Lake Drowning

Timeline of Brandon Ellingson case

A patrol boat video camera captured this image of Trooper Anthony Piercy (left) with an unidentified trooper at 7:09 p.m. May 31, 2014.
A patrol boat video camera captured this image of Trooper Anthony Piercy (left) with an unidentified trooper at 7:09 p.m. May 31, 2014. Missouri Highway Patrol

2014

May 31: Brandon Ellingson drowns in the Lake of the Ozarks while handcuffed and in the custody of Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper Anthony Piercy. Ellingson, 20, a college student from Clive, Iowa, was being transported for a sobriety test. A patrol incident report indicates that he stood while the boat was moving, stepped to the edge and fell or jumped overboard.

June 1: The Highway Patrol’s dive team recovers Ellingson’s body from the bottom of the lake, a depth of about 70 feet.

June 6: Piercy returns to regular duty. The 18-year veteran has spent almost all his career as a road trooper. In early 2013, he started to receive training to patrol the lake during summer months and busy weekends.

June 8: Family and friends of Ellingson question Piercy’s actions, specifically how he placed a life vest on Ellingson and whether he followed patrol procedures for securing someone in custody. The Missouri Highway Patrol has launched an internal investigation.

Story: Drowning of boater sparks questions

Aug. 24: Twelve weeks after the drowning, authorities have released virtually no information about the case. But friends who witnessed Ellingson’s arrest say Piercy struggled to get a life vest over the head and torso of the already handcuffed man. They also say that as Piercy left with Ellingson, he was operating his boat at excessive speeds.

Story: Recalling the day Brandon drowned

Graphic: Life vests: Different designs, different purposes

Aug. 28: The Highway Patrol releases more than 50 pages of reports and records to The Star. They provide parts of Piercy’s account of May 31, his notes from sobriety tests he gave Ellingson and a boating accident report that states Ellingson “leaves vessel voluntarily.” Although Piercy’s boat was equipped with multiple cameras that are supposed to record arrests, patrol officials say no video footage exists.

Aug. 31: Some retired Water Patrol veterans question Piercy’s training and experience. They say the problem isn’t limited to one trooper, but has been an issue for law enforcement on Missouri waterways since shortly after the state Water Patrol merged into the Highway Patrol early in 2011.

Story: Trooper training criticized

Sept. 4: After listening to hours of testimony, jurors at an inquest in Versailles, Mo., deliberate for eight minutes before finding that Ellingson’s death was the result of an accident, not a crime. “I think they made the right call,” says Morgan County coroner M.B. Jones. Ellingson’s father, Craig Ellingson, calls the ruling “a joke.” During the inquest, Piercy testifies that he wasn’t properly trained.

Story: Jury: Drowning of man in handcuffs accidental

Video: Ellingson’s father reacts

Video: Coroner talks about the inquest

Sept. 6, 7: Larry and Paulette Moreau, who saw Ellingson struggling in the water, say in interviews that the full truth didn’t come out at the inquest. Days after the drowning, they say, they told a Highway Patrol investigator that Piercy, with Ellingson aboard, had sped past them. They saw Piercy’s boat stop and Ellingson in the water, his life vest floating away. As Piercy maneuvered his boat next to Ellingson, he showed no urgency, the Moreaus say.

Story: Witnesses fault lake inquiry

Sept 8: Special prosecutor Amanda Grellner announces that she will not file criminal charges against Piercy. “I do not believe that it meets the legal definition of reckless,” she says. “Criminal recklessness is different than negligence. ... There’s no way to not find negligence, but it doesn’t reach to criminal recklessness.”

Story: Trooper’s actions weren’t “reckless”

Sept. 10: The Star obtains the Highway Patrol’s final investigative report, which includes a previously undisclosed statement by Sgt. Randy Henry. The sergeant says Piercy told him key details hours after the drowning that differed from accounts Piercy later gave to Highway Patrol investigators. For instance, Piercy told Henry that night that his boat was going 30 to 35 mph when Ellingson left the craft; he later told a patrol investigator he was going 10 mph. Another patrol report of the boat’s GPS coordinates says the boat was going “between 39.1 and 43.7 miles per hour just before this incident occurred.” Also, Henry says: Piercy said he was “in a hurry” when he put a life vest on Ellingson; Ellingson was on his feet, leaning against the boat’s seat, not sitting, as Piercy told investigators; Piercy, who eventually jumped in the water to save Ellingson, thought his own “fanny pack” flotation device would automatically inflate in the water. He later told investigators that he groped for the ripcord that would have inflated the device but was unable to find it.

Story: Details vary in trooper’s interviews

Sept. 11: The Star posts a video of troopers trying to re-create the speed and conditions on Piercy’s boat. The video shows lead investigator Cpl. Eric Stacks as the passenger, positioned where Ellingson was on May 31, being rocked in his seat as the speed increased to a maximum of 38 to 40 mph. Stacks gripped a pole with his right hand and braced himself once with his left hand. The handcuffed Ellingson would have been able to brace himself only with his legs.

Sept. 28: Questions mount about the Highway Patrol’s investigation into Ellingson’s death: Why wasn’t more shared with inquest jurors who ruled the death an accident and why has the patrol yet to admit that mistakes were made May 31?

Story: Questions swirl around patrol in drowning inquiry

Oct. 1: A House committee begins exploring the 2011 merger of the Water Patrol into the Highway Patrol. Members home in on the number of officers patrolling the waterways since the merger and the training of troopers who now work the water.

Oct. 26: Piercy’s training records, obtained by The Star, show how little the Highway Patrol prepared him before he began patrolling the Lake of the Ozarks by himself.

Story: Records detail trooper’s training

Nov. 5: A House committee’s hearings into the merger of two state patrols have already helped spur positive changes, a Missouri Highway Patrol official testifies.

Dec. 5: Two days before Brandon Ellingson would have turned 21, his parents file a lawsuit in federal court against the Missouri Highway Patrol, patrol leaders and Piercy. Craig and Sherry Ellingson contend that Piercy was negligent and violated their son’s constitutional rights.

Story: Parents of man who drowned in handcuffs file suit

Dec. 7: The merger of the Highway Patrol and Water Patrol was billed by Gov. Jay Nixon and others as smart government, a way to save taxpayer money, put more officers on Missouri’s waterways and enhance safety. But no money was saved, and promises were broken, The Star reports.

Story: Merger of Missouri highway, water patrols set course for failure

2015

Jan. 15: In its final report, a House committee details its recommendations to correct flaws created by the patrol merger. Those proposed changes include an overhaul in trooper training for the water and recruiting specialized officers to patrol by boat.

Jan. 24: Grellner, the special prosecutor, acknowledges that she is taking a new look at the Ellingson case after receiving new information. This comes four months after she declined to press charges against Piercy.

Story: Death of Brandon Ellingson, who drowned in handcuffs, gets another look

March 11: Grellner steps aside from the case, citing a “conflict that developed recently in the additional investigation that is being performed.” She will not say what that conflict was, but does say she was close to a decision on whether to pursue criminal charges in Ellingson’s death.

Story: Special prosecutor removes herself from review of Brandon Ellingson drowning

May 30: One year after Ellingson’s death, family and friends continue to push for answers. A new special prosecutor, William C. Seay, has taken the case.

Story: One year later, family awaits justice

June 11: Sgt. Henry, who spoke out against the agency after Ellingson’s death, has been demoted to corporal and moved from Lake of the Ozarks where he’s patrolled for nearly three decades, his lawyer says.

Story: Trooper who questioned Missouri patrol after Brandon Ellingson drowning hit with discipline

Oct. 30: Grellner, who had filed a grievance against Henry, withdraws her complaint. Later that day, Henry submits his resignation from the Highway Patrol. The patrol, which had filed two grievances of its own against Henry, says it no longer considers him an “active employee” and cancels a hearing at which he was to appeal his demotion.

Nov. 4: Several patrol commanders tell a legislative committee that they have followed recommendations handed down in January. Those cover everything from how much training troopers receive before they patrol on the water to how well they can swim.

Story: Lawmakers say Missouri Highway Patrol has taken steps since 2014 drowning

Dec. 18: Seay announces that Piercy is being charged with involuntary manslaughter, a felony.

2016

Jan. 4: Rep. Diane Franklin, a Camdenton Republican and chairwoman of the House committee, files a bill to reverse the Water Patrol’s merger into the Highway Patrol. “We need to return to the days of a focused Water Patrol mission that is fully devoted and passionate for the water and law enforcement,” Franklin said in a statement. “This means better training, enhanced resources on the water to increase safety and improved relations with marine interests.”

March 3: Franklin says she is dropping her push for a bill to dismantle the 2011 merger of two state patrols because crucial changes are already being made. The Missouri Highway Patrol is assigning more troopers to the water, she says, and beefing up efforts to identify boaters who are intoxicated.

May: U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey rules that claims that high-ranking Highway Patrol officials violated the civil rights of Brandon Ellingson can go to trial. She also ruled that a jury can consider allegations that Trooper Anthony Piercy violated Brandon Ellingson’s civil rights. She also allowed claims that Piercy had acted negligently in Ellingson’s death, as well as an allegation that Piercy was part of a conspiracy. Laughrey rejected claims against three commanders alleging negligent hiring, training and supervision of the two lead investigators in Ellingson’s drowning. Claims of conspiracy to commit abuse of process also were dismissed.

July 27: Laughrey rejects counts against top Highway Patrol commanders in the Ellingson family’s civil lawsuit. She says lawyers for the family hadn’t proved that 11 top commanders and patrol officials had conspired to cover up the cause of Brandon Ellingson’s death in an effort to squelch the family’s right to due process.

Aug. 31: The Highway Patrol “knowingly” and “purposely” violated Missouri’s open records law in the days and months after Ellingson’s drowning, Circuit Judge Jon E. Beetem rules. The agency and its custodian of records didn’t properly respond to Sunshine Law requests by attorneys for the Ellingson family and in some cases didn’t hand over requested information, Beetem finds.

September: The retired sergeant who spoke out after the Ellingson drowning is suing three Missouri Highway Patrol officials, alleging that they violated his First Amendment rights and conspired against him. Randy Henry says in a lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court that the officials’ actions forced him to retire early after nearly three decades of service.

Nov. 7: Anthony Piercy’s involuntary manslaughter case is headed to a new judge, the third one in less than a year, after Morgan County Circuit Judge Stan Moore recused himself.

Nov. 17: The state of Missouri will pay $9 million to Brandon Ellingson’s family to settle a civil lawsuit.

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