. Chris Harris, who also are named in the suit. So are Col. Ronald K. Replogle, Capt. Greg Kindle and Morgan County coroner M.B. Jones.

“It was a cover-up from the beginning,” Craig Ellingson said.

The family and attorneys insist the goal of the patrol’s investigation wasn’t to reveal the truth but “rather to cover it up and deflect the blame from Trooper Piercy onto Brandon himself.”

Ellingson’s blood alcohol level was 0.268, according to the toxicology report in the patrol’s final report. It also showed he tested positive for cocaine.

His death certificate says the cause of death was drowning by asphyxiation and mentions alcohol and cocaine, said Craig Ellingson.

“That’s a huge smear,” he said. “Nowhere in there does it say anything about the cop doing what he did to Brandon, period.”

He hopes the lawsuit and spotlight on the case will expose what he and the family see as negligence.

The family wanted the suit — and another filed in state court alleging that the patrol violated Missouri’s Sunshine Law by not releasing records — filed before Sunday.

“The holidays will be hard,” Sherry Ellingson said. “But I think his birthday will be the hardest for us. It’s such a rite of passage, we wanted to be able to celebrate that with him.”

Now they’ll celebrate his life in vigils planned in Iowa; at the Lake of the Ozarks where his family had a vacation home; and in Arizona, where he attended college. Sherry Ellingson has worked with her son’s fraternity brothers planning that vigil, which will take place near the Arizona State University campus.

Family and friends will have 41/2 minutes of silence during the Sunday events. That’s the amount of time his parents think Brandon struggled in the water before he slipped to the bottom of the lake.

In Arizona, during those 41/2 minutes, Brandon’s mom will play her son’s favorite song, “Jubel,” which he would play over and over.

“The song repeats the words, ‘Save me, save me, save me,’” Sherry Ellingson said. “And the last line has ‘I’ve seen the light.’

“I thought this was the right time to play his song.”

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

Related stories from Kansas City Star