Drowning of boater at the Lake of the Ozarks sparks questions about his arrest

This Missouri Highway Patrol boat at the Lake of the Ozarks is similar to the one Brandon Ellingson was on before he drowned May 31. According to initial reports, Ellingson was seated alongside the trooper operating the 29-foot boat.
This Missouri Highway Patrol boat at the Lake of the Ozarks is similar to the one Brandon Ellingson was on before he drowned May 31. According to initial reports, Ellingson was seated alongside the trooper operating the 29-foot boat.

News reports of her grandson’s last moments have burned a sickening image in Gloria Ellingson’s mind.

Twenty-year-old Brandon Ellingson — his wrists locked in handcuffs behind his back — struggling to push his head above the surface of the Lake of the Ozarks. Coming up for air once, twice, then disappearing beneath the choppy water.

“That just destroyed me,” said Gloria Ellingson, who lives in Clive, Iowa, near her son and his family.

Last Sunday, divers found Ellingson’s body under 80 feet of water in the main channel of the lake’s Gravois Arm. His death has sparked an internal investigation by the Missouri Highway Patrol and outrage from family and friends who question the actions of the trooper who arrested Ellingson for boating while intoxicated and was transporting him for a breath test when the Iowa man went overboard.

The questions center on when and how a life vest was placed on Ellingson and whether the trooper followed the patrol’s procedures for securing someone in custody.

A final report from the investigation is expected as early as this week.

What is already clear: If this incident had occurred under policies and practices in other states, including states that patrol large bodies of water like Missouri’s big lakes, it probably would have played out differently.

Based on what they have heard from friends who were with Ellingson on his boat that evening — who saw his arrest but not his drowning — Ellingson’s family thinks the trooper handcuffed the man first and then placed the life vest over his shoulders. A witness later saw Ellingson in the water, the life vest around his head, and watched as it floated away from him and he went under.

According to initial Missouri Highway Patrol reports, the trooper was taking Ellingson toward the shore when Ellingson stood up from a seat alongside the trooper and “stepped to the edge … and fell or jumped overboard.”

“Why did he (Ellingson) stand up? How did he enter the water? That will come out in the report,” Sgt. Paul Reinsch said. “We’re (also) trying to determine how the vest came off once the individual was in the water.”

The standard procedure in Missouri is for the water patrol officer to secure a life vest on the suspect and then handcuff the suspect’s hands behind his back. The office typically places the suspect on a boat seat for transport to shore.

Patrol officials caution that different circumstances can arise during arrests and an officer’s discretion can come into play.

In Iowa, a suspect is typically handcuffed after the flotation device is secured and then is seated on the boat’s floor.

In Oklahoma, a suspect won’t be transferred from his boat to a patrol boat until the proper flotation device is secured. An uncooperative suspect would be handcuffed and then “placed on their side on the deck of the vessel,” according to a spokesperson with the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety.

And in Minnesota, a suspect arrested on the water probably would have his hands cuffed in front as a safety precaution to allow for more mobility if he ends up in the water. Once on the patrol boat, the suspect would be placed kneeling next to the officer or cross-legged on the floor of the boat. In some cases, the Minnesota officer would keep a hand on the suspect during transport.

“Being on water poses unique challenges,” said Maj. Roger Tietz of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the patrol of waterways in that state. “We can’t physically restrain them in the boat, can’t cable them.”

Tietz added: “I can feel for what they ran into down there. From the way it sounds, this would be the perfect storm.”

Witnesses said the Missouri trooper, Anthony Piercy, did everything he could to save Ellingson once he was in the water. Piercy is an 18-year veteran of the Highway Patrol and received cross-training for lake duty after the Missouri Water Patrol merged with the Highway Patrol in 2011. He is on paid administrative leave while the investigation continues.

“He shouldn’t have handcuffed him,” Gloria Ellingson said. “He should have secured the life jacket. … It just makes you sick. It’s so wrong.”

Brandon Ellingson headed to central Missouri last weekend to spend time with a cousin and a group of buddies, some from the high school football team he starred on and helped lead to a state championship his senior year.

At Valley High School in West Des Moines, where he graduated in 2012, Ellingson had been a standout athlete with good grades. He was prom king and a member of the homecoming court. This fall he would have been a junior at Arizona State University.

Ellingson was behind the wheel of the boat, hanging out with his friends, about 5:20 p.m. May 31. A beer can reportedly fell out of the boat, triggering the stop by the water patrol, those on the boat told Ellingson’s family.

Reinsch said that without the investigation complete, he could not confirm that. But he did say the trooper pulled the boat over after witnessing a violation.

Once Ellingson was arrested and handcuffed, the trooper planned to take him to a zone office for further tests.

“The police officer threw a life jacket around his shoulders — that’s what the boys said,” said Gloria Ellingson, who was with family a week ago when some of the boys replayed what had happened. “He just draped it over his shoulders.”

The trooper used a Type III flotation device, Reinsch said. That device is pulled on like a vest, with the wearer’s arms going through armholes. It is still unclear how the trooper placed the device on Ellingson.

“Normally you place the life jacket on and then the handcuffs on — that would be the proper order,” Reinsch said.

Piercy reportedly told the others on Ellingson’s boat that Ellingson would meet up with them later, Gloria Ellingson said. Four hours would pass before they realized something had happened to their friend and cousin.

Investigators spent last week trying to find witnesses who may have seen Ellingson go in the water. It isn’t known whether they found anyone.

One witness came along after Ellingson was already in the lake.

Jim Bascue, retired from the Kansas City area, owns Playin Hooky Water Taxi and Charters at the lake. He was transporting a bachelorette party when he came up behind the trooper. He saw Piercy abruptly stop his boat and turn around.

Unsure what the trooper was doing, Bascue soon saw the young man in the water.

“I could see the life jacket — it was orange,” Bascue said. “I could see his head in it.”

Bascue tried to position his boat so Ellingson was between him and the trooper’s boat. Both men tried to help the young man out of the water.

“I noticed the life jacket and the head separating; the life jacket came off of him,” said Bascue, who was not aware at the time that Ellingson’s hands were cuffed behind his back. “I threw a life ring out to the kid. He didn’t attempt to grab it. The water patrol guy put a pole out; the girls on my boat yelled at him to grab it.”

Bascue saw Ellingson go under, then come back up. He could hear the young man moaning.

“When he went under, the patrol officer dove in to grab him,” Bascue said. “He came up with him for a split second. … He was trying to hold himself and the kid up.”

Then Ellingson slipped through Piercy’s hands, and Piercy was unable to grab him again, Bascue said.

Bascue eventually helped Piercy back onto his boat. The trooper sat quietly.

“I can’t imagine what he’s going through right now,” Bascue said. “I only saw it from the time the guy was in the water until it was over. I don’t know what happened before, with the handcuffing and the life jacket.

“… But from what I saw, Piercy was very brave to jump in and try to help the kid.”

Years ago, officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources discussed arrest procedures on the water. They tried to determine what policies would be best for their officers patrolling the state’s many lakes.

What would be safest, not just for the officers but for citizens? Other states have made their own determinations; that’s why policies and procedures can differ.

In Minnesota, they decided that what worked best for arrests on land wouldn’t necessarily be the best on water. At least not in every situation.

And they made sure policies were loose enough that officers could use their discretion.

“We’re not going to say life jacket first, handcuffs second,” said Tietz. “Some folks are big teddy bears and scared and do whatever you tell them. … But some don’t cooperate, and you may need to put handcuffs on them first.”

But if that happens, Minnesota officers have Type I personal flotation devices that go over the head and can be properly secured if handcuffs are already on a suspect.

Minnesota’s water patrol policy allows officers to handcuff a suspect’s hands in the front.

“A zillion use-of-force guys will have a coronary when they read that,” Tietz said. “But we do what’s best for us. If you’re on water, it’s not like standing along the side of the road and you fall and hit the ground. When you’re on water, they can dive out and try to swim away.

“And if they get into the water, they need every angle they can to sustain life. With your hands behind you, you have to rely on kicking, and you expend energy quickly.”

In Kansas, officers conducting alcohol violation stops make sure suspects are wearing a secure life jacket. If they don’t have one on initially, officers will ask them to grab one and observe how they put it on. Or they’ll provide one, said Dan Hesket, assistant division director for the law enforcement arm of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

“The rule would be you do not handcuff someone without them having a life vest securely on,” Hesket said. “If they do end up in the water, we want to be able to retrieve them. And we are responsible for them as our prisoner.”

When transporting someone to land, officers will have noncombative suspects sit on a lower boat seat or on the floor. If combative, the suspect is placed on the floor with legs crossed, Hesket said.

“The more movements they have to do to get up, the more time you have to react,” he said. “They’d have to uncross their legs.”

Iowa water patrol officers don’t place suspects on boat seats or benches because of the possibility they could jump or fall into the water. Instead, suspects sit, handcuffed with a secure flotation device, on the floor of the boat, said conservation officer Aron Arthur with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

“You want to keep them lower,” Arthur said. “That way they are safer, and (there’s) less opportunity for something bad to happen.”

Ellingson was buried Friday.

His high school coach, Gary Swenson, said former players and friends of the young man are struggling.

“He had a way about him that everybody could feel comfortable around him, whether you were in his friend group, an athlete, not an athlete,” Swenson said. “Anybody he came in contact with really appreciated him for what he was. He was a really good guy.”

Gloria Ellingson said her grandson would joke and have fun and could make just about anyone laugh.

“He could talk to anybody,” she said. “He never thought he was all that.”

Friends have filled Twitter and Facebook with messages.

Swenson said it’s tough to make sense of a tragedy that “could have been prevented.”

“I think anytime you have the tragic loss of a young person like this, one of the things that makes it the most difficult is the loss of a promising adult,” Swenson said. “And Brandon, he was one of those all-American kids. Whatever he decided to do in life, you knew he was going to do it.

“It would have been fun to watch him.”

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