On May 31, 20-year-old Brandon Ellingson was stopped by a Missouri Highway Patrol officer for suspicion of boating while intoxicated.
The events that followed Brandon’s arrest are shocking, horrible, and tragic.
Ellingson was taken into custody by Trooper Anthony Piercy while boating on The Lake of the Ozarks after the officer claimed to see a beer can fly off of the young man’s boat.
Piercy told patrol investigator Sgt. Jeff Johnson that he was passing by Coconuts Caribbean Beach Bar & Grill. As he was idling through the area, Piercy said he saw Ellingson’s boat, and noticed that it didn’t have visible registration numbers. He said he moved closer to the boat to investigate, and eventually saw a Bud Light can tossed from the 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’s account contradicts what Timothy Vogel, the owner of Coconuts, told The Star in August. Vogel said Piercy had been spotted outside Coconuts for several hours that day. He thought the trooper was “harassing” his customers, so Vogel called Piercy’s commander, 911, and an area state representative to complain. Vogel also said he spoke to Piercy and asked him why he was sitting out there all day. Piercy claimed he was responding to complaints.
Some say Piercy was likely targeting Ellingson. Paul Ellison, a Missouri native who has lived in the Lake of the Ozarks area for most of his adult life and runs the website American Spring, is one of them.
In Ellison’s September 16 post titled Vests, Lies and Videotape: The Cover-Up of Brandon Ellingson’s Murder, he pointed out the following:
The excuse of not having visible registration numbers leading to ‘eventually’ seeing a beer can come from the boat very clearly indicates that Piercy had targeted the boat and was looking for an excuse to stop them.
In fact, Brandon was onboard a boat that was a USCG documented vessel. These boats, with names displayed on the back along with ports of call, are not required to have registration numbers. They instead have color-coded stickers on the front of each side of a boat. They function much like license plate stickers on a vehicle. This calls into question the legality of the stop in the first place. Piercy’s claim of a beer can going over the side, when paired with the other lies he has told, is not reliable.
Piercy told Sgt. Johnson that he performed field sobriety tests on Ellingson, cuffed his hands behind his back, and went to get a life vest, reported The Kansas City Star:
“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.”
But Ellingson’s friends, watching from the boat, shared a different account. They said Piercy took a pre-buckled Type III vest and pulled it over Ellingson’s head, getting it only partially down his torso. They said Ellingson’s chin touched the top buckle.
“That life jacket, it was an orange one. It was already strapped up and everything he just pulled it over him. He was already handcuffed and everything he just pulled it over him,” said Louis Guiterrez, one of Ellingson’s friends, to Highway Patrol investigators.
“He tried to pull (it) over his shoulders … and was having a very hard time doing so,” Ellingson’s friend Myles Goertz told investigators. “… It clearly was not the proper way to wear a life jacket. It was not how the life jacket was designed to be worn.”
A Type III vest has armholes and cannot be secured on someone who is already handcuffed. Type I jackets go around a person’s head, so even if they are handcuffed their head will float to the surface of the water. Type I life vests are the kind which troopers are trained to use on handcuffed subjects. They were available on Piercy’s boat. One was just feet from where Ellingson was seated during field sobriety tests.
Why didn’t Piercy use the correct life vest on Ellingson? And why didn’t he put Ellingson’s arms through the holes of the vest he DID use before handcuffing him?
Hey, Piercy was “in a hurry”, as he told Sgt. Randy Henry during a phone call the night of the incident. One of Ellingson’s friends jumped in the water during the sobriety field test and swam to Piercy’s boat to give Ellingson an advice card listing his personal rights. Piercy said he wanted to “wrap it up, get out of there,” before anything escalated, even though he admitted the swimmer wasn’t acting in a threatening manner.
Piercy was in a hurry, alright. He took off at speeds in excess of 39 mph.
Then, when Piercy saw big waves ahead, he slowed down “to almost an idle speed.”
That’s when he turned and noticed Ellingson was gone.
He’d fallen overboard.
The life vest Ellingson was wearing popped off. Piercy had trouble maneuvering his boat to get closer to Ellingson. He tried to grab the drowning man with a boat pole, but was unable to reach him.
Piercy then entered the water, but was not able to save Ellingson.
Jim Bascue, owner of Playin Hooky Water Taxi and Charters, was transporting clients that day and saw Ellingson in the water:
“I didn’t know he was handcuffed,” Bascue told The Star. “I didn’t know he came off Piercy’s boat.”
The taxi owner threw out a life ring as the women on his boat yelled for Ellingson to grab it.
Piercy, Bascue said, grabbed a pole and tried to get hold of Ellingson. The young man went under and came back up. Bascue could hear him moaning.
“I saw him go under three times,” Bascue said, before Piercy jumped into the water and grabbed him.
When Piercy pulled Ellingson to the surface, he wasn’t moving or responding, Bascue said. Piercy eventually lost hold of him and he went under. This time he did not resurface.
Piercy had a floatation device too, but apparently he did not know how to operate it.
Sgt. Henry told investigators that he was “befuddled” about Piercy’s lack of knowledge about how to use his equipment, especially the fanny pack that would have inflated if Piercy pulled the rip cord:
Henry said Piercy jumped in the water and had ahold of Ellingson, but let go because he thought he was going to drown.
“He said somehow Brandon got away from him. I said, ‘Did you inflate your life jacket? He said, ‘I thought they auto inflated.’ I said, ‘You have to pull the rip cord.’”
“I asked him, you were under water, had you popped your cord you would have both come up,” Sgt. Henry added. “I said ‘You need to know how to use your equipment.’”
But Piercy told Sgt. Johnson something different:
“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.”
So, Piercy told Sgt. Henry he thought the fanny pack “auto inflated”, but later told Sgt. Johnson he couldn’t find the rip cord.
More on that later.
Piercy claimed that Ellingson was seated on the boat, but witnesses tell another story:
Larry Moreau who witnessed Ellingson in the water that evening of May 31, said it’s more than just his moral obligation to share what he saw, it’s out of fear.
“That’s the first thing that hit us. It was complete horror. How did that happen?”
Those were just some of the thoughts that ran through Moreau’s head when he learned the man who fell off the highway patrol boat had drowned.
Ellingson and his life vest floating next to him were about 200 feet away from the Moreau’s boat.
Trooper Anthony Piercy’s boat was even closer.
Moreau said he saw Piercy and Ellingson standing on the patrol boat when it whizzed past their boat.
It was just moments later when they caught up to patrol boat that was stopped and a person floating near it.
Moreau said he could not figure out what was going on.
The trooper did not have his lights on and was not calling for help.
Moreau could see Ellingson’s head above the water and his life vest floating near him.
He did not think Ellingson was drowning because he figured if that was the case he’d have reached for the life vest that was near him.
Since trooper Piercy was not calling for help, the Moreau family left the area.
Sgt. Henry told investigators the seats on the boat were in the upright position, indicating Ellingson was leaning upright, not sitting when he went overboard.
Piercy initially estimated his boat was going 10 mph. Then he admitted to driving approximately 35 mph.
But GPS records included in the investigative report showed Piercy was traveling about 40 miles per hour before suddenly slowing to zero when Ellingson went overboard.
Let’s review what we have so far:
- Piercy arrests Ellingson for suspicion of boating while intoxicated.
- The trooper cuffs Ellingson behind his back.
- An improper, ill-fitting life vest is then placed on Ellingson, essentially creating a straitjacket type restraint on the young man.
- Piercy has Ellingson lean upright in the boat instead of seating him.
- The boat reaches a speed in excess of 39 mph, and abruptly stops when approaching large waves.
- Ellingson is ejected from the boat, but cannot swim due to being handcuffed. His life vest pops off.
- Piercy attempted to rescue Ellingson via the use of a hook. When that didn’t work, the trooper entered the water, but did not know how to properly use his own life vest.
- The trooper is unable to save Ellingson.
Two Missouri troopers set out to re-create the ride and conditions on Piercy’s boat. This run reaches average speeds of 38 to 40 mph. Piercy was going 39.1 to 43.7 mph just before Ellingson left the boat and drowned. As you can see, the officer who is positioned where Ellingson was is being rocked in his seat as the speed increased to a maximum of 38 to 40 mph. The officer had to grip a pole with his right hand and even braced himself once with his left hand.
Ellingson would have been able to brace himself only with his legs.
The entire incident itself is horrible, and the subsequent lies and attempted cover-up are also disturbing.
Piercy has said the following about Ellingson’s position in the boat:
Ellingson was sitting in the seat next to me before he stood, took a step toward the right side of the boat and entered the water.
Ellingson was leaning against the boat’s seat as he was transported.
Which is it?
Piercy also provided conflicting information about the camera on his boat:
In a call to his supervisor, Piercy said that once he initiated the stop of Ellingson for boating while intoxicated, he realized his boat camera wasn’t loaded with a digital storage card. The card would have recorded the entire stop and transportation of Ellingson to a patrol zone office for a breath test.
Later, he said he discovered that the digital storage card was missing earlier in his shift when he pulled over a family for having children seated in the wrong section of their boat.
Which is it?
Piercy also provided differing accounts about what happened when Ellingson went overboard:
He said he reached for Ellingson as he went overboard and was able to grab hold of one of his feet until it was pulled from his hands.
On September 4, Piercy said that he reached for Ellingson as he left the boat, not that he was able to grab one of his feet.
In another conversation on May 31, he said his hand might have just grazed Ellingson’s foot.
Which is it?
Oh, and don’t forget the conflicting stories Piercy told about his own fanny pack life jacket. First he had no idea what a rip cord was, then he said he couldn’t find the rip cord.
And remember, Piercy also lied about his speed, first stating he drove around 10 mph, then admitting it was closer to 35 mph.
Here is audio of Piercy speaking to his supervisor shortly after the drowning occurred:
Sgt. Henry gave investigators a recorded statement, and told them that he had concerns about inconsistencies and changes in Piercy’s story:
Henry said, “I’ll be the first to admit, because I did bring it up. I brought it up and said ‘Guys, they’re going to want full transparency on this thing. We need to ask ourselves, did he use the highest degree of care here?’ ”
Henry continued, “Missouri Statute 306.125…”
Stacks then abruptly ended the interview.
“Turn that off. Turn that off. Just turn it off.” He ordered Harris, referring to the recording device.
As Ellison of American Spring points out:
The reason Stacks had Harris turn the recorder off at this point is clear. Failure to provide ‘the highest degree of care’, as set forth in State Statute, is a crime.
Piercy’s speed, confirmed by GPS data, is a clear indication that he was breaking the law while transporting Brandon. That crime, and the consequences for it, was something Stacks didn’t want as part of his report. The motivation for this, as we look at the applicable statutes, is clear. Piercy is definitively guilty of involuntary manslaughter, despite the claims of the ‘special prosecutor’ assigned to the inquest.
To add insult to injury, 911 calls show selective release of information on the drowning:
A top troop official at Lake of the Ozarks knew the arresting trooper had improperly administered the wrong flotation device, which slipped off Ellingson’s body in the water, but he told a dispatcher to leave that fact out of reports, the recordings show.
“The ones that need to know, know about the life jacket,” Capt. Gregory Kindle told the dispatcher, who agreed to leave information out of a message to other troopers about the drowning.
Kindle also told the dispatcher that Ellingson’s father called, upset that the dive team wouldn’t retrieve his son that night:
“I’m not going to get somebody hurt trying to recover somebody that’s dead,” Kindle said. “And I wanted to tell him, he’s not going to be any more dead in the morning than he is right now.”
The dispatcher laughed and said: “He probably wouldn’t have appreciated that very much.”
Here is the audio of that conversation.
On September 4, jurors at a coroner’s inquest determined that Ellingson’s death was accidental, and a special prosecutor agreed and said she wouldn’t file criminal charges against Piercy.
It took the jury less than 8 minutes to make their decision.
They listened to four people speak and heard audiotape of two others. Among those who testified was Piercy. For more than an hour, he described what happened that night and answered questions.
Notably absent from the inquest were Sgt. Henry and the Moreau family, who were not invited to testify.
Bascue was invited to testify, likely because he showed public support for Piercy:
“The officer did everything he could to save the young man including putting his own life in danger by jumping into the water, but he just not able to hold on to him. I just don’t know what else the officer could have done.”
In contrast, Sgt. Henry’s testimony would have been damning:
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.
“Just the whole chain of events from the get go, from not getting the proper life jacket, the speed, then once all that happened it kind of snowballed – the perfect storm… it just got worse and worse.” said Sgt. Henry.
In a pattern that is becoming all too familiar, the inquest was conducted like a defense attorney’s strategy designed to protect Piercy rather than a true inquiry into the facts surrounding Ellingson’s death.
But Ellingson’s parents aren’t giving up in their fight for justice for their son.
On December 5, two days before Brandon would have turned 21, his parents filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Missouri Highway Patrol, patrol leaders and the trooper who had him in custody when he drowned.Craig and Sherry Ellingson contend that Piercy’s actions and inactions on May 31 caused the death of their only son. They say Piercy was negligent and violated their son’s constitutional rights.
For updates on this case, please see the Ellingson family’s website at Justice for Brandon Ellingson.
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