Two weeks before he would have faced trial for involuntary manslaughter in the drowning death of a handcuffed Iowa man, a Missouri state trooper pleaded guilty Tuesday to a misdemeanor boating violation.
Anthony Piercy avoided a jury trial when he told the judge he was guilty of negligent operation of a vessel in the death of Brandon Ellingson, 20, in late May 2014.
That charge is a Class B misdemeanor, far less than the felony the trooper faced. It carries the possibility of up to six months in jail and/or a $500 fine. The prosecutor also could ask that Piercy be barred from law enforcement for life.
Piercy’s lawyer asked that if the sentencing assessment report recommends more than probation that Piercy be allowed to withdraw his plea.
Piercy said little during Tuesday’s hearing, answering the questions of Judge Roger Martin Prokes. His family watched from the third row inside a small Morgan County courtroom where the trooper’s trial was scheduled to begin July 10.
Craig Ellingson, Brandon’s father, said that going forward with a trial was risky when there’s a “hometown jury” in a community where Piercy lives, his wife is a teacher and the trooper was on the Versailles school board before he was charged in December 2015. Ellingson, who was in the courtroom Tuesday, said without a plea he feared he wouldn’t get any justice for his only son.
“This is the best we were going to get here,” said Ellingson, who with Brandon’s mother, Sherry Ellingson, plans to speak at the sentencing.
“It would have been a hung jury, or he would have gotten off. I didn’t want to risk the chance we wouldn’t get the opportunity to see him face to face and say what we want to say. Now we get that.”
Plus, Ellingson said, “we know what he’s guilty of.”
The surprising plea left some supporters and members of Brandon Ellingson’s family — most notably his mother — feeling no justice had been served. But most agreed that at least it will put an end to the three-year ordeal in which the Ellingson family battled the state of Missouri and the Highway Patrol to uncover what happened May 31, 2014, after Piercy stopped Brandon on the Lake of the Ozarks on suspicion of boating while intoxicated.
Late last year, the family received a $9 million settlement from the state and earlier won a lawsuit over records. A judge in that case ruled that the patrol knowingly and purposely violated the Sunshine Law by not handing over some information or delaying the release of other documents.
Piercy and his attorney left the courthouse Tuesday without speaking to reporters. The patrol said in a statement that Piercy remains on extended leave without pay, but that it “does not comment on personnel issues.”
Special Prosecutor William Camm Seay said the family was on its way to getting some justice.
“We’re not done,” Seay said. “There’s still a punishment to dole out to Anthony Piercy, and I think he’s worthy of being punished.”
Seay said the plea came about after he and the Ellingsons realized what could happen in Morgan County. The special prosecutor said he had several people out talking to residents of the county to see how people felt about the case.
“I had a great fear of a mistrial and just seating a jury,” he said.
The Ellingson family has insisted that after the drowning, there was a coverup by the state and patrol officials who initially stated that Brandon Ellingson may have jumped from Piercy’s boat. Some details Piercy provided the night of the drowning changed, and no one trained in water patrol operations was involved in the Highway Patrol’s investigation into what happened.
Days after Ellingson’s death in the Gravois Arm of the lake, The Star began investigating. Through interviews and records requests, the newspaper discovered that after Missouri merged the Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol in 2011, some road troopers weren’t adequately trained to work on the water.
Piercy — who at the time of Ellingson’s death was an 18-year veteran of the road — received just two days of field training before he was cleared for “solo boat time.” Before the merger, Water Patrol recruits were required to receive at least two months of field training.
“He wasn’t supposed to be out there, wasn’t supposed to be arresting people,” Craig Ellingson said. “The only reason he was supposed to be out there was to be seen.”
For Sherry Ellingson, the plea Tuesday did nothing to ease her pain. A trial, she said, would have further exposed how Piercy did little to help her son before he sank in handcuffs to the bottom of the lake and how the patrol then tried to conceal the truth of what happened.
“I don’t really give a care what his punishment is, but I wanted his record to say ‘manslaughter,’ ” Sherry Ellingson told The Star. “If anyone says that justice has now been served, you have got to be kidding me. In what way?”
During the stop in May 2014, Piercy handcuffed the Iowa man’s arms behind his back. Witnesses told authorities that the trooper then stuffed an already-buckled life vest — the wrong one for a handcuffed person — over Brandon Ellingson’s head. The vest wasn’t properly secured on Ellingson and came off after he ended up in the water.
Nearly four months after Ellingson drowned, a coroner’s inquest determined the death was accidental. During the inquest, Piercy told jurors that he wasn’t trained for what he encountered May 31, 2014.
He said that as he transported Ellingson to a field office for a sobriety test, he saw the young Iowa man standing next to him in the boat after they encountered the first wave. A toxicology report would later show that Ellingson’s blood-alcohol level was 0.268, more than three times the legal limit. His family thinks the test was inaccurate because Ellingson’s body wasn’t recovered from the water for more than 18 hours.
During the transport, where Piercy traveled at speeds of up to 46 mph, Ellingson was ejected from the boat.
As Piercy choked up, he told inquest jurors: “I reached for him and wasn’t able to grab ahold of him.”
Craig Ellingson attended the inquest and at the time called it “a joke.” Only one inquest juror asked tough questions, wanting to know more about training. And Piercy demonstrated how he said he put the life vest on Ellingson, contradicting what the college student’s friends said happened.
One inquest juror, who didn’t want to be named for fear of retribution in the community, recently told The Star that a criminal trial shouldn’t be held in Morgan County because it’s a “good ole boy system.”
“I think the community around here may have fixed ideas,” the juror said. “I think it should be someplace totally unbiased.”
After the coroner’s panel ruled that Ellingson’s death was accidental, a special prosecutor assigned to the case, Amanda Grellner, declined to file charges against Piercy.
In December 2015, Seay charged Piercy with involuntary manslaughter. The trooper has been on administrative leave without pay since then.
Seay had subpoenaed dozens of people to testify at next month’s trial, including a group of women in a bachelorette party who were on the Playin Hooky Water Taxi and Charters boat that came upon Piercy’s patrol boat after Ellingson was in the water. No one on that boat knew that Ellingson was handcuffed as he struggled to stay above water, said Jim Bascue, owner and licensed captain of Playin Hooky.
“I never even dreamed in my wildest dreams that he would have been handcuffed,” Bascue told The Star last week. “If I had known, I would have jumped in. I could have saved him.”
Women on the boat told investigators that Piercy held a pole out to Ellingson at one point, and they hollered for him to grab it. And they also said they screamed at the trooper to jump in the water and help save the man.
Brandon Ellingson’s parents said no one from the patrol has offered a genuine apology for what happened to their son — except, Craig and Sherry Ellingson said, Sgt. Randy Henry, who is now retired.
“And he didn’t have to,” Craig Ellingson said. “He didn’t do anything wrong.”
Henry spent nearly three decades patrolling the Lake of the Ozarks and was a longtime veteran of the Missouri Water Patrol before the merger. Hours after the drowning, Henry spoke to Piercy over the phone about what had happened.
But Piercy’s later account, as well as his testimony at the inquest, was different. Henry also testified in front of a legislative committee about minimal trooper training after the merger in 2011. The sergeant later was disciplined by the patrol and eventually retired after he was transferred to Truman Lake and told he would be demoted to corporal.
When Henry was interviewed by patrol investigators early on, the sergeant questioned whether the highest degree of care was taken with Brandon Ellingson that day. When Henry mentioned a state law pertaining to that, his sentence was cut off and one investigator insisted the recorder be turned off.
Henry said he couldn’t comment on the case because of pending litigation he has against the patrol.
“I am glad the Ellingson family has finally received justice for Brandon,” Henry said. “This could have been resolved a long time ago.”
The judge set sentencing for Sept. 8. Three of Ellingson’s family members will be allowed to speak at sentencing, as will Piercy.
Brandon Ellingson would have been 23 years old now. All but one of the friends with him that day have graduated from college and have started out on their own.
The plan for Brandon was to graduate college early and go back to Iowa and work alongside his dad in the family’s property business. It’s tough, Craig Ellingson said, to think of what should have been.
“It’s a huge, huge void for everybody,” he said. “Especially our family.”
The one good thing about not having a week-long trial, Craig Ellingson said, is that he, Sherry, Brandon’s sister and other family members don’t have to re-live everything that happened in the summer of 2014.
“We were never going to get full justice,” Craig Ellingson said. “It’s gone on too long. We need to let it go.
“The thing is, in the end, he’ll be judged by God, not by Judge Prokes.”
Ellingson attended his son’s five-year high school reunion last weekend.
“His friends wanted me to go,” Ellingson said. “I told them if Brandon was here, he wouldn’t want me to go, but they said no, he’d want me to.”