Details in trooper’s account of the drowning of Brandon Ellingson changed, report shows

While the boat was docked at Gravois Mills, Craig Ellingson, father of Brandon, noted that the life vests were not the proper type and pointed out wooden pieces used to raise the seats that elevated Brandon.
While the boat was docked at Gravois Mills, Craig Ellingson, father of Brandon, noted that the life vests were not the proper type and pointed out wooden pieces used to raise the seats that elevated Brandon. The Kansas City Star

The Missouri trooper who handcuffed an Iowa man before he drowned told a sergeant key details a few hours later that differed from accounts he subsequently gave to Highway Patrol investigators.

According to a previously undisclosed statement by Sgt. Randy Henry, obtained Wednesday by The Star, Trooper Anthony Piercy said that he was “in a hurry” when he put a life vest on Brandon Ellingson during his arrest for boating while intoxicated.

Piercy reportedly also said:

That Ellingson was leaning against the boat’s seat during transport on the Lake of the Ozarks — not sitting, as Piercy later told investigators. Two witnesses who saw Piercy and Ellingson immediately before the young man entered the water also described Ellingson as standing, which could have made him more likely to go overboard if the boat were rocked by a large wave.

That Piercy, who eventually jumped in the water to try 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.

That Piercy was traveling 30 to 35 mph before Ellingson went overboard at 5:23 p.m. May 31. Piercy later told a Highway Patrol investigator he was going 10 mph, and that speed was noted in a patrol accident report. But another patrol report of the boat’s GPS coordinates obtained earlier by The Star says the boat was going “between 39.1 and 43.7 miles per hour just before this incident occurred.”

A summary of Henry’s account, as well as later interviews of Piercy, are included in the Highway Patrol’s final investigative report.

When contacted by The Star, Henry said he had no comment.

Some information differs from what jurors heard last week in a Morgan County coroner’s inquest. That jury determined that Ellingson’s death was accidental, and a special prosecutor on Monday agreed and said she wouldn’t file criminal charges against Piercy.

“It’s clear, so far, there has not been an honest and accurate evaluation of the facts surrounding Brandon Ellingson’s death,” said Matt Boles, a Des Moines, Iowa, attorney representing Ellingson’s estate and family.

Boles said Ellingson’s father, Craig Ellingson, met Wednesday with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and aims to meet with U.S. senators from Iowa in hopes of getting federal authorities to look into the Missouri Highway Patrol’s investigation of his son’s death.

“This is bigger than what Brandon is,” Craig Ellingson said. “This is public safety and what they do.”

The six jurors at the inquest never heard from Henry. Yet according to a two-page summary of his interview with investigators, the longtime water patrol officer offered seemingly crucial information that he said Piercy told him just hours after the handcuffed Ellingson slipped beneath about 70 feet of water.

“Sergeant Henry advised Trooper Piercy called him,” the summary of Henry’s interview read. “Sergeant Henry asked Trooper Piercy, ‘What was up with the life jacket?’ (The jacket floated away from Ellingson soon after he entered the water.) Trooper Piercy advised, ‘Randy, I got in a hurry.’”

The vest has been a focus of the investigation. Piercy put a Type III vest, with armholes, on Ellingson after the young man was handcuffed. That type of vest cannot be secured properly on a handcuffed person. Piercy’s boat did have a Type I vest that day that could have been secured. It was just feet from where Ellingson sat during his arrest.

Henry also said that Piercy told him Ellingson was leaning against the seat during the ride, with “his feet on the floor and butt up against the seat.” The patrol has said, and Piercy told jurors at the inquest, that Ellingson was sitting in the seat next to the trooper before he stood, took a step toward the right side of the boat and entered the water.

And Piercy reportedly told Henry that he slowed down as he hit some rough water. Next thing he knew, he told Henry, he “saw Ellingson’s feet going over the side of the boat.”

The final report includes details from the recovery of Ellingson’s body and his autopsy.

His body was located at 11:19 p.m. that night by side scan sonar. At 11:05 a.m. the next day, Trooper Jason Kuessner recovered Ellingson’s body, which “was lying face up on a soft mud bottom at a depth of 71 feet where the water temperature was 50 degrees.”

Records of his autopsy show Ellingson had a small abrasion on his nose and injuries to his neck. He had mud in his mouth.

In the respiratory section of the autopsy, the report states, “There is foam and mud within the bronchi and major branches of the bronchi,” the tubes that carry air into the lungs.

Toxicology results state that Ellingson had a blood alcohol content of 0.268 percent, more than three times the legal limit. He tested positive for cocaine.

The final report also includes transcripts of two interviews of Piercy by a patrol investigator, Sgt. Jeff Johnson, that were conducted June 5 and July 2.

Piercy told Johnson that he was just passing by Coconuts Caribbean Beach Bar & Grill on May 31. As he was idling through that area, Piercy said he noticed Ellingson’s boat.

That contradicts what the owner of Coconuts told The Star last month. Owner Timothy Vogel said Piercy had been spotted outside Coconuts for several hours that day. Because he thought the trooper was “harassing” his customers, Vogel called Piercy’s commander to complain, as well as 911 and an area state representative.

Vogel told the newspaper he even spoke to Piercy and asked him why he was sitting out there all day. The owner said Piercy told him that he was responding to complaints.

Piercy told Johnson he noticed Ellingson’s boat had no visible registration numbers. He idled toward the boat to investigate. He said he eventually saw a Bud Light can tossed from the boat’s passenger side.

“I saw it hit the water, but I wasn’t for sure which one threw it,” Piercy told Johnson. “Or I guess that would be the left side of the boat that it came out of.”

“So it was on the port side then?” Johnson asked.

“Yes,” Piercy said. “I’m not real good with the nautical terms.”

Piercy is an 18-year Highway Patrol road veteran who was starting his second season helping on the lake.

Piercy explained that after doing sobriety tests on Ellingson, he cuffed Ellingson’s hands behind his back and went to get a life vest.

“I put the life jacket around his shoulders,” he said. “… I didn’t zip it because of his shoulders, but I secured it around him tight, clasped the three straps and buckled him, or I guess tightened them on him.”

The friends watching the arrest from Ellingson’s boat, however, have said Piercy took a prebuckled Type III vest and tugged it over Ellingson’s head, getting it only partially down his torso. They said Ellingson’s chin touched the top buckle as Piercy sped away toward the zone office for a breath test.

Piercy told Johnson he was in a hurry because one of Ellingson’s friends had jumped in the water during a sobriety field test and swum toward his boat to give Ellingson a card with personal rights. Piercy said he wanted to “wrap it up, get out of there,” before anything escalated.

With Ellingson beside him, Piercy sped toward the zone office. At the 3.5-mile mark of the Gravois Arm, they encountered tall waves.

“I made the comment to him,” Piercy said. “I said, ‘There’s some big waves coming.’ I said, ‘I’m going to slow down, so don’t lean forward and hit your head.’”

He said that another passenger the previous week had hit his head on a computer on the boat’s console.

“The first wave hits the boat as we were sitting down, and we roll over the wave and go down into the … bottom.”

“Trough,” Johnson interjected.

“Yeah, I don’t know the nautical term, but we go down to the bottom of the wave and the second wave is about ready to hit the boat.

“At this time, Mr. Ellingson stands up out of the seat beside me …”

He left the boat. Piercy said he reached for Ellingson, but “I was unsuccessful in getting a hand on him.”

Johnson asked, “Did he jump over? Or did he fall over?”

Piercy: “I don’t know. I’ve, believe me, played this scenario through my mind a million times, and I don’t know. All I know is he’s beside me, and then he’s not.”

Piercy had trouble maneuvering his boat near Ellingson, who was struggling in the water. About then, a boat carrying women for a bachelorette party came up.

“I’m really starting to panic, because I know he’s handcuffed. I move my boat towards him, kill the engines again, so in case I overshoot him … and I run to the front of my boat.”

He grabbed a boat pole with a hook but couldn’t reach Ellingson.

“My intent was to try to get him in the armpit or something, where I could at least get hold of him.

“When I reached for him with the hook, he’s like struggling, but he, he is kicking, but his body turns in the water and I missed him.”

Piercy tells Johnson that he experienced several moments of panic. He said he didn’t see the life jacket come off Ellingson.

“I heard one of the girls on the boat yell, ‘Go get him,’ at least that’s what I heard.” He said he dropped his gun belt and jumped feet first into the water.

He reached Ellingson and pulled the young man’s back to his body. With his left hand, he tried to pull the ripcord on his fanny pack flotation device but couldn’t find it. He thought the flotation device would pull both of them to the surface.

The water, he said, was green and murky, and he estimated they were 8 to 10 feet deep.

“And I can’t find the rip cord, so I let go of him to try and find the rip cord, and then I can’t. … I go to reach back for him ’cause I don’t want to pull it until I have hold of him again, and I can’t re-find him. … I just never did reacquire him under the water.”

But in the summary of Henry’s account, that’s not the story he said he heard from the trooper hours after the drowning. According to Henry, Piercy said he thought his flotation device would auto-inflate. He didn’t mention a ripcord.

“Trooper Piercy advised he had to let go of Ellingson, thinking he was going to drown himself.”

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

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