Judge dismisses case filed by demoted Sgt. who spoke out in Ozarks drowning case

A judge has dismissed the lawsuit of a retired sergeant who said Missouri highway patrol officials conspired against him for speaking out on the drowning of Brandon Ellingson.

In a summary judgment ruling this week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Willie J. Epps, Jr., said attorneys for retired Sgt. Randy Henry didn’t prove that Henry was a whistle-blower or that his First Amendment rights were violated.

Henry was demoted and transferred from Lake of the Ozarks, after he spoke out regarding the Ellingson case and after testifying in a legislative hearing regarding the 2011 merger between the Highway Patrol and Water Patrol. He filed his suit in 2016.

Epps said in his ruling that Henry “did not act as a whistle-blower.”

“Even viewing the summary judgment record in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, his allegations were largely unsupported by fact, and exposed no government corruption,” the ruling said. “... Plaintiff’s claims of a cover-up similarly fall flat, as they lack support evidence in the record.”

J.C. Pleban, one of Henry’s attorneys, said his team planned to appeal.

“We respectfully disagree with the decision,” Pleban said.

Henry was heading into his 30th summer on Lake of the Ozarks on May 31, 2014, when Brandon Ellingson drowned in the custody of Trooper Anthony Piercy. Piercy had arrested Ellingson, 20, on suspicion of boating while intoxicated, put handcuffs on him and was transporting him to a field office for a sobriety test. The trooper traveled at speeds up to 43 mph in the moments before Ellingson ended up in the water.

Ellingson’s life vest, which witnesses said Piercy had failed to secure properly, came off and Ellingson drowned.

In the days after Ellingson’s death, Henry told investigators what Piercy had told him in a phone call the night of the drowning.

Piercy’s account to investigators, however, was different, and so was his testimony during a coroner’s inquest. According to the lawsuit, when Henry relayed to investigators what Piercy had told him, Henry was told not to prepare a report.

Since the drowning more than four years ago, the Ellingson family has praised Henry for coming forward with information and helping expose what happened.

In Henry’s lawsuit, filed in federal court, the retired sergeant said the actions of former Col. Bret Johnson and others at the patrol forced him to retire early from the patrol after nearly three decades of service.

The sergeant was eventually moved from Lake of the Ozarks to Truman Lake and demoted to corporal. He retired before that demotion took effect.