Missouri

Brandon Ellingson’s father makes emotional plea to bar ex-trooper from working as cop

After listening to Anthony Piercy talk for more than an hour Wednesday about the day his son died, Craig Ellingson sat a few feet from the former state trooper and unloaded.

Four years of frustration, of hearing what Ellingson called "just lies" and misrepresentations of what happened that day in May 2014, led Brandon's father to this small table inside the Lewis and Clark State Office building. He came from his Clive, Iowa, home to argue that Piercy — who was fired from the Missouri Highway Patrol in December — should never again be a law enforcement officer in Missouri.

"Here are the core values of the Highway Patrol," Ellingson said as he held up the list during the hearing to determine whether Piercy's peace officer license should be revoked. "And you violated every one of them. You called my son a bastard when he was dead at the bottom of the lake."

After the hearing, Ellingson's frustration continued. He pointed to the fact that Piercy never brought up how fast he was going and said some details the former trooper provided were different from past accounts.

"Piercy's story seems to change every time I listen to it," Ellingson said. "He's lying."

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"You violated every one of them," Craig Ellingson told former Highway Patrol trooper Anthony Piercy as he held up a list of the patrol's core values. Ellingson was speaking at a hearing in Jefferson City to determine whether Piercy's peace officer's license should be revoked. Ellingson's son Brandon Ellingson died in 2014 while in Piercy's custody on the Lake of the Ozarks. Keith Myers kmyers@kcstar.com

Describing himself as "very effective, a very good, honest officer," Piercy made his case to remain in law enforcement.

"Nobody loved being a police officer probably more than I did," Piercy told Drew Juden, director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety. "If I do choose to go back to law enforcement, if I'm afforded that privilege, I do think I can operate in a good function ... and be a valuable asset to wherever I choose to work."

It's now Juden's decision about Piercy's peace officer license. He said he would go over the case and read depositions that Ellingson left for him Wednesday. It isn't known when he will issue a decision.

Piercy pulled over Brandon Ellingson on May 31, 2014, on the Lake of the Ozarks on suspicion of boating while intoxicated. During the stop, Piercy handcuffed the Iowa man’s hands behind his back. Witnesses told authorities that the trooper then stuffed an already-buckled Type III life vest — the wrong one for a handcuffed person — over Ellingson’s head.

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At a recent hearing, former Missouri Highway Patrol trooper Anthony Piercy recounted details of the day in 2014 when Brandon Ellingson drowned while in his custody. Keith Myers The Kansas City Star

On the way to a field office for more testing, Piercy traveled at speeds up to 46 mph. At one point, after the boat hit a wave, Ellingson was ejected. His improperly secured life vest soon came off. Piercy eventually jumped in to try to save him, but couldn’t.

Though a coroner's inquest ruled Ellingson's death an accident in September 2014, a special prosecutor charged Piercy with involuntary manslaughter in December 2015.

Avoiding a jury trial on involuntary manslaughter, Piercy pleaded guilty in June 2017 to misdemeanor negligent operation of a vessel. In September, Judge Roger Prokes sentenced Piercy to 10 days of shock time in the Morgan County jail and two years of supervised probation. Prokes also ordered him to complete 50 hours of community service.

After Piercy's sentencing, Craig Ellingson filed a complaint with the Department of Public Safety. From the beginning, Ellingson has said he wanted Piercy to lose his law enforcement license and not be able to be a trooper or police officer again.

"This is a no-brainer," Ellingson said. "I think he's a hazard to public safety based on what he did to my son. He's just not competent."

A patrol review board had concluded that Piercy violated patrol policies and that his actions deserved punishment. That panel decided on Dec. 11 that Piercy should be reinstated to active duty and be transferred from his current troop assignment at the lake, according to a lawsuit filed by Piercy earlier this year.

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At a recent hearing, foormer Highway Patrol trooper Anthony Piercy recounted details of the day in 2014 when Brandon Ellingson drowned while in his custody. Keith Myers kmyers@kcstar.com

Col. Sandra Karsten, the patrol’s superintendent, went beyond the board's recommendation and fired Piercy.

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.

On Wednesday, Piercy said he stepped up to work on the water because he knew a trooper from each zone needed to pitch in.

“I volunteered to kind of take one for the team,” Piercy said.

Before he started patrol on the water that day in May 2014, he stopped by the patrol office and spoke to his sergeant. The two talked about how the sergeant and lieutenant thought Piercy was doing a good job on the lake and could be promoted to corporal in the fall.

Piercy left the office and went to tell his wife.

“I was excited,” he said Wednesday. “I was just told I was doing a good job and may be rewarded with a promotion.”

Within a few hours, Piercy was patrolling the lake's Gravois Arm and pulled over Ellingson.

What happened next is what consumed most of Piercy’s testimony Wednesday. Some information was different from what Piercy had said in the past, or didn’t match what witnesses have said.

Ellingson’s friends, who watched the arrest from Ellingson’s boat, said Piercy put an already-buckled vest over Brandon.

Yet Piercy told the public service director and others Wednesday that he put a vest around Ellingson and tightly buckled the three buckles.

The former trooper also described at length how he eventually jumped in the lake to try to save Ellingson. Piercy didn't mention that passengers on a party barge, who didn't know the man in the water was handcuffed, loudly pleaded several times for Piercy to get in the water to help him.

Piercy also described in extreme detail how he had hold of Ellingson in the water and couldn't reach his hand between their two bodies to pull the ripcord on his own fanny-pack flotation device.

Yet a witness at the scene has said that once Piercy got out of the water, he commented on how his fanny pack didn't work. A sergeant on the patrol at the time also has said that Piercy told him that night that his fanny pack didn't auto-inflate. The sergeant told Piercy that he had to pull the ripcord to inflate the device.

After that, Piercy has said that he didn't want to pull the ripcord because he would go to the surface without Ellingson.

Assistant Attorney General Daryl Hylton asked Piercy about the arrest.

"You talked about Mr. Ellingson’s impairment?" Hylton said.

"Yes."

"That doesn’t not entitle him to safe treatment, does it?" Hylton said.

"He’s entitled to safe treatment," Piercy said.

"Possibly even more?" Hylton asked.

"Probably, yes," said Piercy.

Then Juden weighed in about the life vests on the boat.

Piercy had already said that he put a Type III vest on Ellingson because the proper flotation device to use on a handcuffed person was tangled in rope.

Juden asked him whether he was required to check his equipment before he went out that day. Piercy said that he was.

"Did you not noticed the vest entangled in the rope?" the director asked.

Piercy: "It was my plan to untangle it eventually."

Juden continued: "Why did you not call for backup?"

"... There just wasn't backup available on the lake at that time."

Ellingson left Wednesday's hearing with a folder of notes he's kept for the past four years. Inside the jacket are two pictures of Brandon he taped there.

After he spoke Wednesday, he held up the folder to show Juden and others his son.

"I pray to him every night," Ellingson said after the hearing. "It's tough not to have him around. He should still be here."

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Craig Ellingson keeps pictures of his son, Brandon Ellingson, in a folder with papers from his four-year battle with the Missouri Highway Patrol and trooper Anthony Piercy over the drowning death of Brandon while he was in Piercy's custody in 2014. kmyers@kcstar.com
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