Ellingson died in 2014 while in the custody of the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s Water Patrol division. An arresting trooper, Anthony Piercy, had handcuffed the young man and improperly draped a life vest around his shoulders without correctly securing it, according to witnesses.
As he was transported across the lake, Ellingson was ejected from the boat. He drowned.
Last week, after a three-year battle over the causes of and responsibility for the death, Piercy pleaded guilty to negligent operation of a vessel. The plea helped Piercy avoid trial on a more serious charge of involuntary manslaughter.
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It’s unlikely the outcome will bring peace to the Ellingson family or full justice. Nor should it. Brandon died in part as a result of the negligence and poor training of a public servant. It should not have happened.
For the rest of us, there are important lessons in the story.
It’s now clear some state officials worked to obfuscate the investigation to protect the people involved. A now-retired patrolman claimed a cover-up. The patrol “knowingly” and “purposely” violated the state’s open records law in the case, a judge found last year.
It took far too long to discover the truth. It took pressure from the Ellingson family and relentless reporting by Laura Bauer of The Star to reconcile the conflicting claims about what happened that day.
Missouri authorities should have pursued a transparent investigation of the incident soon after it happened. They did not do so, to their shame.
In November, Missouri agreed to settle a civil case by paying $9 million to the Ellingson family — a tacit admission that the state had failed the young man.
The case also reveals the perils of making money — or saving money — the primary focus in government.
In 2011, to great fanfare, Missouri merged the Water Patrol with the Highway Patrol in an effort, supporters said, to cut costs.
It didn’t save a dime. In fact, it cost more money. The merger led to fewer troopers on the water, with less training for Highway Patrol officers assigned to water duty.
And the decision almost certainly contributed to Ellingson’s death. At a coroner’s inquest, Piercy conceded his training was inadequate for the duties of the Water Patrol. He was cleared for “solo boat time” after two days of training. Two days.
We’re told that things are better now. We hope that’s the case.
Brandon Ellingson died needlessly. The best way to remember him is to make sure this never happens again.